Not many people outside of France and Algeria know of French General Marcel Bigeard (1916-2010); but last week the French government announced that his ashes will be moved to the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, the final resting place for military heroes such as Napoleon, Lyautey and Foch. Yet, Bigeard was the villain of the Algerian War of Independence, sanctioning the use of torture. When questioned as to whether torture was endemic in Algeria under his leadership Bigeard simply replied: “Of course.”
A controversial figure even in his heyday, Bigeard was the one of those who condoned the endemic culture of torture in the French army. Reflecting this, a recent editorial in Le Monde argued against transferring his ashes to the Invalides because the symbolism risks legitimising his unacceptable actions in Algeria. The case also highlights the failure of the French ruling establishment to come to terms with the legacy of the Algerian War and its inability to admit unpalatable war crimes. Now, the French establishment must take steps to fully acknowledge and atone for the war in Algeria, a nation whose bloody post-independence history can be directly linked to a French Colonial past.
The Algerian War, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was one of the most divisive and bloody conflicts of the 20th century, pitting a brutal French military against an equally savage FLN guerrilla army. But for many decades after the cessation of hostilities, the war was not even officially called a "war" in France but an “Operation de Maintien de l'Ordre” (Operation to maintain Law and Order). Thus, ignored by government and mainstream society, the Algerian War slipped into history. But today it is re-emerging as a narrative beloved of the french extreme right, who yearn for the era of colonial empire.
Le Monde states that honouring Bigeard is unacceptable because: “This manoeuvre is dangerous, it manipulates history, but it also allows a considerable space for sickening ideas and ideologies.” Not only are Bigeard's past actions uncondonable, but the connotations of his honouring will be profound, showing the ruling party to be cynically using Bigeard as a means of gaining votes from the Front National. It also indicates an attempt to sanitize France’s colonial past and to subvert the subtext of torture during the Algerian War. Bigeard once said that: “Torture is a necessary evil.” But the use of it was out of control, meaning that such a statement can only further tarnish his reputation. The move by the government of Nicholas Sarkozy to honour Bigeard is nothing short of a rewriting of history to score political points, one which frees the darkest period of postwar France from the judgment of history.
Rewriting or ignoring history is nothing new, witness Turkey and the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, Israel and the events of 1948 or, more contemporarily, Russia and the revival of Stalin. But this is emphatically wrong. Denial and rewriting start with honouring a man like Bigeard and end with whole-scale denial of crimes that were committed during his time, a pattern familiar to many countries.
The French establishment, in particular, have a habit of seeking to set aside and forget the Algerian War, especially the torture element. Former French Brigadier General Paul Aussaresses, during an interview in 2000, detailed and defended the extent of the torture he personally witnessed and sanctioned. Although subsequently disgraced, he was never put on trial despite at one stage admitting complicity in the murder of civilians and the creation of death squads. Also, whilst inaugurating a monument to the War dead of Algeria in 2005, President Jacques Chirac only spoke only of: “Stigmatas in our national memory” when referring, indirectly, to torture.
Today, it is both bewildering and worrisome that the past should be so forgotten, that claims of torture are ignored and all this at a time when relations between the French state and its Muslim population are at a record low. France needs to fully atone for the past and immediately stop the unnecessary glorification of a man whose actions contributed to making the conflict in Algeria one of the most divisive and destructive of the twentieth Century. More importantly, the ruling party must stop immorally revising history for the benefit of gaining a few more votes from the extreme right.
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