Along the coast, some fifty miles westward from Algeria’s capital, Algiers, lie the Roman ruins of Tipasa. There are few more idyllic spots in the entire Mediterranean, and it provoked from Albert Camus one of his most eloquent and nostalgic essays. Writing almost exactly half a century ago in the tranquil prewar days of colonial Algeria, Camus described euphorically how he had experienced “the happy lassitude of a wedding day with the world.” Tipasa is an absinthe perfumed paradise of expressionist colors. A peacock-colored sea sensuously “sucks with the noises of kisses.” Vast ochre amphora, and columns made golden by the sun, contrast joyously with the silvery olives that spring from an iron-red soil. “Here the gods themselves serve as tryst-places, or beds,” Camus wrote. “Happy is he among the living who has seen such things.”
Today, on its sea-washed promontory, a small memorial to Camus still bears the now worn quotation from his works, in French: “Glory consists of the ability to love without measure.” Since Camus, the glory that colonial France once created in Algeria has largely passed into limbo, and the gently peaceful beauty of Tipasa casts a deceptive cloak over a ferocious past. It was on a sunny beach close to Tipasa that French women and children, as well as men, were machine-gunned as they bathed, by guerrillas in the Algerian FLN. This was during the Algerian war, some twenty-five years ago. Meanwhile, at Zeralda just a few miles to the east, Algerian suspects died in a French torture camp; and it was from barracks in this same Zeralda that in April 1961 rebel units of the elite French paras launched a nearly successful coup against General de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic.
Three decades have now passed since the FLN declared war on the French in Algeria, which is a long time in modern memory, and one tends to forget the passions stirred in France, as well as in the United States and the third world by this appallingly savage war. Lasting almost twice as long as the First World War, the war in Algeria cost the French Army 17,456 dead and 64,985 injured; while the Algerians put their own losses, mostly among civilians, at somewhere near a million out of a total population of not quite ten million. Though the French casualties were far less severe than those suffered by the US in Vietnam, the political consequences to France were incomparably graver. The seemingly unwinnable war toppled five French governments, and finally the Fourth Republic itself; it brought De Gaulle to power, and France twice to the brink of civil war.
Much of the bitterness stemmed from the fact that, during the 130 years of the presence française, France had declared Algeria to be an integral part of her territory—just like Provence or Normandy—and for many years no French government could risk abandoning it. François Mitterrand, then minister of the interior, took a hard line, grimly warning Frenchmen that if …