Algerian War Square

France’s inconvenient truths; the Algerian and Rwandan genocides


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WHILE FRANCE celebrated VE Day on 8 May 1945, her Algerian citizens, who had also contributed to the liberation of Europe, were in a critical mood. They were aware of the French collapse in 1940, of the exaggerated role accredited to the French resistance and knew that the Allies rather than the French had liberated Paris. Indeed, anti-French sentiment had reached boiling point in Algeria by 1945 and buoyed by reports of the ‘liberation of the free world’ Algerians believed they too should be liberated. Yet when demonstrators in Setif and other towns raised banners in favour of a ‘free and independent Algeria’ and sang national anthems on VE Day they were shot dead by French troops.

As bodies piled up and panic intensified, the fighting spread into the countryside. And after members of the ‘pieds noirs’ (French settlers) were killed, de Gaulle ordered mass reprisals that have been described as a genocide. As a former member of my doctoral seminar at LSE, the Algerian historian and broadcaster, Nabila Ramdani, explains, the French Air Force flattened entire areas of NE Algeria, while the destroyer ‘Triumphant’ and the light cruiser ‘Duguay-Tourin’ rained shells down on villages. The decimating of entire communities went on till the end of June, with those executed being made to kneel before the tricolour first.

As Ramdani relates, ravines and other stretches of wasteland were at first used as mass graves but later the bodies were dug up and incinerated in an industrial kiln. The smoke and smell caused horror nearby for days. De Gaulle then ordered his Interior Minister, Adrien Tixier, to bury the whole affair. And it was not till 2005 that Hubert Colin de Verdiere, French Ambassador to a now independent Algeria, finally referred to the 1945 bloodbath in Setif, Guelma and Kherrata as an ‘inexcusable tragedy’. The French, however, never really felt guilty about their record in Algeria.

This was true in particular of the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962 which caused France to employ an army of 470,000 men and mobilise 1.5 million. It also employed over 90,000 ‘Harkis’ or native Algerian troops. The Algerian forces numbered about 300,000.

The fighting in the war was dirty and savage. Torture was used on both sides and both sides committed dreadful atrocities. Algerian historians say that 1.5 million died. French historians put the overall death toll at 350,000. The leading British historian of the war, Alistair Horne, suggested 700,000. No one believes the French official figures.

At the end of the war, one million Europeans fled to France as did 200,000 Jews. Thousands of Harkis were left to be murdered by Algerians although thousands were aided by French officers to escape. De Gaulle finally conceded independence through the Evian Agreements of 19 March 1962, blaming ‘le vent d’histoire’ (‘the wind of history’ – Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’.) His true reason will be given below.

But in 2012, fifty years after the Evian Agreements, commemorations in France were muted. President Sarkozy, facing likely electoral defeat, stated during an election stop: “Atrocities were committed on both sides. These abuses have been and must be condemned, but France cannot repent for having conducted this war.”

So why would France commit Nazi-style crimes in 1945 and wage a savage war for which she could not repent in order to retain Algeria?

To understand this one vital point must be kept in mind. After their experience with the Americans, the British always believed that colonies would one day seek independence. They never tried therefore to turn colonial subjects into Brits but ran their empire instead through cooperation with the local elites – tribal chiefs, sheiks or maharajahs. So long as trade, railways, ports etc were secure, local rulers could be feted and accommodated.

The French took a different point of view. The highest object of their ‘mission civilisatrice’ was to turn the natives into Frenchmen with a perfect command of French and a sense of history that was straightforwardly French going back to Julius Caesar. This policy was known as ‘assimilation’ and large parts of the French Empire were to be so assimilated that they were destined to be part of France itself.

