Deja Vu All Over Again: Algeria, France, and Us

Deja Vu All Over Again: Algeria, France, and Us

Mini Teaser: Barely three decades after fighting one of the bitterest of all colonial wars, France and Algeria are again embroiled in conflict.

by Author(s): Matthew Connelly

Knowing history can indeed help us avoid being "condemned to repeat
it"--though as often as not only by making new, more interesting
mistakes. But how can we explain a case of two peoples who seem
compelled both to remember and relive an experience they would much
rather forget?

Barely three decades after fighting one of the bitterest of all
colonial wars, France and Algeria are again embroiled in conflict.
The rhetoric in both countries constantly recalls what some now term
"The First Algerian War", but even while they deplore their plight
they cannot help falling into familiar roles: the Algerians in a
fratricidal civil war, the French supporting a discredited regime to
avoid a still worse alternative. With bombs set by Algerian Islamists
exploding across the country and armed soldiers patrolling the
streets of Paris, France's drift toward a deepening confrontation
will continue along the path of least resistance. As it does so,
America will have to be deaf to appeals to join in a new crusade
against resurgent Islam. There are indeed lessons to be learned from
the first Algerian War that may yet help us to keep out of the
second, but learning them requires confronting something even more
intractable than the vaunted "Green Peril": our own ingrained
attitudes toward Arabs and Islam.

Most Americans first learned of the Algerian conflict when Islamist
rebels hijacked an Air France jetliner last Christmas Eve. Many were
then surprised to learn that at least thirty thousand people had been
killed there since a military regime seized power three years before;
that if the rebels were to win, hundreds of thousands of refugees
were expected to head north for Europe; and that the French
government therefore considered Algeria--not Bosnia or nuclear
testing--to be the gravest problem it faced.

More Searing Than Vietnam

An introduction to Algeria must begin with its nearly eight-year war
for independence, when perhaps as much as 5 percent of its population
was killed while another 10 percent fled the country when peace came
in 1962. The Algerian War is often compared with America's Vietnam
War. In both cases Westerners marshaled superior military power and
prevailed on the battlefield, only to lose the political struggles at
home and abroad. French and Americans each talked about winning
"hearts and minds", but found in the end that their own hearts were
not in it. Both suffer from historical "syndromes" that differ in
their symptoms but are alike in the stubborn persistence of their

Yet as important as Vietnam has been for America it hardly approaches
what Algeria has meant for France. Imagine, to begin with, that
Saigon was four hundred miles from San Francisco rather than eight
thousand. Suppose that South Vietnam was another constituent state of
the union, no different from Alaska or Hawaii, in the same way that
Algeria was constitutionally a part of France. Add a million American
settlers. Then we might begin to see why this was a very different
war, much worse even than the one we are still recovering from. But
even then it would surely beggar the imagination to believe that,
after our erstwhile bitter enemies had made themselves into a
Westernized elite, lost democratic elections, and confronted a new
insurgency, we would promptly become their main backers--sending arms
and advisors, and assuring billions of dollars in aid each year.
French diplomacy is often thought to be unprincipled and pragmatic to
a fault, but it is not usually considered perverse. Why is it then
that France risks reprising one of the most miserable episodes of its
recent past?

History never actually repeats itself--though, as one historian has
suggested, it sometimes rhymes. Before considering the uncanny
similarities between the first and second Algerian Wars we should
stress the differences, starting with how each began.

Before the All Saints Day uprising in 1954, the French appeared to
have their Algerian départements well in hand, subverting through
stolen elections even the limited democracy allowed the Muslim
majority. Thepresent conflict, on the other hand, came after the
victors of that war, the National Liberation Front (or FLN, its
French acronym), finally allowed political liberalization following a
week of bloody rioting against austerity in October 1988. In the
first freely contested local elections in June 1990, more than half
those who voted opted for the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which
lacked a detailed political program but appeared as a principled and
effective opponent of a corrupt regime. The first round of national
elections in December 1991 revealed that FIS support was not simply a
protest vote. Though their backers were fewer--3.26 as opposed to 4.3
million in the local races--FIS candidates still prevailed over every
other party in all but a handful of districts. Rather than risk
another round of voting, the Algerian military forced the FLN
president to resign, outlawed the FIS, and declared martial law.
Clashes between the army and Islamists ensued, and the fighting now
rivals the first Algerian War in sheer ferocity. But in this case the
conflict was initiated by the military rather than the "rebels"--who
would otherwise have been Algeria's first democratically-elected
government. (For the sake of comparison, recall that the FLN had
fewer than three thousand members when the first Algerian War began.)

