In the fall of 1957, Louisette Ighilahriz, a twenty-year-old soldier in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Algerian nationalist underground seeking to end French rule, was captured by French paratroopers on the outskirts of Algiers. Badly wounded in battle, she was transferred to a prison in the capital, where she spent the next three months under interrogation. According to Ighilahriz, now a psychologist and a grandmother of three, she was stripped naked, raped, and tortured repeatedly, before being rescued by a French military doctor who found her huddled in a pool of excrement and menstrual blood.
In the summer of 2000, Ighilahriz spoke of her torture for the first time in an interview with Florence Beaugé, Le Monde’s correspondent in Algiers.1 Thanks to Beaugé’s story, which ran on the paper’s front page, Ighilahriz became the catalyst of a debate about the legacy of the French-Algerian war—a largely French debate, but one that is beginning to have ripple effects on the other side of the Mediterranean.2
Ighilahriz’s testimony was especially powerful because of who she is. A student of the work of Victor Hugo and a fluent speaker of French, she has far more in common with her French contemporaries than with the bearded fundamentalists who waged jihad in her country throughout the 1990s, often singling out secular, professional women for assassination. What made her interview particularly poignant was that she seemed to be moved less by rage at her jailers than by gratitude to the doctor who saved her. She told Beaugé she broke her silence in the hope of finding Dr. Francis Richaud. (He had died in 1997.) At the same time, Ighilahriz did not hesitate to name the officers in attendance during her ordeal, most notably Jacques Massu, the head of the 10th division of paratroopers and a trusted ally of De Gaulle. Her charges provoked an uproar.
A distinguished ninety-four-year-old retired general, Massu has long acknowledged the use of torture by the French army, and his reply to Ighilahriz was remarkably temperate. Although he said he did not recall witnessing her torture, he said her testimony was otherwise credible, and that he knew the doctor to whom she paid such moving tribute. “Torture,” he told Le Monde, “isn’t indispensable in times of war, and one can very well do without it. When I look back on Algeria, it saddens me…. One could have done things differently.” Massu’s peers were furious. General Marcel Bigeard, who was also accused of torture by Ighilahriz, and who is said to have thrown Algerian prisoners from helicopters during the war, called her remarks a “tissue of lies.” But the most explosive reply of all came from Paul Aussaresses, an obscure, eighty-four-year-old general, in an interview with Le Monde in the fall of 2000.
Aussaresses is a veteran of De Gaulle’s Free French Forces. An undercover agent during the Second World War, he served the Resistance with great valor, parachuting into Germany in a Nazi uniform in 1945. During France’s war in Indochina, he carried out operations behind Viet Minh lines. Aussaresses was assigned to the Constantine province of eastern Algeria in 1955, a few months after the outbreak of the insurrection. He became Massu’s right-hand man the following year during the Battle of Algiers, which began with a wave of FLN bombings of crowded marketplaces and cafés in the capital’s European section.
In Le Monde, Aussaresses defended the use of torture and confessed to summary executions and political assassinations (often arranged to look like suicides). In his memoirs, Services Spé-ciaux: Algérie 1955–1957, which was published in the spring of 2001 and which has now been translated into English as The Battle of the Casbah, he writes of his exploits in graphic, often gleeful detail.3 He is eager to take credit for France’s “victory” in the casbah, but the credit, he admits, is not his alone. As he points out, all the major parties backed the war, even, for a time, the Communists. Far from being vigilante “excesses,” as France’s political class has long maintained, torture and other war crimes were widespread, systematic, and largely approved by the government, which had acquired special powers in a unanimous parliamentary vote in early 1956. Aussaresses says he reported to one Judge Jean Berard, an emissary of François Mitterrand, who was then the minister of justice in Guy Mollet’s cabinet. Berard “covered our actions…. I had an excellent relationship with him, with nothing to hide.”4
Although Aussaresses says he was reluctant at first to use torture, he appears to have been easily convinced of its usefulness. Shortly after his arrival in Constantine, a policeman told him he could either “torture a suspected terrorist or tell the parents of the victims that it’s better to let scores of innocent people be killed…than make a single accomplice suffer. That short discussion swept away any doubts I may still have harbored.” Then came the FLN massacres of August 20, 1955. In Philippeville and in other cities throughout the Constantine province, Algerians brandishing knives descended on people in their cars, killing seventy-one Europeans and fifty-two Muslim “traitors.” As Aussaresses recalls, “When I saw children chopped up into pieces, with their throats slit or crushed to death, the women who had been disemboweled or decapitated, I think I really forgot what having any pity meant.”
