Imperial Violence and the Trauma of France’s Mission civilisatrice

Re-Constructing the Murder of Ali Boumendjel in French Historiography

On 2 March 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron officially confessed that Algerian nationalist, lawyer and freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel was ‘tortured and murdered’ on 23 March 1957 by French colonial forces. This revelation from the Élysée Palace put to rest decades of contentious imperial historiography which alleged Ali that Boumendjel had committed suicide while he was detained by French troops during the 1956 – 1957 Battle of Algiers. But ‘Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,’ Macron told Boumendjel’s four grandchildren who were invited to the Élysée Palace, according to the statement. The French President sought to emphasise that the new generation must ‘be able to build its own destiny, far from the two ruts that are amnesia and resentment.’ He went on to state that ‘[it] is for them, French and Algerian youth, that we must advance down the path of truth, the only one that can lead to the reconciliation of memories.’ 

Macron’s address engendered a polarising response within Algeria itself. While Algerian state media quoted a government statement that ‘Algeria notes with satisfaction the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron of his decision to honour the fighter and martyr Ali Boumendjel,’ Macron has come under criticism for refusing to issue an apology for the regime of torture and scale of atrocities committed during the Battle of Algiers, in addition to the wider French colonial rule over Algeria from 1830 until 1962. In order to discern why discussions concerning France’s colonial history remain trivialised in the French Fifth Republic, tracing the systematic regime of torture, sanctioned violence and exclusion  which lay at the cornerstone of France’s mission civilisatrice may offer a means to understand this dilemma. 

By characterising France’s colonial past in Algeria as a trauma that continues to impact modern France, Constant Méheut posits that this historical period elicits nostalgia for the ‘empire’ among France’s far-right, while the Fifth Republic’s Muslim population views French colonial history with bitter resentment. In former French colonies, the French imperial doctrine of mission civilisatrice represented France’s claims that its government had a ‘special mission to civilise the indigenous peoples’ which came under French control, namely Africa, Indo-China and the Arab Levant. This state sanctioned policy, romanticised by Enlightenment oriented, Republican ideals, was underpinned by a set of essentialising assumptions regarding the cultural sophistication and moral superiority of France while constructing France’s colonial subjects as ‘too primitive to rule themselves… but capable of being uplifted.’

According to Alice Conklin, in the Third Republic ‘no one questioned the premise of French superiority upon which the empire rested… Such convictions were part of what it meant to be French and Republican in this period.’ Turning to Algeria, the discourse concerning the occupation of Algiers was enveloped in romantic and self-civilising metaphors. The Paris daily Le Constitutionnel (11 July 1830) remarked that ‘[t]he seizure of Algiers begins a new era for world civilisation. If we are able to exploit it, part of Africa in a few years will be blessed with a hard-working population, like America, and the Mediterranean will no longer be a mere lake.’ Moreover, it is pertinent to note that in addition to politicians and lobbyists aligned to the ‘Right,’ Lahouari Addi delineates that it was also ‘Left’ leaning Democratic Socialists who were taken by the Republican ideals of the mission civilisatrice. Addi quotes Victor Considerant, a Democratic Socialist politician who proclaimed that ‘[as] for ourselves, we have long urged France to take up again, with grandeur, its civilizing mission, and we call upon Europe to organize in a fraternal way its work of expansion and civilization in the unlettered and barbarian countries.’

As prospects for assimilating the ‘noble savage’ to the morally superior ‘Western culture’ occupied a salient position in French colonial discourse, it is also worth mentioning the economic and political considerations which also undergirded French colonialism. Addi notes that it was in the context of competing quests for hegemony with Britain that the decision was reached to ‘seize Algiers, not as a promising commercial venture but as part of a strategy of rebuilding the political power of France against European adversaries.’ Thus, Algeria was to be constructed as a recipient of France’s civilisational cultural etiquette while its occupation also represented a means to reaffirm France’s position as a key power in Europe. 

