Thursday, July 08, 2004


Algerian Analogy

"Georges Bidault was president of the Council of National Resistance during the German occupation of France and a minister in de Gaulle’s first government. ‘A choice has to be made: either we believe in the inequality of the races, we consider that democracy, the Rights of Man and parliamentary government are acceptable on one side of the Mediterranean but not on the other — and I would understand if we abandoned the Algerians,’ he said. Bidault’s meaning is so forced that it is not at first clear. He means that a respect for equality, democracy and rights demands that France maintain its occupation of Algeria. Only if one had no respect for such things would it be right to ‘abandon [i.e. liberate] the Algerians’. On the other hand, he says, if ‘we are humanists, universalists to the end, and we consider that parliamentary democracy, the generalised right of habeas corpus, and the rule of law are preferable for Algerians as well’, then we will prefer the assimilation of Algeria into France, as Brittany was assimilated. Another French resistance fighter Jacques Roustelle said, ‘we would be arrant swine to abandon to their own destiny people who count on us to liberate us from their own ancestral and religious dependency.’ In these justifications of the continued occupation, the meanings of humanism, universalism and liberation are twisted to mean their opposite. People are to be liberated from themselves. The defence of universalism is perverse when substantially Algerians have been denied the rights enjoyed by settlers and by French citizens. But no such contradiction existed in the minds of the supporters of French colonialism. On the contrary, Algeria was occupied in the name of humanism and universalism."

(from "Algeria and the defeat of French Humanism", Chapter six of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, by James Heartfield)

Vietnam seems to be the analogy of choice for opponents of the Iraq war. War supporters, as ever, favour good old reliable World War Two, since it is the great pacifism-buster, the one war generally acknowledged to have been just (even if the Allies might be considered to have gotten a bit carried away with Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki etc.) and also tends to make people think twice about giving dictators the benefit of the doubt. (The more brave/foolish elements of the anti-war camp, including, reliably, Pilger, have also reached for the Nazi analogy, directing it at Bush et al).

The above passage (from a piece definitely worth reading for anyone interested) would seem as ripe as any other for analogies with Iraq - for those with the appropriate agenda of course. Hitchens already had a go at debunking the comparison - the obvious points are that noone is suggesting Iraq become literally the 51st state (Algeria was technichally part of France itself); the Iraqi resistance (or, if you prefer, "resistance") is of doubtful popularity, and certainly can't be equated with the FLN, which was fighting for indpendence after 120-odd years of colonial rule; there are no pieds-noir in Iraq; the US has just toppled a quasi-fascist regime which had ruled for 35 years.

Nonetheless there are certain parallels between the rhetoric of Bidault, as to how anyone who really held to humanist-universalist values had to support them in Algeria by supporting French rule there, and that of President Bush when he seems to imply that opponents of the war believe democracy is only for white people, or for Western cultures. I'm reminded also of this statement a while back from Harry:

"My solidarity is not with ‘the Iraqis’ and it never has been. My solidarity is with Iraqi and Kurdish democrats..."

and these related questions posed by Marc Mulholland:

"...can democrats ever sacrifice immediate democracy in a locality for the health of the system generally?.... would immediate Iraqi self-determination result in Iraqi democracy, or a victory for authoritarian forces and ideology?"

As I've pointed out Algeria 1954-62 and Iraq today are fundamentally different, and I don't intend to compare Harry to the apologists of Algerie Francaise . But two observations are worth making: 1) it appears either that most Iraqis want the US-led coalition to withdraw now, or that this will very soon be the case; 2) one trait Algeria shared with Vietnam, India and other colonial withdrawals was considerable violence after the pullout.

So is the continued presence of coalition troops justified, in the name of Iraqi democracy etc., or not?

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