Aussaresses’ reaction is understandable. But the cruel repression that followed Philippeville only stiffened Algerian resistance, following a pattern established by earlier French reprisals. Aussaresses and his men arrested one hundred suspects and shot them on the spot. By the end of the week, well over a thousand Algerians, mostly civilians, lay dead, marking what Frantz Fanon later called “the point of no return.”
Here was a tale of two horrors—that of terrorism, and that of counterterrorism. Yet French liberals paid scant attention to the former, which is perhaps a measure of the distance they have placed between themselves and the Algerian war.5 Early this year, a petition signed by twelve prominent left intellectuals calling for an official statement of repentance for French torture, similar to Chirac’s apology to French Jews in 1995, rapidly gathered tens of thousands of signatures. The “manifesto of the twelve” was the subject of sympathetic articles in newspapers across the political spectrum, from Le Monde to Le Figaro. Most polls have indicated that a majority of the French—particularly those born after the war—support legal action against French officers who ordered torture.
In an editorial titled “After Vichy, Algeria,” Le Monde likened the impact of Aussaresses’ revelations to that of Marcel Ophuls’ 1971 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which prompted the French to confront the sordid history of collaboration under General Pétain. Jean Daniel, the Algerian-born director of Le Nouvel Observateur, suggested that France’s crimes might be better understood against the backdrop of the FLN’s atrocities against innocent civilians, but his was a lonely voice.
Why did Aussaresses’ confession have such a cathartic effect? French torture in Algeria is hardly news. Journalists like Claude Bourdet exposed the use of torture in the early days of the war.6 In 1960, La Question, Henri Alleg’s gripping first-person account of his own torture, sold 60,000 copies in one day, before being banned by the French police. Aussaresses wasn’t telling the French something that they could claim had been kept from them. Yet his very brazenness forced the French public to confront some uncomfortable truths about their mission civilisatrice in Algeria. His story seemed to contain a disturbing parable, that of the resistance hero who saves France’s honor during the black days of the Nazi occupation, only to squander it in a dirty colonial war. For some, he was the monster in the closet, and he looked the part, with an eyepatch that made him an irresistible subject for cartoonists.
Aussaresses’ tone, moreover, was not only remorseless but fearless, as if he were taunting the political establishment to try to punish him because he felt certain that it would not. He spoke with the protection granted by the amnesties of 1962 and 1968, which insulate Algerian veterans from prosecution for war crimes.7 (De Gaulle imposed the 1962 amnesties by decree, preempting a parliamentary discussion that might have denied immunity to men like Aussaresses.) The International Federation of Human Rights tried to pursue a case against Aussaresses, but it went nowhere, leading the editors of Le Monde to wonder, “How can we pursue a trial of Maurice Papon and the crimes of his bureau and refuse to judge the equally real crimes of General Aussaresses?” In late January, Aussaresses was forced to pay a $6,500 fine for “justifying war crimes,” a sentence so trivial that it served only to underline the fact that his deeds were exempt from punishment, and that France had little interest in revisiting the past.
The French-Algerian war began early in the morning of November 1, 1954, when the FLN led a series of assaults that killed nine people, and ended on March 19, 1962, with the signing of the Évian Accords between France and the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA), the FLN’s government-in-exile. Even by the bloody standards of colonial warfare, the war was astonishingly brutal. About 300,000 Algerians died,8 and hundreds of thousands were tortured. More than two million Algerian civilians were forcibly relocated, many of them concentrated in “accommodation centers” surrounded by barbed wire. The French “pacification” campaign resulted in the destruction of 8,000 villages. Approximately 24,000 French soldiers never returned home, and several thousand French Algerians were killed in acts of terrorism. When the war was over, the FLN slaughtered tens of thousands of harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought in mobile auxiliary units alongside the French. (Harka means “mobile” in Arabic.)