After 1945 the Empire was known as the French Union to make it sound more like a partnership.  It was divided into three categories: first, came the departments, territories organised along the same lines as France herself, which were said to be assimilated and whose destiny was to be part of France. The largest was Algeria, conquered from 1830 and divided into three departments. Yet unlike French departments, these were grouped together under a Governor-General, later a Minister Resident, who represented the French Government. Then from 1947, there was an Algerian Assembly to supervise local affairs. But it was composed, highly undemocratically, of equal numbers of Algerian natives and French settlers. (The former outnumbered the latter by ten to one.)

Secondly, there were the colonies and overseas territories, places like Madagascar, French West Africa, and French Equatorial Africa, which were directly administered from France itself, while thirdly there were the Protectorates or ‘associated states’, the three principal ones being Indo-China, Tunisia and Morocco. These had been taken over by France but being former states in their own right, they were not destined to become part of France and by 1956 both Tunisia and Morocco had wrested independence as had Vietnam in 1954 after eight years of war.

This defeat weighed heavily on the French army after its defeat in 1940. It also mattered that although the USA had paid for the war, France herself had not been allowed to use an atom bomb to save her position at Dien Bien Phu (Churchill vetoed Eisenhower’s offer) while British Foreign Secretary Eden, had presided over the Geneva Conference of 1954 that organised the French withdrawal. The French disliked Anglo-Saxon interference. It was Anglo-Saxon pressure, after all that had caused them to give up Syria and Lebanon. They would soon also believe that the Anglo-Saxons were mocking them in the new Standing Group within NATO.

The French army now also thought that colonial wars were merely proxy ones for Communist attempts at world dominion.  So when war broke out in Algeria in 1954, the army, just defeated in Vietnam, was a very embittered one which saw yet a new front opening up in its world struggle against Communism.

Yet the real problem for the French military and civilian leadership was the fact that in 1946 a new law had conferred French citizenship on all peoples of the departments and overseas territories, which citizenship included the right to vote in French parliamentary elections and to send deputies to the French Parliament. True, the voting system was rigged to favour French colonists and keep native representation low but this was the perfect proof of what assimilation meant. Algeria was part of France just like Normandy or Alsace. It could no more be granted independence than they could be. Algerians were French. The Algerian War therefore was not a colonial but a civil war. Indeed, not even the French Communists or Socialists would concede Algeria any right to independence. This war just had to be won.

The government in Paris, however, soon lost control of events to military and settler leadership in Algeria itself. The final straw came when after the French bombed the Tunisian village of Sakhiet killing 69 civilians, forcing the Tunisians to appeal to the UN where they and the French Government accepted the ‘good offices’ of Britain and the US. This caused the fall of the Government in Paris, a revolt in Algiers, the threat of military intervention in France itself, all leading to the recall of deGaulle in 1958.

He would famously tell the Algerian rebels: “I have understood you”. But he understood them too well. Algeria had become an economic burden. France’s allies no longer supported the French case. And, possibly most important of all, if Algeria remained part of France, the French Parliament would eventually become swamped with Arabs and Africans. ‘Le vent d’histoire’ would have to sweep them away. The OAS, the ‘secret army’ established to assassinate de Gaulle almost succeeded but his slow series of surrenders to the Algerians and his successful plebiscites meant he won in the end.

Yet Algeria had been a bloodbath. French military action to defend France including Algeria had often included actions that were truly fascistic. Almost a million died. Yet in Rwanda in 1994 France is accused once again of being responsible for almost a million deaths. How so?

In the summer of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by rival Hutu tribesmen in Rwanda. Perhaps even a million died at the hands of Hutu militiamen using machetes and clubs. French involvement was long suspected and recently has been more than adequately revealed.  R.T.Howard, author of ‘France’s Secret Wars Against Britain and America, 1945-2016’, for example recently wrote an article in the Spectator reviewing the findings of French human rights lawyer Francois Garnier, who combed Mitterrand’s archives.

