Algerian Revolution Echoes in French Violence

Correction Dec. 14, 2005

The audio of this story gave the wrong years for the Algerian revolution. It lasted from 1954 to 1962.

The recent violence in France has been blamed by some on the legacy of hatred, guilt and denial left by the Algerian revolution.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In France, three weeks of riots in November by minority youth revealed a divided society torn by discrimination and exclusion. Many analysts believe the conflict between white French society and the country's minorities has roots in the bitter legacy of the Algerian war of independence from French rule more than four decades ago. The riots have so stirred emotions that a planned historic Franco-Algerian reconciliation has been put on hold. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Paris.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The St. Michel Bridge crosses the River Seine in the heart of Paris. None of the passersby seem to notice a small plaque tucked unobtrusively on the side of the bridge. It reads, `To the memory of the numerous Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of October 17th, 1961.' That day about 25,000 Algerians staged a rally demanding independence. Haled Beniesa(ph) was a teen-ager then and remembers what happened.

Mr. HALED BENIESA: (Through Translator) I heard shots, and everyone panicked and began running everywhere. I ran and tripped over fallen bodies. Then bodies started falling on top of me. Suddenly someone was pulling me by my feet; it was my uncle who had found me.

POGGIOLI: A few days later bloated bodies were seen floating in the Seine. It took decades before the truth was revealed. Police had dumped the bodies of some 300 Algerian demonstrators into the river. For more than four decades Haled kept silent. He only told his kids about that day a couple of years ago. The Paris massacre of 1961 has long been a taboo subject, as is almost all mention of the Algerian revolution that lasted from 1952 to 1964. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Algerian revolution lasted from 1954 to 1962.]

(Soundbite from "The Battle of Algiers")

Crowd: Get out! Get out! Get out!

POGGIOLI: The epic film "The Battle of Algiers," directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, was banned here for years, and even now it circulates only rarely in small art houses. The film re-creates what some have described as one of the bloodiest revolutions of the 20th century. France never considered Algeria a colony. It was directly annexed to French territory, and white settlers were encouraged to move there. Algerians were granted only second-class status. To gain full citizenship, Muslim Algerians were required to give up their religion.

(Soundbite from "The Battle of Algiers"; gunfire; screams)

POGGIOLI: The film also depicts the French policies of torture, intimidation and murder used to combat the FLN, the Algerian National Liberation Front.

Florence Beauge, a journalist at Le Monde, says the veil of silence over the ruthless Algerian war is still very thick. She was one of the first French journalists who a few years ago revealed that in the 1950s there was a policy of systematic torture, rape and deportation in Paris by the French army and police. After her articles appeared, she received many death threats and insults.

Ms. FLORENCE BEAUGE (Journalist, Le Monde): (Through Translator) Still today the majority of French people are unaware that torture was being inflicted here in Paris inside the Ministry of Interior, just a few steps away from the presidential palace.

POGGIOLI: The Algerian revolution is barely mentioned in French high school textbooks. It's still such an emotional issue that a few months ago a group of right-wing deputies took advantage of a nighttime session of parliament and pushed through a law requiring schools to focus on the positive aspects of colonialism. Beauge sees a direct link between French bitterness over the loss of Algeria and the reluctance of French society to embrace as its own the children and grandchildren of its former subjects. She says France does not even acknowledge that tens of thousands of Algerians fought and died on the side of the French in the First and Second World Wars.

Ms. BEAUGE: (Through Translator) French citizens of Algerian origin are deprived of their history. They're deprived of their past, the past of their parents and grandparents. There's no acknowledgement that they were subjected to torture, summary executions, deportations, rape, none of that. They are deprived of a sense of dignity.

POGGIOLI: Yalitza Bag(ph) is one of the very few successful, Algerian-born businessmen in France. He's a CEO married to a Frenchwoman. He says what he calls France's historical amnesia about the Algerian war nourishes deep-seeded prejudices.

Mr. YALITZA BAG: My son is going to a very good school in Paris. His friends know he's 50 percent Algerian and told him to, `Return to your country. Return to your country. It's not your country here.'

POGGIOLI: Yalitza Bag lives well in a nice bourgeois Paris neighborhood. He's a respected member of the establishment.

Mr. BAG: I love my country, but I will be fully assimilated when my children will be proud because they will--recognizing the French culture, French civilization. That there's the French--I'm also very proud what my parents have brought to this country.

POGGIOLI: Just a few months ago there were high expectations for a long-awaited reconciliation. After months of negotiations, France and Algeria were expected to sign a major friendship treaty that would include a French apology for the sufferings of the Algerian people. But the November riots in the poor suburbs have reopened old, festering wounds. A large portion of French public opinion is outraged, seeing the riots as a rejection of French values. French officials say privately that the treaty signing has been delayed until passions have cooled down. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Paris.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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