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Franco-Algerian Notes on an Exhibition – Featuring Jacques Ferrandez – and a Forgotten Diplomatic Incident

September 19, 2012 12:04 pm 0 comments

The Great Synagogue of Oran, was confiscated and turned into a mosque.

Fifty years after Algeria became a completely independent state –  and after the start of the massive exodus which led to the departure of almost all its non-Moslem inhabitants – there have been and continue to be numerous commemorative events and programmes organised in the media and by all kinds of official and unofficial cultural institutions.  The highly impressive and indeed unmissable exhibition “Algérie 1830-1962″ (Musée de l’Armée) was one of these (it ended on the 29th July 2012).

Many of the articles reviewing the exhibition drew attention to the frankness with which some of the exhibits dealt with the shameful actions which took place during France’s control of Algeria, as well as the atrocities committed in the course of what Alistair Horne called “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962″ – some newsreel footage which was shown in a few of the film exhibits being so explicit that it had been censored until relatively recently (including one or two scenes shown at the time).  Not only were the use of torture and atrocities committed by some of the French troops and the representatives of law and order, the internment of thousands of individuals and the forced “transfers” of certain communities deemed to be too “contaminated” by support for the FLN acknowledged, but also the excesses committed in the name of the struggle for Algerian independence in the relevant part of the exhibition (which also displayed some of the manuals, published under the FLN’s auspices, ordering the humane treatment of prisoners).

There were hundreds of exhibits- paintings, including representations of key events in the history of French Algeria (three départements of France from 1848 onwards), uniforms worn and weapons used in the various campaigns fought, historical documents, photos, press cuttings and a feast of audio-visual recordings.  All the different periods of Algeria’s history in the nineteenth century were treated in sufficient detail: the initial phase, when the policy debate about whether or not the policy of “occupation restreinte” (limited occupation) should be changed had not yet been settled; the next phase, when it was decided to go for full annexation, mention being made of the ruthlessness that this decision entailed, including the use of scorched earth strategies and war crimes like the one or two attested cases of “enfumades” (civilians being herded into caves and asphyxiated); the period under Napoleon III when, under the influence of liberal advisers like Ismael Urbain, the indigenous population was treated with a degree of real benevolence (decrees were enacted regarding the protection of the property rights of the native population and liberalising the conditions for those individuals wishing to become naturalised French citizens); and the period of repression following the 1871 Kabyle insurrection, which led to several of the Moslem inhabitants being dispossessed in favour of the European settlers.  There were filmed “mini-lectures”, given by academic specialists, which effectively complemented the written explanatory notes.  The use of selected extracts from the talented Jacques Ferrandez’s comic book history of French Algeria to illustrate certain exhibits was also quite interesting (he was born in Algiers in December 1955).

To enrich his or her understanding of Algeria’s twentieth century history, the visitor could see and hear not only extracts from newsreels of the time and documentaries, but also savour some examples of old tourist films, including one made before the First World War.  There were extracts of footage showing the 1930 Centenary celebrations, of various types of propaganda film – as well as of illuminating interviews with various political and intellectual personalities associated with Algeria.  The exhibition skilfully highlighted how not only soldiers from the French mainland had been used in Indo-China to fight against rebels there, but also troops from France’s Algerian colony (as from other parts of north Africa).

However generous the Musée de l’Armée was in the rooms it made available to the organisers of the exhibition, which comprised items from its own collections as well as from those of other institutions, its space was not unlimited and it was understandable that the exhibition focussed upon the relations between France, the settler communities and the Moslem inhabitants of French Algeria.  There were only a few unexceptionable mentions of the Jewish minority, which, though a small proportion of the total population, had established a lasting presence several centuries before the arrival of the region’s Arab colonisers.

