Grief, anger and despair were the only possible emotional responses to the brutality of the terrorist attacks in Paris last month that left 130 dead and many more wounded. Less than a month later, French right-wing parties successfully converted these emotions into voting results: in the first round of departmental elections in France on the 6 December, the extreme-right Front National gained unprecedented one third of the votes, while the centre-right Republicans party (formerly the UMP) polled just under 27%. Both parties expanded their support base on the platform of anti-immigration: the leader of The Republicans Nicolas Sarkozy promised tougher measures in immigration and security policy, while Marine Le Pen, the leader of Front National, has called for ‘the immediate halt of all intake of migrants in France.’
These sentiments take root in some of the darkest events in French history. Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader and founder of the Front National, was a member of the French Foreign Legion, serving as a paratrooper in Algeria and Indochina. When Le Pen founded the Front National, its core members were made up of ‘pieds-noirs’, French citizens from Algeria repatriated after this country regained its independence. The extreme nationalism of the Front National was thus founded on deep-seated resentment towards Arab immigrants from Algeria and other former colonies in North Africa.
The Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) was France’s Vietnam. It was fought using underhand methods and guerrilla tactics, including terrorism and use of torture. Like the Vietnam invasion, the Algerian War was ‘undeclared’ war: it was not until 1999 that the French Assembly voted to finally accord the name of ‘war’ to what until then was referred to as ‘the crisis’, ‘the pacification effort’ and a ‘police operation’. One event in this War merits particular attention not least because it demonstrates that nationalism in French society today is directly linked to France’s post-colonial past and even the legacy of the Second World War. On October 17, 1961 the Algerian National Liberation Front organized a peaceful demonstration against a curfew imposed on ‘Muslim Algerian workers’ in the Paris region, designed to curb the activities of ‘Algerian terrorists’. It ended in a massacre as police riot squads opened fire on the unarmed protesters and beat many to death. Corpses were thrown into the river Seine, together with those who were still alive and left to drown. As historians explained, police forces behind this brutal suppression were often made up of soldiers of the Algerian War who operated as soldiers. They were led by Maurice Papon, then prefect of Paris police who was awarded the Legion of Honour by de Gaulle for his role in the fight to retain Algeria as a French colony. Papon was subsequently convicted for crimes against humanity for his part in deporting French Jews to concentration camps during the Nazi occupation.
The massacre of November 13, 2015 left a broad trail of photographic images documenting the attacks, their terrible traces, and the subsequent images of mourning and tributes in the days that followed. In sharp contrast, the massacre of October 17, 1961 left no images whatsoever, having been the subject of a major cover-up through the complicity of press, police and state. The exact number of dead to this day remains unknown, although French historian Jean-Luc Einaudi estimates this figure to be close to two hundred. It was only in 2012 that Hollande acknowledged the massacre was an act of bloody repression. He was the first French president to bring this long-kept secret into the open. His predecessor, Sarkozy, was not only content to keep silent but even stated, with reference to France’s postcolonial history, that his country had no reason to demean itself by ‘repenting’ for its past. Sarkozy prepares to take part in the 2017 presidential elections as leader of the centre-right Republicans, competing for the rightwing vote with the Front National, whose former leader has been accused of torture of Algerian fighters during the Algerian War and was charged for violation of France’s law prohibiting Holocaust denial. These are the parties that stand to gain from anti-immigration sentiments in regional elections on 13 December. It is worth remembering exactly what kind of history informs their policies.
© Olga Smith (Humboldt University of Berlin), 2015