The war created sharp divisions within France itself, precipitating the collapse of the Fourth Republic and ultimately pushing the country to the edge of civil war. Intellectuals on the left viewed the “ultras,” i.e. the extreme right-wing settlers, as homegrown fascists; a handful offered their services to the Algerian underground. Francis Jeanson, a protégé of Sartre, created a network of “baggage carriers,” composed of thousands of men and women who laundered money for the FLN. As the journalists Patrick Rotman and Hervé Harmon have argued in an engrossing book on Jeanson’s cell,9 most of the baggage carriers believed that in supporting the Algerian resistance they were upholding the values of French republicanism and antifascism. Jeanson hoped that an FLN victory would set off a socialist revolution in France itself. Sartre, who had been relatively quiescent during the occupation, became increasingly intoxicated by the Algerian revolt, which, as the historian Benjamin Stora suggests in his recent book La Gangrène et l’Oubli, offered him “psychological compensation for the lack of revolutionary perspectives in France.” In his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Sartre came up with a dangerously seductive justification for terror: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppresso, and the man he oppresses at the same time.”
The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, whose mother still lived in Oran, bitterly resented the intellectuals’ romance with the FLN. “I believe in justice,” he said, “but I will defend my mother before justice.” Unlike Sartre, Camus had actually fought in the Resistance, and, having grown up in poverty in Oran, he knew a good deal more about Algeria than the philosopher of commitment. Warning, presciently if futilely, of the FLN’s authoritarian aims, Camus argued that the only hope for Algeria lay in French-Muslim reconciliation. He struggled to preserve a humane position, deploring violence on both sides and using his good offices to save a number of Algerian nationalists in French custody. In January 1956 he called for a “civilian truce” in which both the French government and the FLN would confine themselves to military targets. Neither side listened, and Camus made few public statements about Algeria before his death four years later.
Yet, as James Le Sueur observes in Uncivil War, an illuminating study of French intellectual responses to the war, Camus was far from neutral. His criticisms of the French army’s atrocities grew increasingly muted. He never fully appreciated the national aspirations of Algeria’s Muslims, insisting that Algerian nationalism arose “wholly from emotion.” Privately Camus continued to describe France’s war as a form of self-defense, and opposed negotiations with the FLN. Like the French government, he was waiting for an interlocuteur valable, a third force with whom France could negotiate a settlement protecting Algeria’s European minority.
As cooler observers like Raymond Aron recognized, no such third force existed. In his 1957 book La Tragedie Algerienne he argued that there was no rational alternative to French withdrawal. De Gaulle, who entered office in 1958 promising never to give up Algeria, ultimately reached this conclusion as well, but only after exhausting all other alternatives. His decision liberated France from what Aron called the “drain” of Algeria, and prevented a civil war. But it also left a bitter legacy, particularly among the more than a million European Algerians who fled to France. Driven from the only home that most of them had ever known, the pieds noirs came to France with an acute sense of betrayal, one that was shared by many of the soldiers who had gone to Algeria to defend them. In August 1962, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), a terrorist paramilitary group composed of militant pieds noirs and French generals who had never forgiven De Gaulle for “abandoning” them, nearly succeeded in assassinating him.
The war continues to have haunting echoes in France today. Roughly a million and a half Frenchmen, including Jacques Chirac, fought in Algeria, and about a quarter of them are believed by French health authorities to suffer from psychological trauma. In the past two decades, millions of North African immigrants have made France their home. Many of these people live in miserable banlieues, where radical Islam exerts a growing influence. Toward the end of the war, De Gaulle told his colleagues that France could either grant the Algerians independence or integrate them fully into the French republic. The first option was regrettable, but the second was unthinkable: “If we integrate them, if all the Arabs and the Berbers of Algeria were considered French, how could they be prevented from settling in France, where the living standard is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Églises but Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées.” De Gaulle extricated France from Algeria, but his fears about Arab immigration were realized nevertheless. The far right in France today, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is alleged to have tortured suspects at the notorious Villa Sesini in Algiers in 1957,10 has been fed by anti-Arab racism, and—to a lesser but not insignificant extent—by nostalgia for Algérie Française.
