The Homing Pigeons of Algiers

The Homing Pigeons of Algiers

When the cease-fire after eight years of war in Algeria was at last announced on March 17th, no sirens screamed in Paris, no anxious mothers fell down on their knees to pray in the streets, no crowds foregathered to burst into Te Deums. In fact, all through March 18th too, business went on more or less as usual, the announcement of Grace Kelly’s return to the screen made the headlines too, and only in the courtyard of the Sorbonne did a relatively small and very orderly crowd of students meet briefly to hoist side by side the flags of the Fifth Republic and of the FLN. On the Boulevards and elsewhere, the mood of the public was about as indifferent as it had been some years ago when Mendes-France had announced the end of the equally disastrous war in Indochina.

The fact is that the Fourth and Fifth Republic’s more or less “phoney” wars of colonial, “disengagement,” whether in Indochina, Madagascar, Algeria or elsewhere, have never been backed by the population of metropolitan France and have concerned mainly a peculiar elite of professional soldiers, colonialists, or rightist agitators. The average Frenchman had learned his bitter lesson of liberal anti-colonialism under the German occupation of his own country: if the Algerian Moslems or any other colonial people now wants its freedom under a government of its own, let them have it. But it also happens that this elite in the Army, the police, and the administration draws reserves from a fairly large class of supporters.

It would therefore be wrong to state sweepingly that there had never been in France any enthusiasm at all for the Algerian War. In every nation, there exists at all times a fringe of “Texans” ready to fight any war, no matter how difficult it may be to justify it to the world-at-large. In France a curious mystique of the Army, inherited from every conceivable military adventure since those of Louis XIV or Napoleon, and responsible, among other absurdities of French history, for the affaire Dreyfus, has long kept this lunatic fringe more numerous or virulent than in most other European nations.

The French Army’s professional status-seekers had thus found, ever since the Algerian rebels first went into action in November 1954, considerable support in this margin of jingoists and other enemies of all democratic regimes which somehow seem to lack the dash and swagger that once characterized Empire-building. These enemies had indeed been active in every crisis of the Republic since France’s defeat in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War, but paradoxically responsible for France’s defeat in 1940 too. For a while, the Third Republic had managed to keep them busy with colonial conquests in Indochina and Morocco, after 1918 in Syria and Lebanon too. But we now seem to lack vast expanses of tropical forest or desert in which to expend a nation’s surplus energies, and conspiring against the Republi...