A film about north Africans fighting the Nazis in the second world war has reopened old wounds about France’s attitude to its former colony, Algeria. By Stuart Jeffries
This passage came to mind as I was watching the opening scene of Days of Glory, a new film tracing the drama of four north African men who fight to free France from German occupation during the second world war. A tribal chieftain walks through his village, rousting young men from their homes and urging them to take up arms for France. It is 1943, and De Gaulle’s Free French are attempting raise an army of young men from its colonial subjects to fight for la mère patrie – a “homeland” few have ever seen. The recruiter shouts that his villagers must help throw the Nazis out of France: “We must wash the French flag in our blood.”
What’s so strange now is that such an invitation to sacrifice can have been at all seductive. Fight for France? Shed blood for the grisly colonial power that occupied Algeria in 1830 and plundered it mercilessly? That Algerians should be so in thrall to the French who, shortly after the 1848 revolution, made their country an integral part of France (consisting of three départements), says a great deal about the number that the colonisers did on the minds of the colonised.
With the benefit of 64 years of hindsight, the tribal leader’s call to arms sounds even more ludicrous. Fight for a France that would, during Algeria’s war of independence from 1954 to 1962, torture Arabs? Fight for a France that would shabbily abandon those Algerians who sided with the colonial power in that war of independence – leaving them open to murderous reprisals or shadowy lives of appalling penury?
I put my misgivings to Days of Glory’s director Rachid Bouchareb. “I can quite understand that you might think this is strange,” says Bouchareb, who was born in France to Algerian parents. “But what perhaps you don’t know is that many Maghrebins [people from the former French colonies of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria] had fought for France before and felt an ancestral commitment to France – their fathers and grandfathers had already fallen for France in the Franco-Prussian war and the first world war.”
Bouchareb follows the story of these men, from their recruitment in the Maghreb sun to their last stand in snowy Alsace against a German battalion. “These were heroes that history has forgotten,” he says. “My purpose was to make them live again in the memories of those who have forgotten and make those who never knew learn something of their heritage.”
Hundreds of thousands of men from the French colonies fought to free France from Nazism. Among them was Fanon, who was wounded in 1944 at Colmar and received the Croix de Guerre. When the Nazis were defeated and Allied forces crossed the Rhine into Germany, all non-white soldiers from Fanon’s regiment were sent to Toulon instead. Such was the fate of the colonial subjects who fought for imperial France – to be airbrushed out of the myth that it was the sons of France who finally rose up against the Nazis. Days of Glory reminds us that it wasn’t like that.
The film has been a revelation in France. It trounced the Hollywood blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada at the box office in its opening last September. More importantly, it added to the already vexed debate on what it is to be French.”Arabs come up to me in the street and say thank you,” says Bernard Blancan, who plays Sergeant Martinez, the ostensibly white leader of the battalion of Maghrebins. “So do the bobos [fashionable urban bohemians] – they always come up and say, ‘Bravo.’ It’s become kind of politically correct to do so. Even trendy. I’m not sure how deep their sentiments go.”
Days of Glory even catalysed President Jacques Chirac to attend the Paris premiere. Before doing so, he changed the law to bring foreign combatant pensions into line with what French veterans are paid. That addressed an injustice Bouchareb exposed in the epilogue to his film: at the start of the 1960s, the French government decided to freeze, at their 1959 levels, the pensions given to foreign fighters.
Days of Glory is one of a wave of films dealing with France’s rule of Algeria. It is about time. French cinema has had too little to say about Algeria’s relationship with France, even though other parts of Gallic culture – from Camus to Zizou – have been suffused with it for decades. “French cinema is often accused, and not without reason, for ignoring recent French history, particularly its more problematic aspects,” says Jean-Michel Frodon of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.
One reason for that, no doubt, is what Fanon called the narcissism of the west: it was always more interested in its self-image rather than taking an interest in the rest of the world. Even Camus’ L’Etranger is part of this narcissism: ultimately, the novel isn’t about Algeria, but about a Frenchman who fails to cry at his mother’s funeral and must be punished for that crime. The fact that he stabbed an Arab to death is more or less incidental.
Indeed, such was French narcissism that, in 2005, an ill-advised law was passed demanding that lycée teachers instruct students in the “benefits of colonialisation”. Teachers were to “acknowledge and recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in north Africa”. To their credit, many French people saw this as a denial of their country’s racist crimes. And the president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said the law “approached mental blindness, negationism and revisionism”. The following year Chirac faced down members of his own UMP party and a growing pro-colonial lobby to ensure that the law was repealed.
It is in this context that the wave of films about Algeria has hit France. Another of them, Mon Colonel, deals with the torture by French soldiers of presumed supporters of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Its makers suggest the law on the benefits of colonialisation, as well as a statue recently erected to the OAS (the Secret Army Organisation), are evidence “that our country continues to be tainted, haunted and maimed by that era”.
“There has been an almost total absence in our cinemas of films about the Algerian war of independence seen as personal tragedies,” says Costa-Gavras, writer of Mon Colonel. But his film does just that, dramatising how a young lieutenant becomes a torturer and how his colonel, a former resistance fighter, justifies what he and his men do to Algerians.
This has been a political hot potato in France and Algeria for decades, and it has long been known that torture was practised on both sides of the conflict. In the 1960s, all French soldiers who served in Algeria were amnestied – which meant that they could not be tried for war crimes.
In 2001, a French general, Paul Aussaresses, wrote a book exposing the extent to which the French army used such tactics. The following year, he was fined in a French court: not for admitting what he did, but for expressing insufficient remorse for his actions. The prosecutor argued that the general’s writing style reflected a “cold tone, lacking any hindsight and any humanity”. Aussaresses said during the trial that he would “do it all again if necessary”, but the acts gave him “no pleasure”. Torture is also dealt with in the third of the films about Algeria, La Trahison (The Betrayal), about the tensions in a mixed unit of Algerian Arab and French soldiers in 1960.
These films are welcome since, until now, the only significant film about the Franco-Algerian conflict was made by an Italian. The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, dramatised the FLN’s terror tactics against colonial rule, and how the French government used equally atrocious means in response. In 2003, the New York Times reported that The Battle of Algiers was being studied at the Pentagon, where audiences were “urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film – the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq”.
Sartre wrote of the military aspect of colonialism: “We must face this spectacle, which is the striptease of our humanity. Here everything is naked, and hardly beautiful: nothing but a lying ideology that is supposed to give exquisite justification for pillage.” That striptease is set to continue. Bouchareb’s next film is about the Sétif massacre in Algeria in 1945. This was another shameful moment for the French. Initially sparked by a clash between anti-colonial Algerian protesters and French soldiers on May 8, 1945 (the same day Germany surrendered in the second world war), it ended with between 20,000 and 45,000 people dying at the hands of the French military.
Why, I ask Bouchareb, is he raking over the past? He says there is a continuity between how France has failed to address the wrongs of its colonial past and the alienation of many children of immigrants from former colonies. “Because the film is pertinent to the question of what kind of France we imagine we’re living in. Is it one that is sensitive to the wrongs visited on the ancestors of its immigrants, one that is prepared to admit the mistakes of the past and make the sons and daughters of those immigrants feel at home?”
· La Trahison is at the Institut Français, London SW1, on March 13. Mon Colonel plays in the Human Rights Watch film festival on March 21 (hrw.org/iff/2007/london). Days of Glory is released on March 30. A special edition of Battle of Algiers is released on DVD in May