As Benjamin Stora argues in his eloquent book La Gangrène et l’Oubli, the Algerian war has a strong claim to being “the central fracture of [France’s] postwar period.” Yet it was not until 1999 that the French parliament acknowledged that a war had even been fought in Algeria. There could not have been a war, the government reasoned, since Algeria—unlike Tunisia and Morocco, which became independent in 1956 with comparatively little friction—was a part of France, having been divided into three departments and annexed in 1848. Throughout the seven and a half years of bitter conflict, the French government insisted that it was engaged in an “operation to maintain order,” and that FLN guerrillas were not legitimate combatants but “outlaws.” After the French defeat, the Algerian war was referred to as “the war without a name,” or, even more obliquely, as “the events.” When the parliamentary deputies finally declared it a war, they did so in a unanimous, silent vote, sidestepping any further discussion.
The French-Algerian war has long stirred, in France, the kind of passions that make sober historical inquiry all but impossible. Not surprisingly, the best single survey of the war is by an English journalist, Alistair Horne, whose masterful A Savage War of Peace, published in 1977,11 still has no equal in French. Of the approximately three thousand books, fifty films, and twenty documentaries produced in French, most have been intensely partisan. In recent years, however, a new and impressive body of work has been assembled by a group of young French historians, many of them born after the war. Their scholarship has been complemented by the important studies of Mohammed Harbi, an exiled Algerian dissident who has subjected the FLN’s heroic narrative of the war to a withering critique. The net effect of the new scholarship is to reveal the daunting complexity of the war. For the French-Algerian war contained at least three wars: a civil war between the FLN and rival nationalist groups, a guerrilla war between the FLN and the French army, and a political war among the French.
A former adviser to Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president, Harbi has published a series of extraordinary books on the FLN since the late 1970s, the most recent of which is a memoir. Harbi’s work has demolished the notion, developed by Frantz Fanon and canonized by the FLN, that the independence struggle was a popular uprising. The revolutionary “spontaneity” of the peasantry was little more than a myth; violence supplied the motor of the revolution, a top-down affair in which the poor were largely passive. Often romanticized as the voice of the Arab masses, the FLN’s “historic chiefs” hailed mainly from middle-class homes where French was often spoken. Most of them had come up through the ranks of the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD), a pro-independence group led by Messali Hadj, the founding father of Algerian nationalism who later turned against the FLN. They were young, impatient, and eager for action, whether or not the conditions were favorable for a revolution—and, in the fall of 1954, they were not. As even historians sympathetic to the FLN concede, the insurgents initially represented only a minority of Algerian Muslims.
“Because they [the FLN leaders] weren’t supported at the moment of their arrival on the scene by a real and dynamic popular movement, they took power of the movement by force and they maintained it by force,” Harbi writes. “Convinced that they had to act with resolution in order to protect themselves against their enemies, they deliberately chose an authoritarian path.” In the early years of the war, the overwhelming number of the FLN’s victims were Algerian peasants who failed to rally behind it, or who threw their support behind the Mouvement Nationale Algérien (MNA), a rival nationalist group established by Hadj in December 1954.12
The war between the FLN and the MNA—a struggle over power, not principle—began in Algeria but rapidly spread to France, where the two groups were competing for the allegiance of the country’s 400,000 Algerian immigrants, on whom “taxes” were levied in support of the war back home. The FLN won this battle, but only after killing thousands of MNA supporters. The most horrifying event in the civil war was the 1957 massacre in the town of Melouza, an MNA stronghold, where the FLN, led by the commander Mohamedi Said, slaughtered 303 civilians. The FLN blamed the French army, but in Les Années Algériennes, a remarkable documentary that was shown on French and Algerian television in 1991, Said admitted to carrying out the massacre: “Our first enemy wasn’t the French soldier, it was the traitor among us.”
Terror against French civilians grew partly out of the FLN’s weakness among its putative constituency. Atrocities like the bombing of the Milk Bar in Algiers, memorably depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, were designed to provoke a hugely disproportionate violent response, thereby revealing the true face of French rule and driving Algerians into the hands of the FLN. In that sense, terror was successful. But terror also exposed the FLN’s ruthlessness, a principal feature of its rule after independence. As Harbi points out, many of the cornerstones of FLN strategy—the militarization of politics, the use of Islam as a rallying cry, the exaltation of jihad—were later turned against the secular Algerian state by Islamists, the children of independence, during the fratricidal civil war of the 1990s.
