Huffpost WorldPost
Bernard-Henri Lévy Headshot

When Algeria, Like France, Looks Its Past in the Face

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Marseille.

A symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence, organized by the French magazine Marianne.

I am facing Zohra Drif, a senior member of the Bouteflika hierarchy who was, in her youth, an FLN [National Liberation Front] militant and a terrorist whose participation in the so-called Milk Bar attack made history. On that day, the 30th of September, 1956, several dozen innocent civilians, among them women and children, were killed and wounded.

I said to her, in substance, Algerian independence was a just cause.

A struggle against colonialism is the prototype of a just cause that, at the time, should have won over all that France counted as humanists, on both the left and the right.

Except that sometimes it happens that a just cause employs unjust means and is soiled by them; and the prototype of such unjust means, the very type of infamy that brings dishonor to the best of commitments, is this manner of targeting civilians that we call terrorism -- everyone knows that since, at least, Dostoevsky and Camus.

Apparently, Ms. Drif has some difficulty understanding what I am saying to her.

She ties herself in knots of irrelevant, if not obscene, considerations, whose ultimate point, in sum, is that the children she assassinated in cold blood that day were "party to" a "system" of global exploitation.

Neither Maurice Szafran and Nicolas Domenach, moderating the debate, nor I, nor Danielle Michel-Chich, who was one of her victims and who happened to be there in the room this morning, succeeded in dragging a word of regret or doubt -- I won't even mention remorse -- from her.

And I leave this meeting with a feeling of malaise which will only intensify throughout the day -- and from which I glean, with a bit of distance, a lesson that, unfortunately, goes far beyond the case of Madame Drif.

Of course, France must confront the crimes that she committed during these somber times, which she took far too long to accord the name of war.

Of course, colonialism is a shame that sullies her leaders and at the same time humiliates her victims, one that did not have any "positive aspects."

And it remains true that nothing is more shocking than the idea of these French officers, guilty of acts of torture, who died in peace in their beds, fully restored to rank, retirement pay, and military honors, whose criminal past our rulers, of whatever political complexion, scrupulously ensured would simply pass -- without even mentioning a certain leader of a certain extreme right party, whose role as a virtuoso in the art of electric shock as a means of persuasion, I am in a position to know, one hasn't the right to recall without risking harsh condemnation under civil law.

However...

Isn't what is valid for some equally valid for others?

Was not Algeria, in its struggle, as the obtuse, icy, and impenitent Zohra Drif reminded us this morning, responsible for its part of the dark side?

And is it not just as essential to admit it, acknowledge it, and express sorrow for it? From the elimination, in Melouza in particular, of the Messalists and others opposed to the FLN hard line, to the post-curfew massacre of tens of thousands of Harkis, not to mention the murder of non-combatant civilians like those at the Milk Bar, isn't it vital that the country acknowledge all that comes to contradict the pure light, the golden legend of a magnificent emancipation, led by and for the people in their entirety?

It is vital for this Franco-Algerian reconciliation so long talked of, which should be the mainspring of the Mediterranean of tomorrow, for which the construction of a common, shared, pacified memory will be the finest instrument.

But it is vital as well for Algeria itself, which has known so many other ordeals in the past fifty years, sorrow-stricken by a second, scarcely less murderous war, declared against it at the beginning of the 90s by other Algerians, sons of international Islamic fundamentalism, and which will never see the end of this interminably heavy period unless it faces up, as we must, to its criminal past.

I am thinking of this uni-party regime that has engendered trouble and poverty, for whom the crimes of colonialism remain the eternal excuse.

I am thinking of this Arab spring upon which the country has, up until now, conscientiously turned its back, thanks to the myth of the beautiful and glorious war of emancipation.

I am thinking of Mohamed Sifaoui's dreadful description in his book, The Secret History of Independent Algeria (Nouveau Monde Editions), of a state that nourishes conspiracies, paranoid, willfully murderous, systematically antisemitic, and living, in its entirety, under the thumb of its own secret service.

And I say to myself yes, this is related to that: today's dictatorship is tied to yesterday's lies ; the reign of those who profit is linked to the falsification of a history whose dark side has been whitewashed; and this corrupt system of governance that strangles liberty bears a direct relation to the elimination, for example, before and after the war, of all the true heroes (Abane Ramdane, Mohamed Khider, Krim Belkacem) of a war of independence next to whom a Madame Drif or a Monsieur Bouteflika already looked like puppets and small-time heavies.

Democracy in Algeria? Of course. Except that, as always, one must begin with memory.