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Neither Regret Nor Remorse: Colonial Nostalgia Among French Far Right

by : Thomas Serres

[On 17 October 1961, tens of thousands of Algerian protesters peacefully demonstrated against violations against their civil liberties in Paris. In the midst of the war of Independence (1954 – 1962), the FLN (Front de libération nationale) was engaged in a violent struggle against France that relied on the mobilization within the Metropole as well as combat in Algeria. As a result of FLN activities, the prefecture of police French state imposed a curfew on all of the approximately 150,000 Algerians living in Paris at the time (many of whom were officially considered French). The details of what transpired that night remain controversial, but what is clear is that tens, if not hundreds, of unarmed Algerians were killed, and many of their bodies thrown into the River Seine. Historian Jim House, who co-authored the definitive work on this massacre, has written that it was “the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in Western Europe in modern history.”[1]

For most than fifty years, the French government refused to recognize this act of state violence, even as its main architect (and head of the Parisian police), Maurice Papon, was convicted in 1998 for crimes against humanity due to the deportation of 1,560 Jews during World War II. Then, on October 17 of this year, the 51st anniversary of the massacre, French President Françoise Hollande went on the record recognizing the “bloody repression” that occurred and paying “homage to the memory of the victims.”

What follows is the first of a two-part series of articles dedicated to the 17 October 1961 massacre. This article analyzes the reactions to Hollande’s statement among the French far right. Next week we will be publishing an interview with Jim House in which he discusses his analysis of recent developments and offers broader thoughts on colonial violence and Franco-Algerian politics.]

A few weeks ago, President François Hollande finally decided to recognize the infamous episode of 17 October 1961, when the French police brutally repressed peaceful and unarmed Algerian protesters, resulting in nearly two hundred deaths. In a short and abrupt press release, Hollande paid homage to the victims of one of the most violent manifestations of colonialism in France's metropolitan territory. This recognition was a symbolic one; the crimes and cultural abuses that occurred during the 132 years of French occupation in Algeria remain unaddressed. The current political leadership is too timid to admit to the brutality and racism that fuels colonial rule. Nevertheless, this timorous sign of repentance (i.e. apologizing for colonial crimes) inspired a remarkable reaction from the French far right.

This reaction is born of an insecurity rooted in a peculiar vision of history. For the far right, France has to defend its pride to remain relevant in a globalized world. In this vision, any recognition of colonial violence is a weakness, a renunciation of power, and a harbinger of a decline that they refuse to accept. This persistent non-repentance is also squarely located in a gender-normative vision of power relations. For them, a “real” (read white) man does not apologize, for an apology implies submission and a loss of virility. This masculinity informs the ways in which French commentators on the far right view repentance, homosexuality, and radical Islam as three inherently related phenomena. Each threatens the dominance of these aging men, who seek to protect their whiteness and virility.

Neither Regrets Nor Remorse

For many reasons, the "loss" of Algeria is still a sensitive subject in France. There is no denying that many pied-noirs born in Algeria experienced their repatriation after independence as a painful exile. But, politically speaking, these experiences should not impact the question of repentance, which is at the center of a recurrent polemic between the two countries. The Algerian government, after all, is asking for the French state to recognize the racist and violent policies that were inflicted on it as an occupied country. This is a diplomatic issue between two sovereign states and a matter of international justice. It is in this context that the former Minister of Defense Gérard Longuet’s elegant “up yours” to the current Algerian Minister of War Veterans,Cherrif Abbas was an astounding gesture.

Many in France condemned Longuet's insulting behavior, while the far right enthusiastically expressed their support. Some even imitated the gesture in an apparent show of solidarity. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the nationalist and xenophobic Front National (FN) said that the act was a pleasure to witness. Longuet himself claimed that he made this gesture cheerfully (“de bon coeur"). How should we understand these statements?