With the myth of liberation – another core Enlightenment and Kantian inspired ideal – also at the forefront of the French colonial enterprise, the objective of ‘civilising’ the ‘barbarian’ was employed as the rationale for justifying colonial violence. The establishment and authorisation of the Bureaux arabes (Arab Offices) in 1844 marked the institutional genesis of French Algeria as a police state, whereby the organisation served as medium for intelligence collection for the French military. James McDougall describes the Bureaux as an institution which subjected Algerians to ‘a constant regime of both euphemised and overt violence…which endured for a century thereafter.’ Moreover, the organisation accrued local, revolutionary and nationalist knowledge which was scrutinised to quash potential insurgencies. 

Coming to the turn of the 20th century, a political awakening was looming where prevailing power structures and imperial orders were being re-assessed. In addition to the Leninist October Revolution in 1917, the United States’ President Woodrow Wilson was outlining his ‘Fourteen Points,’ with the fifth point championing ‘[a] free, open-minded and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.’ Algerian nationalism thus emerged out of the French colonial dichotomisation of ‘othering’ the natives, giving rise to an amalgamation of nationalisms which employed Islamic, socialist, communist and revolutionary calls for independence. With anti-colonial sentiment coupled with nationalist inclinations on the rise, French repression was amplified with the Islamic-oriented Jam’iyat al-‘Ulama (Association of Algerian Muslim Ulema) suppressed along with the Algerian Communist Party and prominent Algerian nationalist Messali Hadj’s Algerian People’s Party banned. 

Following the rise of the Vichy government in France and the legacy of humiliation which emerged following the French surrender to Nazi forces in World War II, prospects for French colonialism faced increasing difficulties as a string of uprisings ensued in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It was the 1945 Sétif and Guelma massacre where 6,000 to 30,000 Algerian Muslims were killed by French forces and the pied-noir (people of French and other European origin who were born in Algeria during the period of French rule) which emboldened Algerian nationalist quests for independence. Haley Brown delineates how French soldiers set out to make examples of those instigating ‘rebellion’ against French Colonial rule by burning homes, bombing villages, and carrying out summary executions. Furthermore, Brown states that ‘entire villages were forced to humiliate themselves by prostrating in front of the French flag, while some soldiers even made trophies from the men they killed.’

The prolific anti-colonial political theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon illustrates how this repression and the embedded violence of imperial domination only galvanised Algerian nationalism as he writes in Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), ‘All these repressive measures, all those actions which are a result of fear are not within the leader’ intentions: they are overtaken by events. At this moment, then, colonialism may decide to arrest the nationalist leaders. But today the governments of colonised countries know very well that it is extremely dangerous to deprive the masses of their leaders; for then the people, unbridled, fling themselves into jacqueries, mutinies, and “brutish murders.” The masses give free rein to their ‘bloodthirsty instincts’ and force colonialism to free their leaders, to whom falls the difficult task of bringing them back to order. The colonised people, who have spontaneously brought their violence to the colossal task of destroying the colonial system, will very soon find themselves with the barren, inert slogan “Release X or Y.” Then colonialism will release these men, and hold discussions with them. The time for dancing in the streets has come.”

In line with Fanon’s assessment, the rise of the Front de libération nationale/Jabhatu l-Taḥrīri l-Waṭanī (National Liberation Front or FLN) in 1954 as the FLN launched a number of attacks against pied-noir civilian and military targets in Algeria. The guerrilla warfare tactics employed by the FLN coupled with the difficulty in separating civilians from FLN nationalists resulted in French forces conducting murders of civilians to avoid the risk of allowing potential FLN nationalists to flee. By 1956 and 1957 during the Battle of Algiers, violence peaked on both sides with the FLN resorting to increased violence against the pied-noirs and the French forces having political prisoners and Algerian nationalists publically guillotined. In 1957, General Jacques Massu was sent to quell the Algerian uprisings and his notoriously brutal tactics were accompanied by the imposition of martial law and curfews. 