There would be no reason to object to this, were it not for the fact that for roughly fifteen to twenty years from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, the three Algerian départements became increasingly dominated by anti-Jewish agitators during a period called by some specialists the “époque antijuive” (far preferable as a term to the other one used, “crise antijuive”).  When the frequently violent agitation was at its height four out of the six parliamentary representatives in the Chambre des Députés (Assemblée Nationale) had been elected on an openly anti-Jewish platform, producing massive socio-economic disruption in all areas – as reported not only in the French press but also in the foreign press.

The collective naturalisation of the Jewish inhabitants of the three Algerian départements was mentioned (1870: 24 octobre.  Décrets Crémieux qui déclarent citoyens français es (sic) israélites indigènes de l’Algérie), but no real context was given.  This is how William Shaler, the American consul general in Algiers from 1816 to 1828 saw the mostly poverty-stricken and downtrodden Jews of the region, reporting in 1825 (Sketches of Algiers, political, historical, and civil: containing an account of the geography, population, government, revenues, commerce, agriculture, arts, civil institutions, tribes, manners, languages, and recent political history of that country) that the Jews “are in Algiers a most oppressed people; they are not permitted to resist any personal violence of whatever nature, from a Mussulman; they are compelled to wear clothing of a black or dark colour; they cannot ride on horseback, or wear arms of any sort, not even a cane … they are pelted in the streets even by children, and in short, the whole course of their existence here, is a state of the most abject oppression and contumely.”

Official representatives of French Jewry took an interest in the welfare of the latter from very early on – out of a real sense of solidarity, certainly, but also out of concern that the many negative accounts coming out of France’s new colony by various observers might have an impact upon how they were regarded by non-Jews in France (especially acute in the wake of the 1840 Damascus affair, when lies about Syrian Jews and credence was given, implicitly or explicitly in several official circles, to the blood libel – realpolitik oblige, in defence of perceived French national interests and, in particular, of one of France’s official representatives, Ratti-Menton).  Whereas successive French governments and colonial administrations continued to resist taking any risk of provoking unnecessary unrest by introducing any substantial reforms affecting the personal religious status of Algeria’s Moslem inhabitants, they had no hesitation in introducing measures which finally put an end to the considerable communal autonomy Jewish communities had enjoyed in the pre-colonial era, along with all the severe dhimmi restrictions and obligations (as long as only Jews were involved Jewish religious leaders had free rein in dealing with legal disputes and conflicts of all kinds).  It was decided to adopt a system of consistoires modelled on the already existing French Jewish ones, but adapted to Algerian conditions – the Algerian ones were to control the Jewish schools, making sure that charges were educated to be loyal French subjects, and the distribution of charitable contributions, both individual and from communal taxation.

This is how Henri Chemouilli, author of Une Diaspora méconnue, les Juifs d’Algérie (Paris, Imprimerie Moderne de la Presse, 1976, pages 21-22) summarises things :  “We know about the concern of French Jewry: (morally) to regenerate Algerian Jewry.  The word “regenerate” belongs to that time.  It can quite naturally to the lips of French Jews and those of French officials, in all areas.  The regeneration of these poor Arab-Jews, a pious work, in accordance with the principles  of humanism and republicanism – a mission for France, eternal and generous France.  The Algerian Jews themselves used this word and applied it to themselves, not suspecting that, if they had to be regenerated, it was that they had degenerated.  The subtleties of the French language escaped them.  …  As France was colonising Algeria, so French Jewry was colonising Algerian Jewry.  For its own good and with the best of intentions.  Intentions indirectly masterminded by the Ministry of Religion which was anxious to keep an eye on its new parishioners.  But who suspected?”

In the course of the 1860s there developed a consensus among the official representatives of the man Algerian Jewish communities – who thus associated themselves with their French Jewish counterparts – there were now a sufficient number of properly educated and cultured Algerian Jews for it to be legitimate to lobby for collective naturalisation, and not merely liberalised conditions for naturalisation on an individual basis.  During this relatively brief period they found sympathisers and even ardent supporters not only in French political circles, but also in Algeria among officials and local elected representatives.  France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of Napoleon III meant that this collective naturalisation could not be brought about under the latter, but a decree to this effect was enacted,  amongst others meant to reorganise thoroughly Algeria’s political system, by the provisional government of Tours, headed by French Jewish statesman Isaac Adolphe Crémieux.