Harbi’s memoir opens a fascinating window onto the violent struggles that wracked the leadership of the FLN. Though masked by the noble rhetoric of revolutionary disputation, most of these struggles were based on clan loyalties, reflecting tensions between cliques or Arab-Berber rivalries. The most notorious case was the assassination of Ramdane Abane in December 1957. Abane, the architect of the Battle of Algiers and a Kabyle Berber, incurred the wrath of the “forces of the exterior”—the FLN soldiers and bureaucracy based in Tunisia, led by General Houari Boumédienne—by insisting that the independence struggle be placed under the control of “the interior,” the political forces inside Algeria. Abane was lured to Morocco and strangled to death, clearing the way for the military’s seizure of power.
FLN violence reached its grisly peak after the war, with the massacre of tens of thousands of harkis and their families. Some harkis were wrapped in French flags, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. The most eager participants in the purges were the so-called marsiens, Algerians who had waited until March 1962 to cast their lot with the FLN, and who were most susceptible themselves to charges of collaboration. Before withdrawing from Algeria in July, French soldiers witnessed the unfolding slaughter, but they were under strict orders not to intervene. The few harkis who managed to get to France were settled in isolated compounds, squalid camps that became centers of discontent and rioting in the 1970s. As the historian Mohand Hamoumou, the son of a harki, observes, the awful fate of these volunteer soldiers has long met with silence and denial on both sides. On his first official visit to France, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika refused to meet with representatives of the harkis, referring to them as collabos. Last year, Chirac presided over a “national day of homage” to the harkis, but the homage noticeably failed to include an apology.
Why did the most radical, unyielding forces ultimately seize control of the Algerian independence struggle? After all, there was no lack of Algerian moderates. Before the war, most of the leaders of the évolués, the assimilated Muslims, favored French citizenship, or autonomy in federation with France, rather than complete sovereignty. “I will not die for the Algerian nation, because it does not exist,” said Ferhat Abbas, an évolué leader, in 1936. Yet the group that emerged to contest French rule turned out to be far more anti-French, violent, and authoritarian than the parties that led Morocco and Tunisia to independence. The FLN’s campaign to wipe out any and all rivals was partly responsible for its success—but only partly. Equally significant was the role played by France. As Raphaëlle Branche argues in La Torture et l’Armée pendant la Guerre d’Algérie, 1954–1962, her study of torture by the French army, the FLN owed its birth, and much of its appeal, to a history of violent conquest, racial inequality, and colonial arrogance, during which the French brutally repressed any stirring of indigenous nationalism.
Charles X first sent troops to Algeria in 1830 in retaliation for a slight that had occurred three years earlier, when Hussein Dey, the Ottoman ruler of Algiers, struck the French consul-general with a fly swatter during an argument over the price of grain. The first challenge to French rule came in 1832 from a charismatic young Arab named Abdel Kader. “Ravage the country” was Tocqueville’s advice to the army, which stamped out Kader’s jihad by destroying harvests, rounding up families, and razing entire villages until Kader’s surrender fifteen years later. In 1871, another mass revolt broke out, this one led by a Kabyle Berber named Mokrani. The French responded by confiscating all the fertile land in Kabylia, reducing the Berbers to penury.
In order to “pacify” Algeria, a mountainous terrain nearly three times the size of France, the French government had to populate it with European settlers, mostly immigrants from Italy, Corsica, Spain, and Malta. The Europeans, who numbered over a million by the 1950s, came to think of Algeria as their home and of themselves as Algerians. Only a tiny minority of the pieds noirs were big landowners, and most lived humbly, like their Muslim neighbors. Yet even the poorest Europeans enjoyed substantial advantages because of their French citizenship. In order to become French citizens, Muslims had to renounce their statutory rights under Islamic law, an act equivalent to apostasy. Only a few thousand did so—an unintended but not undesirable consequence, from the vantage point of most Europeans.