It was during the 1956 Battle of Algiers that the story of Ali Boumendjel is situated. According to a BBC report, the 37-year old Algerian lawyer and freedom fighter was active in the struggle to end French colonial rule but was recognised for being an intermediary between the moderates and the more radical sections of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle. The official statement from the Elysée released on 2 March 2021 affirms that ‘[at] the heart of the Battle of Algiers, he [Boumendjel] was arrested by the French army, hidden, tortured then assassinated on 23 March 1957.’ What is particularly eerie about the murder of Boumendjel was how it was depicted as being a case of suicide rather than a product of the imperial doctrine’s institutionalisation of violence. In 2000, Paul Aussaresses, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers, confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s murder, contending that all orders were ratified by General Jacques Massu. To legitimise the narrative of his death as a suicide, Boumendjel was thrown from the sixth floor of a building after which he was subsequently killed. For decades in spite of political pressure from the lawyer’s late widow, Malika Boumendjel, who refused to accept the narrative that her husband’s death was a result of suicide, France persisted with the story that Boumendjel had committed suicide. This was despite Aussaresses admission in his book that he had killed Boumendjel by defenestration through a sixth-floor window. 

Boumendjel’s story is one of many which remain shadowed by French colonial historiography. Despite France’s decision to establish a ‘memories and truth’ commission to review the country’s colonial history in Algeria, it ruled out issuing an official apology for the past crimes, and the proposalsconcerning this commission sidestepped the question regarding the regime of torture utilised by the French forces. This measure in itself has attracted scores of criticism, including from Macron’s own prime minister, Jean Castex, who has admonished those who ‘regret colonisation.’ Castex has contended that such a measure of ‘self-flagellation’ may be used as a ‘justification for radical Islamism.’

Meanwhile, Algerian Information Minister Ammar Belhimer said in a statement released by state-run daily El-Massa that ‘France’s escape from recognizing its colonial crimes in Algeria cannot last long. A criminal usually does everything possible to avoid admitting his crimes.’ In addition, the French government-commissioned report has been dismissed by the Algerian government as ‘not objective’ and ‘not up to expectations.’ Another reason why there remains tangible scepticism over the commission is because of Macron’s controversial comments during a visit to Algeria in 2017 where he remarked that ‘I’ve already said we need to recognize what we did, but Algeria’s youth can’t just look to its past. It needs to look forward and see how it will create jobs.’ He went on to say ‘I’m not here to judge those in the past. There have been crimes and there were people that also did good things. Your generation must not allow this. It’s not an excuse (to blame the past) for what is happening today.’ 

As Algeria marks 60 years since independence from France next year, questions concerning prospects of reconciliation remain subject to polarising responses over how to approach this period in French history. With sections of French society still determined to cling to the remnants of French ‘grandeur’ and ‘imperial heritage,’ France’s Muslim population demand reparations and answers for the trauma of imperial violence which wrecked former colonies. Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour lambasted the ‘devastating lie’ that the French state concocted regarding her uncle, which had never been officially corrected until today. As the government-sponsored commission proceeds with the re-evaluation of imperial historiography, it remains to be seen what other hidden histories will be unearthed.

Ana Tawfiq Husain is currently pursuing her Masters in International Relations at King’s College London. She completed her BSc. (Honours) in Social Development and Policy with a Minor in History from Habib University in July 2020. With a regional focus on Middle East politics, her research interests in this regard include power politics, energy politics, political Islam, postcolonial theory in addition to South Asian and East Asian security and governance.

Works used:

Humphrey, M., 2000. VIOLENCE, VOICE AND IDENTITY IN ALGERIA. Arab Studies Quarterly, 22(1), pp.1-23.

Brown, H., 2018. “French Colonialism in Algeria: War, Legacy, and Memory” Honors Theses. 456.

Conklin, A., 2015. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Fanon, F., FARRINGTON, C. and Sartre, J., 1967. The Wretched of the earth. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Constance Farrington. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth.

Cole, J., 2010. Massacres and Their Historians: Recent Histories of State Violence in France and Algeria in the Twentieth Century. French Politics, Culture & Society, 28(1).

Lahouari Addi. Colonial Mythologies: Algeria in the French Imagination. Carl Brown. Franco Arabs Encounters: Studies in Memory of David C. Gordon, American University of Beirut, Beyrouth, Liban, pp.93-105, 1996. ffhalshs-00397835f

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