December 21, 2012

Marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the frightful Algerian Independence War,  French President Francois Hollande did the right thing last Thursday by recognizing the “suffering” France had inflicted on its former colony.

It was not the outright apology that many Algerians had demanded, but it was about as far as a French leader could go.  Hollande acknowledged “for 132 years, what Algeria had been subjected to was profoundly brutal and unfair. That system had a name: colonialism.”

France invaded and occupied Algeria in 1830 under the pretext that its ruler had struck the French ambassador in the face with a fly whisk.    A million French, Spanish and Italian farmers  eventually settled in Algeria, grabbing its richest lands.   Algeria was proclaimed an integral part of the French state.

In 1954, pro-independence demonstrations erupted across Algeria.  French settlers were attacked.  France sent in notoriously brutal Senegelese colonial troops to rape and kill tens of thousands of Arabs and Berber.  The Algeria revolution had begun.

As a student in Geneva, Switzerland, I became imbued, as youth will do, by the cause of Algerian independence and a hatred for colonialism – an anger I keep to this day.  As violence spread across Algeria, I organized student demonstrations supporting Algeria’s FLN rebels and met with rebel leaders in Paris.

At the tender age of 17, I was targeted for death by La Main Rouge, a shadowy group of assassins and bombers run by French Intelligence.   Fired by the unambiguous passion of youth, I sought to join FLN guerillas fighting in Algeria’s rugged mountains. My determined mother somehow managed to meet with FLN leaders in Europe and get them to prevent me from going to what was a likely death.

The Algerian uprising set the tone for many other colonial wars: Indochina, Malaysia, Kenya, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq. They were all marked by industrialized brutality, widespread torture, reprisals against civilians, masked informers, secret executions, use of mercenaries.  

As the war dragged on, French became increasingly dismayed by the crimes committed by its military and police.   The use of torture spread back to the mainland, where there was a large North African population.   In short, France, the cradle of liberty, human rights and reason was befouled by repression and torture.  The French Foreign Legion that did a lot of the fighting in Algeria was filled with officers and men of the former Nazi SS.  

French troops and their native allies, known as “harkis,” committed countless massacres of villages.  The FLN was equally brutal in executing “collaborators” and settlers. Bombs, throat slashing, and electric tortures became the hallmark of the war for Algeria.  Not long after France’s military  had been defeated in the bloody, ugly colonial war in Indochina, it became deeply corrupted by the Algerian conflict.

America is reliving this dark period today in Afghanistan as torture and killing civilians becomes the norm.

After President Charles de Gaulle called for an end to the war and freedom for Algeria, parts of the French armed forces and Legion, led by neo-fascist officers, mutinied.    I vividly recall standing at Place de la Concorde and feeling the sizzling tension as loyal army and police units prepared to fight off an airborne invasion from France’s revolting army in Algeria.  

The original version of the marvelous film, “Day of the Jackel,” depicts the plots by extremist officers to assassinate de Gaulle during this time.

In 1962, I watched horrified as a demonstration by Algerians was crushed mercilessly by French CRS riot police: 200 or more Algerians were beaten to death in the street and thrown into the Seine River.

That same year, the wise De Gaulle finally made France renounce its colonial pretensions and grant freedom to Algeria.  

We who supported the freedom struggle were elated. But true to the old adage, “the revolution devours its own young,”  the leaders of Algeria’s once noble cause were almost all consumed by poisonous rivalries, murdered, jailed or exiled. 

Algeria’s victorious revolutionaries became even more brutal and rapacious than their former French rulers.  Today, military-ruled Algeria has one of the world’s worst human rights records.  Its income from oil and gas is secreted abroad, leaving little for its surging population.

France’s colonial legacy haunts it: 5-6 million impoverished, neglected North Africans living marginal existences.



copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012








This post is in: Africa, Algeria, History


  1. solum temptare possumus says:

    Mike, Thanks
    Once again you reveal pertinent corroborating information from your news gathering of “other” news sites.
    What better source than an ex State Department bureaucrat; who fought against termination (firing) procedures, with the help of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU. He retired, with a pension no doubt, in September 2012.
    I linked to his blog and was impressed by his writing; so much so that I put it on my desktop. With his connections and Mr. Margolis’, I cannot help but be better informed.
    I believe he is correct in that these tortures are not about pain, but humiliation and psychological damage to limit or stop future anti-???? against a government and its policies, that these two torture examples saw as wrong.
    When the fiscal cliff brings down the USA a notch or two, perhaps more of its citizens will question the hidden spending of these War on Terror “torture renditions”, on the say so of some informer, with no vetting of the information and making sure there is no mistaken identity. A sanitized war of foreign tortures and drone attacks limits US military deaths; both politically expedient.
    A Black Eye that the US of A finds exceedingly difficult to cover up with “Pablum for the Masses”. The Makeup appears to be getting old.
    ad iudicium

  2. My unconditional gratitude to Eric`s mother for having the wisdom to interfere with that youthful zeal of her young son, because we would now very likely be deprived of his columns and insights into the affairs of international politics.
    Merry Christmas to all and let`s hope, that some semblance of sanity may come to this messed up planet of ours and have a peaceful year ahead.

  3. Merry Christmas to everyone.
    Peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind.

  4. A interesting article,
    the only part I would debate is ” America is reliving this dark period today in Afghanistan as torture and killing civilians becomes the norm. ”
    I would argue that post WW2, perhaps even earlier, America has been involved in the torture and killing of whoever it considers its enemies.
    Training, Organizing, and Financing the Torturers does not leave clean hands.
    This piece, written by a former US state department officer gives two such examples telling the story of the torture of a South Korean poet who spoke out against some of his governments abuses, as well as the story of a Sunni Iraqi, and a former supporter of the US invasion,
    Other examples can be found by researching Operation Condor, which overseen and financed the torture of thousands over decades across South and Central America to either fight communism, or guarantee the position of US business interests… depending on who you ask.
    Another example who be the Phoenix Programs during the Vietnam war, where US / South Viet / Australian personnel are reportedly responsible for the torture of over 100,000 and the deaths of at least 25,000. The 1971 Congressional hearings heard evidence that all the victims were described as ” VC ” as a justification rather familiar today as those called ” insurgent ” or ” Al-Quada ”
    As with todays torture, nobody in the decision end of the command structure was ever held accountable.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.