France and Algeria: some comparisons


Posted to on June 25, 2005


Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a lot of material on the war in Algeria as background for a review of Battle of Algiers. Since top American military officials watched this movie shortly after the occupation began in an attempt to understand-and defeat-a similar resistance, it seemed worthwhile to take a fresh look at the movie, the actual war of liberation in Algeria and how it stacked up against the current one.


Yesterday I began reading War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam by David L. Schalk and the question of comparisons took a new direction. This book compares the anti-imperialst efforts of people like Sartre around Algeria with that of Robert Lowell et al around Vietnam.


It suddenly dawned on me that the USA has plunged into two adventures that were sequels in many ways to ones that France carried out unsuccessfully. First of all, the USA tried to accomplish in Indochina what had eluded the French. There is not all that much difference between Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the spectacle of helicopters fleeing Saigon in 1975.


Furthermore, Frances goals in Algeria had a lot to do with their own version of the Vietnam syndrome. After losing Vietnam, the ruling class and reformist parties of the left were anxious to prove that France was still capable of maintaining an empire.


While there are many differences between Algeria and Iraq, there is one thing they have in common with each other (and with Vietnam). They are countries with very headstrong peoples who have an inexhaustible capacity for resisting colonization, sometimes passively and sometimes actively.


The other thing that strikes me about the arrogance of the conduct of both France and the USA is how it might be connected to a kind of narcissism about their roles in world history as democratic revolution exemplars. There is a notion that 1776 and 1789 serve as models for the developing world, whether it accepts it or not.


You can find this self-deception at work in the foreign policy rhetoric of the Bush administration and its ideological whores like Christopher Hitchens and Norm Geras. You found almost the same sickness in the behavior of Camus and respected anthropologist Jacques Soustelle, who was governor-general of Algeria when the rebellion broke out and who gave his nod to concentration camps, torture and mass murder. Soustelle wrote a deeply sensitive and sympathetic book called Daily Life of the Aztecs that concludes as follows:


"Their culture, so suddenly destroyed, is one of those that humanity can be proud of having created. In the hearts and minds of those who believe that our common inheritance is made up of all the values that our species has conceived in all times and all places, it must take its place among our precious treasures -- precious because they are so rare. At long intervals, in the immensity of the world's life and in the midst of its vast indifference, men joined together in a community bring something into existence that is greater than themselves -- a civilisation. These are the creators of cultures; and the Indians of Anahuac, at the foot of their volcanoes, on the shores of their lake, may be counted among them."


It appears that capitalism and imperialism have infinite capacities for corrupting even the most noble among us.