Wednesday, November 25, 2015

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Sometimes I am pedantic for the sake of being pedantic, but I don't think this is one of those times. Probably. 

I have seen in the newspapers in the past little while more than once that the recent attacks in Paris were the ‘worst attacks on French soil since World War II’, ‘the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II’, etc

Unless these statements are very narrowly and pedantically qualified, they are not true.

On August 20th, 1955, the non-Saharan bits of Algeria were départements of France. This means they were not colonies or protectorates, like Vietnam or Djibouti, but were formally just as much ‘French soil’ or ‘France’ as Martinique, La Réunion, or Corsica are today. On that day occurred a number of separate murderous attacks on civilians for political reasons - that is, terrorist attacks - in the neighbourhood of the city of Constantine. If you have a mind to, go and google ‘Philippeville Massacre’.  I won’t blame you if you don’t; what you will find will be really ghastly and make you turn to the modern news with a sigh of relief. English Wikipedia only has the death toll in Philippeville itself, where 123 Europeans and loyalist Arabs were killed, but states that 37 Europeans were killed in the nearby town of El-Halla. French Wikipedia suggests a total death toll of about 170. Thus in aggregate these attacks caused more deaths than the aggregate death toll of the recent co-ordinated attacks in Paris.

But those attacks aren’t what I’m talking about. The worst acts of terrorism since World War II on French soil were not those massacres, but the reprisals afterwards, extra-judicial executions carried out over the next few days of August 1955 by French military, paramilitary, and civilian vigilantes, in which something between 1200 and 20,000 Arabs were killed. Feel free to google them as well if you aren’t sickened enough. The tiresome warnings about an ‘islamophobic backlash’ are a bit less tiresome in the context of these things that happened within living memory on French soil.

As for political violence in mainland France, it is true that there are no single incidents as bad since World War II. But the ‘cafe wars’ – the struggle between rival Algerian rebel groups among Algerian expatriates in France – killed at least 3975 people during the years of Algerian War. That might not sound so bad to readers from Juarez or Baghdad, but that is a pretty serious level of violence for Western Europe. But it was beur on beur, so who remembers?

I remember being struck, back when I was an undergraduate, on how the modern history section of my university had shelves and shelves about the Vietnam War, but only one book on the Algerian War. ‘What anglocentrism!’ I thought. ‘What a parochial country we are! I bet it would be very different in France.’ A few years ago I brought this up with a French colleague – how nobody in the English-speaking world seemed to remember or care about the Algerian War – and he said it was actually much the same in France. De Gaulle wanted to forget about it; the establishment wanted to forget about it; and for many years afterward journalists were actively discouraged from mentioning it.

So we forget. Not that long ago Algiers, Oran, and Constantine were cities with Arab minorities. A million people fled in 1962, to France and Spain and Israel. The vibrant cosmopolitan cultural mix of Marseilles, say, has been tried before, on the other side of the Mediterranean.

So maybe this isn’t one of those times I am being pedantic for the sake of being pedantic. I dunno.

From the 1911 Encylopaedia Brittanica, BTW:

CONSTANTINE, a city of Algeria, capital of the department of the same name, 54 m. by railway S. by W. of the port of Philippeville, in 36°22′ N., 6° 36′ E. Constantine is the residence of a general commanding a division, of a prefect and other high officials, is the seat of a bishop, and had a population in 1906 of 46,806, of whom 25,312 were Europeans.

...In 1906 the population of the commune of Algiers was 154,049; the population municipale, which excludes the garrison, prisoners, &c., was 145,280. Of this total 138,240 were living in the city proper or in Mustapha. Of the inhabitants 105,908 were Europeans. French residents numbered 50,996, naturalized Frenchmen 23,305, Spaniards 12,354, Italians 7368, Maltese 865, and other Europeans (chiefly British and Germans) 1652, besides 12,490 Jews. The remainder of the population—all Mahommedans—are Moors, Arabs, Berbers, Negroes, with a few Turks.

...In 1832 a census of the town showed that it had but 3800 inhabitants, of whom more than two-thirds were Jews. Under French rule Oran has regained its ancient commercial activity and has become the second city in Algeria. The population of the city in 1906 was 100,499, of whom 21,906 were French, and 23,071 Spanish. There were also 27,570 naturalized Frenchmen, mostly of Spanish origin. There is a negro colony in the city, numbering about 3000, included in the census in the native population of 16,296. Including the garrison and naval forces the total population of the commune was 106,517.

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