As for the French, there is not yet any question of their directly
fighting the Islamists beyond France's own borders, and the decision
to continue the war or pursue peace will ultimately be made in
Algiers, not Paris or Washington. The fate of government partisans in
the event of defeat is even more uncertain than was that of French
army officers and settlers in the former conflict. Intent on
regaining international prestige, Charles de Gaulle risked the
attempts of the latter to assassinate him and overthrow the republic,
in order to extricate France from Algeria. The government in Algiers
in the 1990s, on the other hand, has a much more narrow focus and is
concerned with foreign opinion only to the extent that it helps or
hinders its war machine. We can therefore expect them to fight to the
end with still greater bitterness and brutality.

Yet the FIS cannot count on anything like the international support
its predecessors enjoyed. In the first Algerian War the elites of
what was just beginning to be called the Third World, the French
intellectual monde, and mainstream Western opinion all saw the FLN as
part of that nationalist, anti-colonialist wave--what Harold
MacMillan was to describe as "the wind of change"--that would sweep
the world by the early 1960s. They received arms from the Arab world,
Eastern Europe, and China, benefited from bases in neighboring
Tunisia and Morocco, and enjoyed diplomatic recognition by dozens of
other states. In contrast, the support offered the FIS by the
supposed "Islamic international" is trivial, while countries across
North Africa cooperate in hunting them down. They enjoy scant
sympathy from foreign intellectuals, for whom the plight of Salman
Rushdie is far more gripping than that of thousands of tortured
Islamists around the Arab world--many of whom are equally innocent of
anything more than "thought crime." Finally, while an FIS victory is
usually seen as inevitable, it is never represented in the
triumphalist terms of the 1950s by Western commentators. Instead,
most tell their audiences to expect another Iran.

Historical analogies are useful not for the answers they provide, but
for the questions they provoke. Unfortunately, analogies are more
often used as substitutes for analysis, and phrases like "another
Iran"--or "another Vietnam"--fill the mind with images that crowd out
critical thinking. We tend to jump to the answer "never again",
without asking how it happened in the first place and whether the
comparison is relevant or revealing. The American obsession with the
Iranian revolution--which many Sunni, Arab Islamists themselves see
as a failure, one they intend to learn from--has caused us to neglect
Algeria's own recent past, which both the French and the FIS find to
be far more germane. In deciding whether peace with Islamic activists
is desirable or even possible, we must at least consider whether we
are falling into a self-defeating pattern in the way we project our
preconceived notions onto the Arab and Muslim "other." However much
present predicaments seem to mirror that history, the future will
surely be different--it always is.

Even if neither the French nor the Americans can by themselves decide
the outcome in Algeria, their determination to try could make an
enormous difference in terms of relations with a successor regime.
Thus, more than fifteen years after the fall of the Shah, Washington
is still snarling at Tehran, while Paris finds moderates to support
and sees hope for continued democratization. Ironically, their
respective policies toward Islamic revivalism in Algeria are very
nearly the reverse of their postures toward Iran, with Americans
hopeful that this time it might be possible to avoid the enmity of an
Islamist Algeria.

Demons in the French Psyche

Given the effect of our Vietnam experience, we might well ask why the
French are not rallying to the cry of "No More Algerias." The reason
is not that they have forgotten the war, but rather resides in the
peculiar way they remember and rationalize it. Like those Americans
who claim the peace movement ended the Vietnam War (with the
Vietnamese themselves sometimes conceded a supporting role), most
recall the Algerian War as a domestic political struggle or
individual crisis of conscience, rather than a full-fledged war
against an indefatigable adversary. In a recent poll only 11 percent
of French respondents remembered this as an international conflict.
Indeed, Jacques Julliard, a leading intellectual historian, has
actually maintained that one "can do a history of the Algerian War
completely without speaking of Algerians."

Essay Types: Essay