There were efforts to integrate Muslims into the republic, but pied noir resistance scuttled each one of them, no matter how modest. In 1938, the Blum- Violette Project, which would have granted citizenship and voting rights to 21,000 members of the Muslim elite, went down to defeat. The elections held in Algeria by the French in 1948—in which one European vote was equal to eight Algerian votes under the double electoral college—were rigged to deprive Algerian nationalists of their victory. In an ultimately self-destructive display of short-sightedness, no French government was sufficiently willing or able to challenge the settlers, a powerful voting bloc in France. The continued stifling of reform convinced most Algerians that their only hope lay in independence.
The decision to take up arms was sealed by the Sétif massacre of early May 1945—the true origin of the war, as Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer argues in her recent study, Aux Origines de la Guerre d’Algérie. During a V-Day celebration in the town of Setif, Algerian nationalists killed a hundred European bystanders after clashes broke out with the police. Over the next week, French soldiers, assisted by pied noir militias, killed between 5,000 and 15,000 Algerians. Setif drove a permanent wedge between the two communities, sabotaging the Algerian elite’s vision of peaceful reform, and leading to the creation of the Organisation Spéciale, the first armed independence group and the precursor to the FLN.
When the war finally broke out nine years later, the French army struck back with extreme, indiscriminate force. Collective punishment had the deceptive virtue of having worked in the past. As Raphaëlle Branche suggests in La Torture et l’Armée, the campaign against the FLN was also inflamed by imperial anxieties engendered by the French defeat in Indochina, where the leading figures in the French Army in Algeria had served. France’s paratroopers had suffered a profound humiliation at Dien Bien Phu, and they were determined to eliminate the “Viets” in Algeria. They based their fighting strategies on Mao’s little red book and revolutionary doctrine, vividly illustrating Regis Debray’s remark that “the revolution revolutionizes the counterrevolution.” As Branche argues, it was these men who directed the war in Algeria: “C’est moins la loi qui dicte la guerre, que la guerre qui dicte la loi.” (“It was less a case of the law dictating the war than of the war dictating the law.”) French soldiers dutifully carried out their grim tasks. If they had any hesitations, these were soon swept aside by the sight of fellow soldiers whose throats had been slit, their mouths stuffed with their testicles.
Hardly a decade after the defeat of fascism, the French established a vast system of repression, which included concentration camps like the infamous “Ferme Ameziane,” through which over a hundred thousand Algerians passed. During the Battle of Algiers alone, over 3,000 suspects in Algiers police custody “disappeared.” Throughout this period, France retained the outward trappings of democracy, even as democratic procedures were eaten away by the “gangrene” of torture. As Sylvie Thénault shows in her study of French magistrates during the war, Une Drôle de Justice, this shadow government was erected on a foundation of lies and deception, and kept in place by questioning the loyalty of those who raised any questions about it. Algeria’s magistrates “played the role they were asked to play”—permitting ratissages, murderous sweeps through Arab neighborhoods, and approving executions of Algerian prisoners.
When the law imposed restrictions on the army, the army defied the law. In April 1955, for example, the army opened four concentration camps in flagrant violation of a ban passed by the French legislature that same month. Moderates in the judicial system tried to fight the steady erosion of legality, but their efforts were consistently undermined. Thénault has an excellent chapter on Jean Reliquet, Algeria’s Procurer General during the Battle of Algiers. Like his peers, Reliquet did not want to lose Algeria, but torture disturbed him, and he thought it counterproductive. At a meeting attended by the Resident Minister Robert Lacoste in April 1957, he proposed shutting down torture centers like the Villa Sesini. Lacoste not only rejected the idea; he accused Reliquet of secretly conspiring with the FLN.
Was torture effective? As Branche and Thénault both acknowledge, torture enabled the French to gather information about future terrorist strikes and to destroy the infrastructure of terror in Algiers. General Aussaresses is not wrong to claim that he won the “battle of the casbah” precisely by abandoning any pretense of legal norms in dealing with the FLN. But to present the battle as a triumph of counterinsurgency betrays a remarkable lack of historical perspective. Torture not only failed to repress the yearnings for independence among Algerians; it increased popular support for the FLN, contributing to the transformation of a small vanguard into a revolutionary party with mass support, and rendering impossible the emergence of the interlocuteur valable with which the French government claimed to be seeking a dialogue.13 Indeed, France’s tactics helped the FLN to win over Algerian moderates like Ferhat Abbas, who became the president of the FLN’s government-in-exile. If torture inspires widespread condemnation in France today, as it did not during the war, it’s partly because one can no longer defend it as an unfortunate necessity. France’s defeat made a mockery of that argument. A scathing cartoon of Aussaresses in Charlie Hebdo, the French humor magazine, may have put it best: “Yes, torture was necessary!” Aussaresses exclaims. “Without it, we would have lost Algeria.”
