The Algerian Legacy: How France Should Confront Its Past

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, the consensus has only strengthened among French and world leaders that the acts marked an escalation in a war with global radical Islam. To show their determination to face down this shared challenge, 40 heads of state—from Italy to Mali, Israel to Palestine—marched in step from Place de la République to Place de la Nation last Sunday.

The similarities between this massacre and earlier attempts to punish supposed insulters of Islam and its prophet are undeniable. The 1989 death warrant against Salman Rushdie, the 2002 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the 2010 attempted murder of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard were also aimed at artists and writers. The cast of jihadists is familiar, too: alienated and frustrated young men living in a Western country, who have reached out to a radical celebrity. All of this serves to link the events in France to the global war on terror. Le Monde’s day-after headline, “France’s 9/11,” and a widely republished cartoon of a plane flying into two pencil-shaped towers drove the point home.

But there are other indications—the scale and intensity of the attacks and the inclusion of a Jewish target alongside the blasphemous cartoonists—that suggest that last week’s events may also be the continuation of an unfinished chapter in French history: the Algerian war. 

The persistence of the Algerian connection is distressing for both countries concerned. Before the two Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, came the Toulouse terrorist Mohammed Merah in 2012, and before him, Khaled Kelkal from Lyon in 1995. Last Wednesday’s attackers had been recruited and radicalized by Farid Benyattou, another Frenchman of Algerian origin briefly imprisoned on terrorism charges.

But there is a major caveat to this linkage: these were Frenchmen, not Algerians. Kelkal left Algeria when he was two years old, and Merah, Benyattou, and the Kouachis were born in France, attended French schools, had French girlfriends, and spent time in French prisons. That is why Algerian authorities balked when, after the 2012 attack, the French tried to “repatriate” Merah’s body. This time, Algerian observers have understandably emphasized the sacrifices of the two Franco–Algerian victims—Mustapha Ourroud, a proofreader at Charlie Hebdo and the police officer Ahmed Merabet—both of whom were shot dead by the Kouachi brothers and were buried in Paris this week.

Wednesday’s assault on Charlie Hebdo is France’s deadliest terrorist incident since 1961, when a bomb struck a train travelling from Strasbourg to Paris and killed 28 people. That attack, too, had Algerian connections. But it was not Algerian aggression. Rather, a French nationalist group—the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS)—that didn’t want France to give up Algeria planted that bomb. The OAS assassinated French officials involved in negotiating a withdrawal from North Africa and detonated scores of bombs that killed hundreds of French soldiers and thousands of French civilians.

In the end, of course, the OAS didn’t get its way. During France’s messy withdrawal from Algeria, millions of French pieds noirs fled to a mainland they never knew. For them and other proponents of the French empire, independence was treasonous. Indeed, the year the OAS began its attacks, the future presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen created the “National Front for French Algeria.”
Soon, however, French appetite for Algerian affairs waned, and Le Pen shortened his party’s name to “National Front” a decade later. By 1991, when Algerian Islamists were on track to win 80 percent of Algeria’s parliamentary seats and the Algerian government cancelled elections, France limited its criticism to a mild remark about the “somewhat abnormal” decision. This was just enough to both annoy the Algerians and provoke the Islamists’ ire. But had the French government done anything else, it probably would have been accused of neocolonial intentions.

A bloody civil war followed in Algeria during the 1990s. In those days, many of Algeria’s own best writers, artists, and singers fell victim to violent Muslim extremists. The current solidarity of Algerian cartoonists, who enjoy considerable license at the country’s three-dozen or so daily newspapers, echoed the stand of French intellectuals against the Islamists’ slaughter of their non-combatant colleagues in Algeria.

It was in this context that France’s first homegrown Islamist terrorist, Kelkal, helped kill eight fellow citizens in 1995 and injure scores in separate attacks, including a car bomb detonated outside a Jewish school in Villeurbane. When Kelkal placed a bomb on the stretch of a railroad near his hometown in 1995, he was picking up where the OAS left off decades earlier.

Kelkal’s fingerprints led Special Forces to track him down during a two-day manhunt. He was killed on live TV, a scenario the French public has since relived again twice: with Merah and the Kouachis.

These terrible events prompted the largest unity march in recent memory. But French President Francois Hollande declined to invite the National Front, so the party held its own separate and small demonstrations last Sunday. The march also failed to mobilize great masses of the empire’s grandchildren: young people of Arab origin living in the banlieue.

These hidden limitations of Sunday’s otherwise impressive showing summarize well the degree to which French leaders remain at a loss regarding how to cope with the political consequences of having lost Algeria: an enduring far right and a large Muslim minority, neither of which enjoys anything near proportionate representation in the French parliament 50 years later.

A third legacy has also contributed to this complicated dynamic: the “Sephardization” of the French Jewish community. By the 1970s, those of North African origin made up a majority of French Jews, thanks to Jewish flight from the Maghreb and the subtraction of Ashkenazi Jews deported under the Vichy regime. France thereby inherited a deteriorating relationship between Jews and Muslims in the Arab world. The hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees—many of them French citizens by right—understood viscerally the need for a secure Jewish state. The far right, which elected its first local officials in the late 1970s, looked on aghast as tension grew between minorities that should have stayed put—in French Algeria.

To the extent that Jewish voices have been heard more than Muslims and Rightists in French ministries and halls of power, it is because of the institutions originally created for and by Ashkenazis: the Consistoire Israëlite established by Napoleon in 1807 and the Jewish lobbying organization known as the CRIF, founded during the Nazi occupation in 1943. Despite their distant origins, the new Sephardic arrivals were eventually integrated into these institutions.

Although the absolutism of French republican ideals has inspired democracies worldwide for centuries, it has only been the gradual adjustment of those ideals to social and demographic realities—first to the Jewish population and in the future, perhaps, to the Muslim community or to the right—that afforded France lasting political stability.

The acceptance of religious community institutions, including those for Muslims, as a part of French political life means allowing for a kind of soft communitarianism: somewhere in between the much-caricatured American lobbying “free-for-all” and the French Republic’s traditional denial of citizens’ bonds beyond the state. The electoral rules that kept the National Front out of the parliament between 1988 and 2012 culminated in 25 percent of French voters choosing the party to represent them in Brussels last May.

Last week’s attacks seem to have awoken French politicians from this torpor. Now that their attention is undivided, they will need to undertake unprecedented outreach to the alienated constituents of the Fifth Republic, whose very legitimacy is at stake.

The more honestly this complicated history is confronted, and the wider the coalition sought to ensure national unity at a terrifying time—including all those who believe in the rule of law, Muslim, Jewish, and far right alike— the sooner France will find a path out of its current crisis.

This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.