Le Pen's reaction illustrates the resilient feeling of a stolen victory among old colonial circles in the Army and supporters of French Algeria. For them, the loss of Algeria – at the time, an integral part of France – was the consequence of De Gaulle’s political treason. Marine Le Pen's father and former President of the FN, Jean-Marie, was, after all, a parachutist under General Massu during the Battle of Algiers. He personally participated in torture sessions, as revealed by the newspaper Le Monde. The far right refuses to admit the possibility of a defeat in Algeria and insists that the army won the war. As Hannah Arendt has shown, the "bourgeois" mind believes that failure must necessarily involve a sense of shame, as success logically generates pride.[1] Thus the Le Pen family, which embodies the combination of bourgeoisie narrow-mindedness with French imperial nostalgia, exhibits this rejection of French defeat in Algeria.

During one of his many media appearances, Eric Zemmour, a far right polemicist of pied-noir origins, expressed this nostalgic and vindictive view of the Evian Accords, the agreements which began formal preparations for Algerian independence. He claimed that the accords were: "A peace that was only a ceasefire. A political defeat for France that was, yet, a military victory. A craven relief which will be followed by murders, the kidnap of hundreds of pieds-noirs and the slaughter of thousands of harkis."

Zemmour's statement expresses both the feeling of a stolen victory and an indignation at this perceived insult to France’s national strength. This notion that the war was never lost (i.e. it "was only a ceasefire") is why Marine Le Pen was pleased by Longuet's "up yours” gesture. Inversely, an apology would amount to recognition of defeat, and therefore offer a proof of weakness in the face of an “inferior” Algerian population. From the perspective of the far right the only way to deal with the history of colonization and to maintain France’s honor is to show neither regret nor remorse ("ni regrets ni remords").

The Resistance of an Endangered Species

The question of French repentance for the crimes committed in Algeria also reveals a deeper fear that transcends the question of colonialism. Indeed, these historical claims are often linked to anxieties around sex, gender, and race. For these individuals, defending France's strength and honor by insulting an Algerian minister is part of a broader struggle to save a normative racial and heterosexual political order.[2] For example, a media figure like Eric Zemmour, whose racist statements have provoked many a debate, has been particularly worried about the extinction of manhood. For him, French society is facing a dangerous process of feminization.[3] This intersection between gender anxiety and racism is present not only in the writings of Zemmour, but also in the non-repentance for the aforementioned French crimes committed in Algeria.

Central to the anxieties around gender normativity and colonial repentance is the claim that it is necessary to defend the country against decadence. Recently, influential members of the UMP have presented the legalization of same-sex marriage (mariage pour tous) as an imminent threat to France's demography. Even though the measure is expected to be announced within the next six months, the far right has gone so far as to claim that it would potentially signify the end of the nation. In short, the right reject both the expression of regret for the slaughter of Algerians and the legalization of same-sex marriage because they challenge historical forms of domination based on a widely shared conception of a white and patriarchal political order. Therefore, one should not be surprised that Gérard Longuet was expressing his fierce opposition to same-sex marriage a few moments before his controversial gesture against colonial repentance. Except for Marine Le Pen, all these commentators belong to an endangered species of men who are over fifty and white. For them, changes in the structure of national and global power amount to a direct threat of castration.

Another example of this dynamic is the self-proclaimed "neo-reactionary" thinker (and longstanding defender of non-repentance), Ivan Rioufol, who writes in Le Figaro - the newspaper of reference for French conservatives. In his "praise to the up yours" (éloge au bras d'honneur), he congratulated Longuet for expressing the growing feeling of discontent among a large part of the population. For Rioufol, this dissatisfaction is reflected in the allegedly “popular” opposition to gay marriage; it is also demonstrated in the struggle against radical Islam, which for him is not based in Islamophobia, but rather stems from a drive to protect Republican values[4]. He calls for an uprising against what he views as a discourse that is merely cloned and repeated (“discours cloné"), in order to defeat homosexual communitarianism and radical Islam. In fact, Rioufol, like many French reactionary thinkers, dreams of a grassroots mobilization similar to that of the Tea Party in the United States - the people rising up in order to restore a golden age of national conservatism.

