Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Algerian Veterans Rewarded?

by Kathryn Hadley

On May 13th and 14th, last week, the French Secretary of State for Defence and Veterans, Jean-Marie Bockel, visited Algiers, to discuss the pensions of the Algerian veterans who fought for France during the Second World War. On Thursday, he awarded seven Algerian veterans a military medal in recognition of their contribution to the war effort and inaugurated a ‘Maison des Combattants’ (the French equivalent of a Royal British Legion Club) at the French embassy in Algiers. The centre is designed to provide medical and administrative assistance to almost 40,000 surviving Algerian veterans, who fought on the French side and participated in the Italian campaign from 1943 onwards, and the invasion of Provence, in August 1944.

The youngest veteran to be awarded a medal is 87 years old; the eldest is 93. One of the veterans, Tighzirt Mohand, allegedly speaks perfect French and was quoted in an article on the website of Le Monde:

‘J'ai combattu quatre ans dans l'armée française. Je ne regrette rien. J'ai
appris ce qu'étaient la peur et le courage. Et j'ai voyagé !’ (I fought for four
years in the French army. I have no regrets. I learnt the meaning of fear and
courage. I also travelled!)

The other six veterans did not all share Mohand’s enthusiasm and gratitude, however. Another 89 year-old veteran, Belkacem, argued that the medal was useless and explained that what he wanted, above all, was to be granted a visa in order to return to France. The ceremony was criticised for coming far too late, over 65 years after the events. It was also tainted by the painful memory of the Sétif massacre on May 8th, 1945, almost exactly 64 years before, which was a catalyst for the Algerian War.

Moreover, Bockel’s visit took place amidst current relatively tense diplomatic relations between France and Algeria. In the days leading up to the visit, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was re-elected on April 9th for a third term, had reiterated his demand for an official French apology for the detrimental effects and crimes of French colonialism in Algeria. Following his re-election, Bouteflika was invited on an official visit to France due in June. It remains uncertain, however, as to whether or not he will accept the invitation.

The ceremony brought lingering issues surrounding France’s colonial history and its official memory to the surface, once again. Over the course of the past year, steps have been taken towards granting increased recognition to the ‘victims’ of French colonialism and to the North Africans who supported France during the colonial era. In two interviews for Algerian newspapers published on the website of the French embassy in Algiers, Bockel addressed some of these issues. In 2007, moves began to increase the pensions of Algerian veterans to the same level as those of French war veterans. 47,000 war pensions are currently paid to Algerian veterans of the French army and to their families in Algeria. During the Second World War, 150,000 Algerian soldiers fought alongside French troops; 200,000 Algerians fought on the French side during the First World War.

As well as the veterans of both World Wars, the harkis fought alongside French troops during the Algerian War of Independence. By 1962, almost 200,000 Muslim auxiliaries were incorporated into the French army. The memory of the harkis is particularly difficult for various reasons. France and the French army were ashamed of their defeat and of their loss of a territory that had been a French departement for 132 years. Acknowledging the harkis, Algerians who had fought to maintain French rule, only exacerbated the shameful French defeat. After the ceasefire in March 1962, the French government forbade the repatriation of harkis and their families to France. It is estimated that approximately 150,000 harkis were murdered by the FLN, the Algerian independence forces. Those who were able to escape to France were placed in camps.

The Algerian War was only recognized as a war, as opposed to mere ‘operations de maintien de l’ordre’, in 1999. Ten years ago, France did not recognise that a war had been fought, let alone officially recognise the harkis. The recognition that the battles fought in Algeria between 1954 and 1962 constituted a war immediately raised questions and financial issues about compensation, pensions and rights for war veterans, both in France and Algeria.

In 2003, a decree was passed instituting a national day of remembrance for the harki soldiers. The government has also introduced measures to aid the integration in France of those harki veterans, their families and descendants who fled to France after the ceasefire. The majority of the archives relating to the Algerian War are now open and available to French and Algerian historians. France has also recently signed an agreement with the national Algerian archives to increase cooperation and facilitate the access to archives in both countries.

Many still follow Bouteflika's line, however, and demand an official apology for the crimes committed by the French authorities during the colonial era and the Algerian War. The war of memory, indeed of different and conflicting memories, is still being fought. The debate continues.

For further information on the difficult memory of the harkis, read Orphans of History
Numerous articles on the Algerian War from our archives are also listed on our History of France focus page.

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