From late 1990 Mitterrand’s government gave strong support to the Hutu-led government of Rwanda as it came under attack from Paul Kagame’s Patriotic Front. The French manoeuvred secretly, spinning a tale to the media that it was only protecting French compatriots, while secretly air-lifting huge quantities of arms and seconding army officers to provide ‘appraisal and advice’ to the government in Kigali. Yet on 15 July 1994, French envoy Yannick Gérard reported that in his custody were several ringleaders of the violence who had personally and repeatedly called for the ‘total elimination’ of the Tutsis including the massacre of ‘women and children’. In response a French Foreign Ministry official, Bernard Emie, instructed him to let these people go.

It turns out that key officials in Paris regarded Kagame and his movement as a dangerous Anglo-Saxon force undermining French prestige in and its grip on Francophone Africa. Indeed, the former French Government adviser, Gerard Prunier wrote, the Anglo-Saxons were “the hissing snake in the Garden of Eden”. And Mitterrand’s most senior advisers thought the US was “harbouring hegemonic ambitions over this region and perhaps even over Africa as a whole”. Kagame was particularly suspect since he was based in English-speaking Uganda and it was feared that his victory in Rwanda would allow the Anglo-Saxon “bastards” “to go all the way to Kinshasa”.

Thus, so determined were Mitterrand and his regime to thwart the Anglo-Saxon threat, they turned a blind eye to the Hutu threat to the Tutsis.

In March and April this year two massive reports have backed all this up. The first was commissioned by Macron himself and was headed by historian Vincent Duclert. The fifteen members of his commission, however, contained no experts on Rwanda although it did contain experts on the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. And it did get access to Mitterrand’s and other previously sealed papers. It concluded that France bore “overwhelming responsibilities” for the genocide, was “blind” to the preparations for the massacres, but was not complicit in the killings. It agreed that France had allowed “murderers and masterminds” to escape. Significantly it confirmed: “Hovering over Rwanda was the threat of an Anglo-Saxon world, represented by the RPF and Uganda, as well as their international allies.” Finally, it concluded that France had a moral obligation to ensure that genocides never happen again.

The second report was commissioned by the Rwandan government from the US law firm Levy Firestone Muse and was released on 19 April this year. It reviewed millions of pages of documents and interviewed 250 witnesses. It runs to 600 pages. It criticises the Duclert report and is much harsher on the French Government. It outright rejects the view that Paris was blind to the genocidal agenda of the Hutus, asserting that France knew that the genocide was coming but remained “unwavering in its support” of its Rwandan allies, even when the planned extermination of the Tutsi minority was clear: “Our conclusion is that the French Government bears significant responsibility for enabling a foreseeable genocide.” The French, however, did not participate in the massacres.

Still the French Government was ‘an indispensable collaborator in building up the institutions that would become instruments of genocide.’ No other foreign government knew what was going on. Yet France has still not acknowledged or atoned for its role.

The report, finally, accused France of concealing documents, obstructing justice and spreading falsehoods about the genocide in a deliberate campaign to “bury its past in Rwanda.” It added: ‘The cover-up continues even to the present,’ saying that French authorities refused to cooperate with its enquiry or turn over critical documents pertinent to their investigation. Rwandans, it declared, for too long “have watched the French Government avoid the truth and fail to take responsibility.”

Yet the world paid little heed to either report. Tutsis are simply not news. Genocides do not seem to matter much either. France appears to have suffered little loss of prestige, if any, on account of her actions.

Indeed, while the Germans are still occasionally scorned and still themselves feel guilty about their past, the French only seem troubled by the history of defeats that give rise to their atrocities. Thanks to the British their national heroes met defeat—Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon. Thanks to the British they lost their empire in India and Canada. Thanks to the British and Americans they lost Syria and Lebanon. They then feared the British and Americans would lose them Algeria and Francophone Africa. Today they fear that Brexit may yet destroy their new wannabe empire in Europe. Perhaps it might. This is one reason why Macron’s resentment of Britain is so intense.

Next instalment; Macron.

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Photo from Algerian commemoration of massacres of 8th May 1945.


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