A Complex Nexus of Fears and Fantasies

Far right commentators often link colonial repentance, homosexual marriage, and “radical Islam” due to a complex nexus of fear and fantasies. These older white men feel “surrounded” and outnumbered by a new demographic reality composed of women, homosexuals, youth, foreigners, liberals etc., all of whom are believed to undermine moral and societal cohesion. The right understands the changing political landscape as a sign of the collapse of traditional structures and evidence that the old order has been corrupted. For example, same-sex marriage is linked to terrorism while repentance is supposed to turn children of immigrants against France.

Clearly, I do not mean to imply that all of these individuals are paranoid lunatics, which would be an outrageous (but nevertheless satisfying) attack. Some of them, like Zemmour or Le Pen, also have family backgrounds that explain their position toward non-repentance. Instead, my goal here is to show that we cannot understand the behaviors of individuals like Longuet as mere expressions of longstanding racism or the trauma of repatriation. The imbrication of gender and race, past and present, guilt and pride, leads them to fight against what they perceive as a distortion of a pure and untarnished political order, i.e. white men's rule. When a reactionary singer like Michel Sardou expresses this nostalgia by glorifying the “blessed time of colonies,” it is tempting to dismiss what could pass for a grotesque farce with little political consequence. However, when a former Minister of Defense, known to have established fascist youth militias during the 1960s, is showered with praise for insulting another country, it is time for some serious national reckoning.

It is especially telling that these figures on the far right often insult those who threaten their conception of French national identity. Lionnel Luca, a member of the former presidential party, is well known for his racist provocations. In 2009, he defended the expulsion of three Afghan immigrants, arguing that, "If they were men, they would fight for their freedom in their own territory." According to him, it does not suffice to assert that French soldiers are manly because they “save” (i.e. occupy) a foreign country. It is also important to question the virility of others (namely, “brown” people), in order to ensure France’s strength and pride.

Fantasies of an imperial golden age also encourage a delusional militarism that is inspired by the heroic figures of colonial wars (for example the General Bigeard, also known as the "last french hero"). The French state itself actively participates in the maintenance of an anachronistic global military power, even while teetering dangerously close to bankruptcy. From this perspective, apologizing to Algeria would be an insult to French soldiers, "who are brave enough to defend our country's pride." As a result, Longuet's gesture is not merely an illogical provocation. It is, rather, a childish but nonetheless aggressive way of asserting power. Thus, Le Pen is gleeful about Longuet's provocation not only because of the insult itself, but because this gesture shows that, unlike President Hollande, there are still some politicians who are not "crawling" in submission to the demands of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

In 2012, France is no longer an empire, and its position as a global power is also seriously under question. Given the fact that France is a geographically small country with a population of sixty million people, it should renounce its aspirations to be a global power; this era is over. Yet, the reactions generated by the question of colonial repentance express a rejection of any change to the old social and political order. The insistence on non-repentance also demonstrates the resilience of certain anachronistic imperial behaviors, which should be understood as a form of colonial nostalgia. Undoubtedly, it is time to work though this nexus of fears and fantasies. Fifty years after Algerian independence, it is high time to accept the passing of empire and accept the inevitable changes in the social and political fabric of France.

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Jadaliyya is an independent ezine produced by ASI (Arab Studies Institute), the umbrella organization that produces Arab Studies Journal (www.ArabStudiesJournal.org) and runs the Documentary Film Collective, Quilting Point.

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Comment by Neal on February 14, 2013 at 8:39am

Yes, a good article, and a horrible portrayal of what humans do to their own kind, even if neighbors.

Comment by Ali on February 6, 2013 at 6:30pm

you're welcome, I thought it was a good article, so I decided to share it with you guys.

Comment by Adriana on February 4, 2013 at 10:20am

Colonialism has always been bloody, violent, and leaves sequelae that last a long, long time after the colonial rulers retreat. The French are no exception. 

This is a very good article, thanks for posting, Ali. 

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