[CW – descriptions of torture, references to trauma and alcohol]
Let me tell you the story of a man.
That man was born in 1926, in the North of France. Saw the war pass, and, no doubt, inspired by the tales of heroism that he heard during it, decided to try his luck in the army. And he had a decent career, as he entered the 1950s, met a lovely wife, and had a lovely little baby boy.
And then, things started to happen in Algeria. Bad things. It was not “a war”, that, everyone was very clear about. Even in the history books, it wouldn’t be described as such for decades – these were the “Events” of Algeria. What that man knew was that the nationalists there, after losing the latest round of elections, had decided to try their luck at armed struggled. Throughout 1955, grim tales were heard – dozens of European settlers and those who took their side being slaughtered with axes, machetes and pickaxes, in the little villages. Fair and proportionate retribution of course follows, with little planes dropping little bombs over the hamlets deemed guilty, those in which bad apples might be hiding. 5000, 7000 killed, about? A strong signal. Also, the start of a cry for vengeance.
Then, just as he was headed there as a soldier, leaving his newborn son and wife behind, things got really nasty. Fighting broke in the streets of Algiers. François Mitterrand, future President of France, then Minister of Justice, merged the police forces of the colonies and of the metropole, essentially allowing for a complete takeover of the colonial justice system. Which then, obviously, as the city was falling into chaos, descended into systematic brutalisation. A bunch of people, maybe 4000 – “General Bigeard’s shrimps”, as they were called – were thrown off helicopters and into the Mediterranean, their feet having been encased in concrete beforehand. To hide the torture, you understand – can’t have brutalised bodies just be found by the media, that would look bad. Loads of people were just arrested and carried to very cozy little villas to be “interrogated”: not just locals or revolutionaries; if you were a white intellectual with communist sympathies, leaning a bit too far to the left, or a bit too pacifist, chances are you’d be questioned as well, by both soldiers and General De Gaulle’s informal, secret police services. One of the people working there was called Jean-Marie Le Pen; he later became the leader of France’s mainstream far-right party, which is still headed by his daughter Marine today.
In Paris, demonstrations were organised in support of Algeria’s independence. In 1961, the most important of those was repressed by chief of police and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon – his men and a number of far-right militias killing possibly up to 300 people, shot, beaten to death, or thrown in the waters of the Seine.
Of course, I don’t know what the man saw of all these things. I just know what he did when he returned home. Continue reading