November 21, 2002
After the war, the FLN discouraged torture victims from talking about the experience, which was considered shameful. ↩
Ighilahriz’s revelations were icily received by the Algerian government. General Khaled Nezzar, the former minister of defense and an influential figure within the pouvoir, Algeria’s shadowy governing clique, said the debate on torture was an “internal French affair.” In spring 2001, while on a book tour in Paris, he was charged with war crimes, including torture and summary executions, by the families of disappeared Islamists. Nezzar—nicknamed “Nezzaresses” by protestors on the streets of Algiers—immediately flew home. The members of the Algerian government “aren’t interested in the debate on torture because they’re doing the very same thing today,” the exiled historian Mohammed Harbi told me recently. ↩
The book’s title refers to the Battle of Algiers, brilliantly recreated by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo in his 1965 masterpiece, La Bataille d’Alger. ↩
“The only negotiation is war!” Mitterrand said in November 1954. In his 1981 presidential campaign, he appealed to the pieds noirs, the French citizens who settled or were born in Algeria, by promising more indemnity payments; shortly after his election he restored full military honors to the generals who conspired against De Gaulle for “selling out” French Algeria. ↩
In America, Aussaresses has recently found a more receptive audience. Appearing as a terrorism expert on 60 Minutes, he was asked whether he would torture al-Qaeda suspects. “It seems to me it’s obvious,” he replied. ↩
See Bourdet’s article, “Votre Gestapo en Algérie,” France-Observateur, January 1955. ↩
Aussaresses proudly describes how he organized the assassinations of Larbi Ben M’Hidi, an FLN leader, and Ali Boumendjel, a nationalist attorney—crimes covered by the amnesties. By contrast, he has denied responsibility for one of the few war crimes for which he could be prosecuted: the unresolved disappearance, in Algiers police custody, of the French-Algerian Communist Maurice Audin. ↩
The Algerian government’s official estimate is “a million and a half martyrs.” Shortly after the Évian Accords were signed, Louis Joxe, the head of the French team of negotiators, had dinner with his Algerian counterpart, Mohammed Yezid, who had been Joxe’s student at the Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Politiques. “Tell me,” Joxe is reported to have asked Yezid, “what’s this about a million dead? You know that’s not true.” Yezid, a mordant wit, smiled. “Well, Professor, it doesn’t mean you killed all of them.” ↩
Les Porteurs des Valises: La Résistance Française à la guerre d’Algérie (Éditions Albin Michel, 1979). ↩
These longstanding allegations resurfaced in early June, when Le Monde published interviews with four elderly Algerian men who claim to have been tortured by him. Le Pen angrily denied the charges, though he has admitted to torture in the past. ↩
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962 (Penguin). ↩
Until quite recently, Hadj figured as the Trotsky of the FLN’s Stalinized narrative of the war—a deceitful heretic and collaborator. In the past few years, however, he has been rehabilitated as an Algerian patriot; the airport in Tlemcen, his home town, was renamed in his honor. President Bouteflika has renamed airports after other FLN leaders assassinated by their comrades and purged from memory. The rehabilitation of these men reflects the chastening effects of the civil war, in which 150,000 Algerians have perished since 1992. ↩
A similar dynamic is at work today in the Middle East, where harsh repressive measures by the Israeli army have apparently increased Palestinian support for suicide bombs, while weakening more moderate voices. As Tony Judt has argued in these pages, the conflict between Palestinians under occupation and Jewish settlers backed by the army has been “Algerianized” in the last two years, with murderous outrages on both sides and no end in sight. See “The Road to Nowhere,” The New York Review, May 9, 2002. ↩