“The FLN wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain…. Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” These words are spoken by Mathieu, the parachute colonel in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966). They sum up a certain attitude toward the war that France fought from 1954 to 1962 to keep Algeria French. According to this interpretation, the war was about the simple fact of colonialism. The “consequences” to which Mathieu refers is the torture that the French army, more or less openly, used against Algerians. Pontecorvo portrays this torture graphically, but he does not really condemn it. Equally, the Algerian fighters of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) are portrayed as people who have no choice but to adopt ruthless tactics—the bombing of civilians and the murder of their own “antisocial” compatriots—in order to win Algeria’s independence from France.
If the war was indeed simple, then it could be said to have a clear ending in July 1962, when Algeria gained independence; under these circumstances it is not surprising that the French spoke little about the conflict in the ten or twenty years that followed. An amnesty law in France covered crimes committed during the war, and what public discussion there was of the war often took place outside France. Pontecorvo’s film was an Italian/Algerian production. Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s landmark book Torture: Cancer of Democracy was inspired by his experiences as a campaigner against French atrocities during the Algerian War but was published in London by Penguin in 1963 and not translated into French until 1972. In France, allusions to Algeria—of the kind found in, say, the 1982 gangster film La Balance—were usually brief and oblique.
In the past fifteen years, all this has changed. The trial of Maurice Papon, in 1997 and 1998, was ostensibly about his role as a Vichy official in the deportation of Jews during World War II, but it provided witnesses with a chance to evoke his role in the killing of Algerian demonstrators during the so-called Battle of Paris in 1961, when Papon was prefect of the Paris police. In 2000 Louisette Ighilahriz, a former FLN activist, described the torture she had endured at the hands of French paratroopers—though when she spoke publicly about the episode she was not seeking to expose her torturers but rather to find the French military doctor who had saved her life. Around the same time two former generals—Jacques Massu and Paul Aussaresses—discussed torture by the French army in Algeria. Aussaresses recalled his role with defiant pride, but Massu (one of the models for Pontecorvo’s Mathieu) no longer believed that the end justified the means and expressed regret for what he had done.
More important, perhaps, than all this discussion, is that historians conducting interviews have discovered the extent to which Algeria haunted the lives of people even when it was not publicly evoked. Millions of French people had been in Algeria, either because they were European settlers—pieds noirs—who “returned” to France (a country many of them had never seen) in 1962 or because they were soldiers (mostly conscripts) who had served there, or because they were Algerian Muslims who came to France after 1962. Even people who had never set foot in Algeria knew something about the brutality of the war. The girlfriends and wives of soldiers were not, at the time, perceived as taking an interest in the war: one thinks of Catherine Deneuve’s character in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). However, such women often did learn what their lovers had done, and in recent years, the wives and daughters of veterans have often been involved in discussions of the horrors that their menfolk endured, or inflicted. It is significant, incidentally, that in France many of the most distinguished young historians of the Algerian War are women.