Old wounds were reopened in Paris last weekend with the opening in selected theaters of "Nuit noire," a film about events in Paris on Oct. 17, 1961, when a demonstration of tens of thousands of Algerians in Paris led to a huge repressive police operation in which many were killed or injured without any official acknowledgment. -- Jason Burke writes in the Observer that "For some, 'Nuit Noire' is an overdue attempt to throw light on a shameful episode; for others, it is an unwarranted slur on a glorious imperial history. The bitter division reflects deep fissures in modern France, pitting the young, the left, and millions of immigrants and their children against older, white, conservative nationalists." ...
FILM SPOTLIGHTS PARIS NIGHT OF BLOOD
By Jason Burke
** Jason Burke reports on a nation racked by memories of war in Algeria and the killing of protesters by police **
October 23, 2005
In the film, there are demonstrations on a bridge in Paris. Last week there were protests on the Pont St Michel over the Seine. In the film, there are angry accusations of racism and counter-accusations of betrayal and treason. This weekend the harsh words, insults, and racial slurs were as virulent as ever.
Today 'Nuit Noire' ('Black Night') will be released at a select number of French cinemas. The controversial film, made by one of France's most respected directors, reconstructs the events of the night of 17 October 1961, when a protest against French policy in Algeria, then a colony on the brink of independence, sparked a huge police operation. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed or injured but there was no official acknowledgement at the time -- or for decades afterwards.
For some, 'Nuit Noire' is an overdue attempt to throw light on a shameful episode; for others, it is an unwarranted slur on a glorious imperial history. The bitter division reflects deep fissures in modern France, pitting the young, the left, and millions of immigrants and their children against older, white, conservative nationalists.
'It's a debate important to every part of society,' said one historian this weekend. 'The young generation are pushing hard for a new inclusive history. The old are hanging on to a nostalgic view of empire and country.'
The arguments have involved illustrious names. Two weeks ago, Philippe de Gaulle, the son of President Charles de Gaulle, was cleared of having insulted the memory of Algerians who fought beside the French in the North African state by doubting their genuine loyalty in an interview. The 2005 film 'Cache,' starring Juliette Binoche, about a family whose life is ruined by an incident dating back to the 1961 killings in Paris, has been a box-office hit.
A key battleground has been the schools. In response to a new law ordering teachers to portray France's imperial rule as 'positive' for indigenous populations, the country's best-selling history magazine, used by tens of thousands of teachers, devoted an entire issue to a detailed account of French colonial misdemeanours. A series of conferences are to plan a strategy of resistance.
The debate has been especially bitter because it touches profound issues about the nature of contemporary French identity. Mehdi Lalaoui, who led the demonstrators last week on the Pont St Michel, said the events such as those of 17 October 1961 had been deliberately forgotten and obscured. 'French colonialism was based in violence, contempt for others and massacre. It cannot possibly be described as positive,' Lalaoui, whose father was among the protesters 44 years ago, told the Observer. 'For us to be known as French, not immigrants, the history of France has to be the history of all its citizens.'
One of the demonstrators on the bridge was 33-year-old Djaroudi El-Hadi. 'The story of what happened here makes me feel that I am not French,' El-Hadi, who has lived in France since he was one year old, said. 'But we want to heal these wounds. We are ready to pardon everyone who recognizes that they did wrong, except a few.'
In the southern city of Montpellier, the building of a museum about the 'French presence in Algeria' has become the focus of fierce arguments between academics and representatives of France's North African immigrant communities and the pieds noirs, the million or more former French colonists who had to leave Algeria at the end of French rule.
Among those that El-Hadi said he was unwilling to pardon are those who were involved in the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a group of ultra-hardline French Algerian colonists best known in Britain through Frederick Forsyth's thriller The Day of the Jackal, in the film of which Edward Fox played an assassin hired to kill de Gaulle to prevent him granting Algerian independence. The real OAS was blamed for bomb attacks on troops, arson and sabotage and the killing of large numbers of Muslim civilians.
At a meeting in Montpellier last week, Jean-Claude Perez, who spent several years in prison for his OAS activities, told hundreds of former colonists that he was proud of what he had done. He regretted that generals had lacked 'the balls' to kill de Gaulle. At a dinner later, former pieds noirs showed off membership cards for the ultra-right National Front.
The meeting's organizer, Maurice Villard, described 'Nuit Noire' as 'an insult.' 'Even if it was true that some people were killed in Paris in 1961, such measures were justified,' he said. 'We were in a state of war.'
Villard, a former colonist himself, backs the idea of a museum to French Algeria, but was concerned that the 'people in charge are all leftists'. He said: 'The truth is that before the French arrived in Algeria it was nothing but forests, marshes, tribes, and feudalism.'
Catherine Parpoil, the Montpellier official in charge of the project, said the museum would open in 2007 and study the French presence in Algeria objectively: 'There were good things and terrible things. But it is a very complicated issue.'