by Lisa Lieberman
I used to teach a course on French colonialism, from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century through the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). On the first day of class, we read Jean de Brunhoff's classic children's book, The Story of Babar. De Brunhoff's story can be viewed as “an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers,” to quote New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik:
the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule.
Gopnik, I should add, distances himself from such political readings of the book. He sees Babar as both a manifestation of the French national character, circa 1930 (when de Brunhoff's wife first came up with the tale, which she told to the couple's young sons as a bedtime story) and a gentle parody of it, “an affectionate, closeup caricature of an idealized French society.”
I remember enjoying the book as a child, and I've read it to my own children, but for all its charm, I'm not willing to let Babar off the hook quite so easily. The business of the civilizing mission—the “native” elephants adopting the values and behavior of the humans who inhabit the city—is cringe-inducing enough, but what really troubles me is de Brunhoff's ending. Here the fantasies of French nativists come true. The elephants come and immediately assimilate, recognizing the superiority of the mother country, hang around long enough to entertain their hosts with anecdotes about their exotic origins, and then they go home.
Guests in their own Country
France is home today to millions of citizens of Algerian descent, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of impoverished North Africans who migrated to the mother country in the twentieth century in search of work. Filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb's parents arrived after World War II and he was born in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris that already had a large enough Muslim community in 1935 to warrant the founding of a Muslim-only hospital. Bouchareb grew up with an awareness that many of those buried in the Muslim cemetery attached to the hospital had been veterans of World Wars I and II, colonial soldiers recruited to fight for France. “I almost felt as if I had a mission to accomplish,” he said, “to bring these events to light.” In Days of Glory (2006), he tells the story of four North African infantrymen—representatives of some 130,000 colonial troops who helped to liberate France from the Nazis in 1944, a forgotten episode in French history.
The original French title of Bouchareb's film, Indigènes (natives), conveys the wall that these soldiers were up against: their otherness in the eyes of the French officers under whom they served and, ultimately, the nation that so many of them would die defending. “We must wash the French flag with our blood,” the recruiting sergeant tells the men he's rounding up in an Algerian village. “No raids in France, hands off the women. It's our home, the mother country,” Moroccan mercenaries are warned in another scene. It's all “we” and “us” at the outset; France is our home. Marching into battle under the Tricolore, the soldiers believe they're upholding the republican values of the French Revolution. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. “Where are you from, Saïd?” the most thoughtful of the four, Abdelkader, asks his fellow recruit, a shepherd. “From absolute poverty,” Saïd replies. Abdelkader is better educated than the others. He has taken to heart the promise of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. “Listen to me,” he says. “In that uniform you're like me. We're all equal.”
Well, not really. Their unit of the Seventh Algerian Infantry Regiment is sent into Italy, used as cannon fodder to flush out the German artillery battalions from their entrenched positions. Martinez, the platoon's commander, a pied noir (the term for European settlers in Algeria), is well aware that he is leading his men into a bloodbath, but he understands the importance of the campaign, militarily and symbolically, to restore French honor. He carries out his orders, and develops a respect for the men, standing up for them when they are denied fresh tomatoes on the troop carrier taking them to France. Arabs were not issued the same rations as French soldiers, but when Abdelkader stomps on the “French-only” tomatoes, to underscore his argument that all those prepared to die for France should receive the same food, Martinez takes the matter up with the top brass, who concede the point.
Unfortunately, Martinez's fellow feeling only goes so far. When Saïd sees a photo of Martinez's Arab mother and ventures to suggest that he and the commanding officer might almost be brothers, Martinez turns on him in fury. The status of the pieds noirs was precarious. Many were descended from Italian or Spanish migrants (as Martinez's name implies) lured to the colony by the availability of cheap land—tribal lands confiscated from the Algerians. Few had even been to the mother country. After independence, when the million or so pieds noirs were forced out of Algeria, they would be treated as second-class citizens in France. And yet, even the lowliest pied noir infantryman is addressed formally, using the vous form, while Abdelkader, who has attained the rank of corporal, warrants only the informal tu, patronized as if he were a child.
Sami Bouajila, the actor who played Abdelkader, was overwhelmed by his character's journey over the course of the film. The contradictions between France's much vaunted republican values and the reality of Abdelkader's experiences in the army awakened Bouajila's nationalist consciousness. “This was the only thing worth fighting for,” he said in a documentary about the making of Indigènes, this being dignity, equality, self-respect. In fact, Abdelkader's fictional journey mirrors that of the radical Third World theorist Frantz Fanon. Born into an upper-middle-class black family in Martinique, Fanon attended a private lycée where he came under the influence of left-wing poet Aimé Césaire, an early critic of French colonialism and one of the founders of the Négritude movement. When World War II broke out, Fanon joined the Free French and fought in the European theater, earning the Croix de guerre for his bravery in battle, but came back embittered by the racism he experienced in the army—a feeling that would deepen into rage after he returned to France to study psychiatry and took up a post in Algeria. There he witnessed institutionalized injustice toward the Muslim population and came to preach violence as “a cleansing force,” the sole means through which a colonized people could overcome their inferiority complex, master their fear, set aside their despair, and reclaim their dignity. Jean-Paul Sartre heartily endorsed Fanon's manifesto,The Wretched of the Earth (1961). France needed the colonized people's rebellion to purge itself of the illness that is colonialism, he argued in his Preface to the work. “Will we recover? Yes. For violence, like Achilles' lance, can heal the wounds that it has inflicted.”
Abdelkader's encounters with racism in the army prompt acts of insubordination, one of them resulting in his arrest, but never boil over into the murderous violence that Fanon advocated. He cannot bring himself to abandon his hopes in the liberal republic that promised so much to oppressed peoples, no matter how many times those hopes are betrayed. The beauty of Indigènes is that the director, Bouchareb, brings us inside his characters' point of view. I wanted to cry at several points in the film: when the surviving soldiers in the Italian campaign raise the French flag over the carnage-strewn hillside. When they cheer at the news that they will soon be in France, chez-nous. When Abdelkader and the others are welcomed as liberators by the inhabitants of Marseille. “I free a country and it's my country. Even if I've never seen it before. It's my country,” Saïd says with awe, as if trying to convince himself that it's true. More than half a century later, Bouchareb found that same mixture of gratitude, pride, and disbelief among the North African veterans he interviewed while researching Indigènes:
They were heroes who were loved and welcomed with open arms! It often remains the best moment of their lives . . . Liberating a country that is theirs, the Fatherland, being welcomed the way they were by French villages, being applauded along the road . . . It has left its mark on their memories, their history, and all the injustice they've experienced since then has not erased that.
A third of the French forces that fought in World War II were from the overseas colonies. With independence, the pensions of the soldiers from France's former possessions were frozen; in 2006, French veterans received ten times more in compensation than North African veterans (€690 versus €61 per month, according to an article in The Independent). Indigènes changed that. Then-President Jacques Chirac was apparently so moved by the film that he pledged to unfreeze the pensions, although he was not moved enough to restore the colonial soldiers' back pay. But Bouchareb had a more far-reaching objective. In the wake of the October and November 2005 riots by disaffected youth, the descendants of immigrants, he sought to instill pride for the sacrifice made by their parents and grandparents. “They can now feel dignity and society must show them some respect,” he said at the film's release.
Lisa Lieberman is the author of Dirty War: Terror and Torture in French Algeria.