Like almost all its predecessors, a new film about the Algerian War is causing a furor in France. The Ministry of Defense has criticized it and the right-wing would like to see it banned. When will France come to terms with its past?
The Algerian War was fought between France and Algerian independence forces from 1954 to 1962. It led to the independence of Algeria and resulted in anywhere between 350,000 and 1.5 million deaths according to whether you read French statistics or those of the victorious Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN.) Many independent historians put the figure at just below 1 million.
The war was the theatre of two French army coup-d’état attempts, the systematic use of torture by both sides, and the ramifications of Algeria’s victory finally led to the collapse of the Fourth French Republic.
France has never come to terms with the Algerian war, and all public official documents and school books didn’t even call it a “war” until 1999, preferring the more neutral term “les événements d’Algérie” – “The Events of Algeria.” This led to it being referred to in more liberal circles as “The War with no Name.” The war is widely believed to be at least partly responsible for continuing racial tension between ethnic French citizens and France’s north African immigrant population, which is fiercely critical of France’s refusal to admit the extent of the torture and other abuses which happened at that time as well as France’s refusal to pay war reparations.
Several French films have been made about the war over the years and, needless to say, most of them have fallen foul of French censorship laws if not banned outright.
That’s what happened to Jean-Luc Godard’s second feature film ‘Le Petit Soldat’ – ‘The Little Soldier.’ Shot in 1960, it was immediately banned because of its torture scenes, which the government said did not reflect the historical truth. It was finally released three years later. ‘La Bataille d’Alger’ – ‘The Battle of Algiers’ was also banned from its scheduled release date in 1966 until 1971, this time because of the alleged trauma it would cause to ex-Algerian colonists, or ‘Pieds Noirs’ (‘Black Feet’.) There are other examples of banned or censored films and documentaries on the Algerian War.
‘Outside the Law’ (‘Hors-la-Loi’ in French) is a newly-released film about the Algerian War by French director Rachid Bouchareb. It sees the war from the perspective of three Algerian brothers and begins in May 1945 during the Sétif Massacre in northern Algeria, during which the French army slaughtered an estimated 10,000 people, almost all of whom were civilians.
‘Outside the Law’ was released yesterday but it had already been subject to intense criticism by ex-colonists and the extreme right-wing, who called it “provocation” from the moment that news leaked of its content.
Lionnel Luca, a parliamentary deputy from the Alpes-Maritimes region, referred the film to the Defense ministry, who demanded to examine its content in order to check its historical accuracy. The verdict came shortly thereafter, and the film was judged to contain “Flagrant anachronisms” – a euphemism for historical inaccuracy and so-called irrelevant comparisons to the present. The internal note containing the appraisal was leaked and published in the printed version of the extreme right-wing paper ‘Minute.’
Official poster for 'Outside the Law', a French film on the Algerian War, released in 2010
Luca, who hasn’t seen the film, says in answer to critics of his opinions that “I find it amazing that in France there’s always this tendency to decry anyone who rocks the boat. Mr Bouchareb is the only person producing this kind of thing, but reopening the wounds of the past is a truly irresponsible thing to do today. He is not the Commander of all believers and I am not the Holy Gospel.”
A recent preview of the film in Marseille attracted a crowd of angry members of the extreme right-wing National Front party and fighting broke out between them and a group which was demonstrating in support of the film. Riot police eventually restored order.
Now that the film has been cleared for release, various right-wing and colonist groups have promised to demonstrate in force to stop people going to see it, and the government is trying to keep the lid on the situation via the use of a self-imposed ban on comment.
Although this film has been accepted by the authorities, it seems apparent that opponents of any attempt to get at the truth about the Algerian War are still determined to keep the French from being able to express themselves in public on what remains an extremely sensitive subject.
Just as Jacques Chirac admitted France’s collaborationist guilt for what happened in France during WWII, it would be good to see France officially admit the less glorious aspects of its actions during the War of Algeria.
Franco-Algerian ties are permanently strained because of the French refusal, and the people of both Algeria and France should have the right to consult documents and other evidence concerning what is yet another dark corner of French history.
But don’t hold your breath while you’re waiting...
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