A Battle of Algiers

In this piece in New English Review, which we are scandalously late in posting, Dalrymple considers the ironies, outrages, paradoxes and moral compromises of the Algerian War for independence from France: that “the French won militarily but lost politically (happily for them)”, that the future French president Francois Mitterand oversaw the executions of hundreds of Algerians but would later abolish the death penalty in France, and that the war’s ultimate outcomes were so much the opposite of its progenitors’ stated aims:

Nowhere has the whirligig of time brought in its revenges with a more acute sense of irony than in this case. The first fruit of a war fought in the name of a struggle against racial injustice and discrimination was de facto ethnic cleansing, that is to say of the million French residents of Algeria, 11 per cent of the population, including Jews, practically all of whom left Algeria in the few months after the signing of the Evian Accords in 1962. And, as the subsequent history of the country has proved, the so-called freedom fighters turned out to have been fighting not so much for freedom as for power. They were power-fighters rather than freedom-fighters, for once they were installed in power they instituted nothing that any political philosopher would recognise as a regime of freedom. The only sense in which the new regime was freer than the old had been was freedom from the old oppressor. The new oppressor (who immediately killed 15-30 thousand of his fellow countrymen who had fought on the old oppressor’s side) was, however, of the same ethnic, cultural and religious origin as the population it oppressed. How much of an advance was this, and was it worth the lives of half a million people to make it?

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