Veterans: The French in Algeria

A look at how bitterness provoked by the Algerian war still fuels resentment between France and its Muslim community.

Algeria, Africa’s second largest country was colonised by the French in the 19th century. But unlike the neighbouring French protectorates of Tunesia or Morocco, Algeria was considered French territory, legally a mere extension of mainland France itself. And by the mid-20th century it was home to over one million European settlers. While they enjoyed the privileges of French citizenship, the overwhelming majority of the population, Arab and Berber Muslims, reaped few benefits from the French presence. 

“The majority of the native population didn’t have the same rights that were held by a French citizen. There was a contradiction between those supposedly egalitarian republican principles that France was supposed to be importing to Algeria as a colony, and the reality,” historian Benjamin Stora says. 

In 1954, a group of Algerians, determined to end France’s colonial rule and achieve independence, turned to violence. On Novermber 1, the recently formed National Liberation Front (FLN) launched attacks across Algeria against French military and civilian targets. 

For the French authorities in Paris the FLN’s aim of independence for Algeria was unthinkable. Troups were sent in to clamp down on what was regarded as mere civil unrest. And even as the violent rebellion escalated in the coming months into an all-out conflict, France refused to admit it was entering into war.

“War can only take place when two clearly distinct national groups are concerned. Calling it a war meant admitting that Algeria wasn’t France,” lawyer Jacques Verges.

Algeria may have been considered part of France, but for those on the mainland the violence engulfing it often seemed distant.

“I wasn’t really interested in what was happening in Algeria. I was mainly bound up with myself, sports, friends, I had a completely ordinary life,” Jean-Pierre Vittori says.

But his life was soon to be touched by events across the Mediterranean Sea.

“Every French man had to carry out military service […] if we didn’t, we were considered traitors, cowards. So one day I received an official letter calling me up, and I went, just like that, without asking myself too many questions,” Vittori says.

But on arriving in Algeria uncomfortable questions about the French mission were difficult to suppress.

“On one side was a few Europeans living in the region that had a lot of money, on the other was the Algerian population which had almost nothing. I started myself asking questions concerning their reasons for rebelling, wondering whether their action was in fact justified,” Vittori remembers.

France’s bloody eight-year war in Algeria left millions of people dead and ultimately ended in failure for the European power when the African nation declared independence in 1962.

The war left deep psychological scars in both countries and has affected relations between the two countries to this day.

For many of the one and half million French veterans the conflict is know known as “la guerre sans nom” (the war without name) and still evokes complex emotions more than 40 years on with some feeling shame and regret, others bitterness and anger.

“I lost a part of my life, I lost my mother, I lost everything, everything. And today I look at the French people and see that they have no answers to those of us who’ve suffered,” Bernhard Salkin, one of the veterans says.

Al Jazeera examines the bitterness still provoked by France’s colonial war in Algeria and how it fuels resentment between France and its Muslim community.