Crémieux failed in his attempt to get the electoral map modified to avoid an “anomaly” which put the new Jewish electors of certain urban centres in a rather invidious position where, though still a minority, they represented a significant proportion of the eligible voters.  Whenever, from time to time, none of the competing candidates or political parties/factions was in a position to win a comfortable majority, the “Jewish vote” was deemed to be crucial, for not a few believed that they would all vote the same way – in accordance with the instructions of the consistoire.  Whether or not it was mixed with other anti-Jewish prejudices, the widespread belief that Jewish voters, whom many among the settlers had difficulty in accepting as equal French citizens, exerted an excessive influence contributed to the emergence of a new party political antisemitism.

Campaigns involving character assassination and personal vilification were not uncommon in Algerian politics.  There came to be more and more directed against the Jews in general.  Anti-Jewish leagues arose and hate publications – many of which had “antijuif”, “antisémitique” or some variant of this in their title – began making their appearance (according to some specialists there were cases of this in French Algeria before such things started to happen in mainland France).  From the middle of the 1880s cases of anti-Jewish intimidation and violence, in particular at election periods, became more and more frequently and in the course of the 1890s, against a backdrop of increasing economic malaise (credit crises, bankruptcies of small farmers, etc. – not to mention what was going on in mainland France), openly anti-Jewish elected representatives came to power – first at a local level and then nationally.  One of the four out of six deputes at the end of nineteenth century was Édouard Drumont, author of La France juive and founder of the antisemitic newspaper La Libre Parole.  The political domination of individuals promoting anti-Semitic measures in many urban centres led to a situation where Algerian Jews, who still counted amongst them many poor people, had to suffer from systematic discrimination and official harassment, as well as constant appeals for boycotts and public denigration.  Riots of an anti-Jewish nature occurred more and more often (At the height of the “époque antijuive” there were among the anti-Jewish propaganda publications one or two, like La Silhouette,

published in Constantine, which had writers whose extreme accusations and violent language would not have been out of place in “Der Sturmer”)

In the course of a long intervention during the parliamentary session of the 24th May 1899, socialist MP Gustave Rouanet quoted a remark made by the well known member of the Constantine municipal council and local physician, Dr. Morsly:  “I am not talking about the Jews:  this side of the question is completely simplified.  The Jews of Constantine are no longer eligible for free consultations.   …  Jews have only one right recognized; the right to die at home like dogs.  I am a Moslem, that is to say I do not exactly have infinite feelings of affection for them, but I declare that in no Moslem land, whatever it is, would one find such iniquitous treatment comparable to what is being perpetrated in Constantine.”

In the wake of the week long series of mini-pogroms and pillaging which took place in Algiers and surrounding localities from the 20th to the 25th January 1898, inaugurated by a series of “patriotic” marches following the publication on the 13th January of Émile Zola’s “J’accuse”, on the 28th January 1898  Sir Edmund Monson, British ambassador to France from 1896 to 1905, addressed a letter,   “Disturbances at Algiers”, to M. Hanoteaux, French foreign minister: “Your Excellency mentions to me on the 25th inst. that the Governor General of Algeria had telegraphed that H.M. Consul General at Algiers had requested the Admiral in command of H.M. Naval Forces in the Mediterranean to send a ship of war to Algiers on account of the attacks upon the Jewish population of that town.

“I have this day received from the Consul General a despatch addressed to Lord Salisbury, under flying seal to myself, from which I learn that there are at least 60 or 70 Jewish families of British nationality in Algiers, and that a considerable number of them have had their shops pillaged by the rioters.

“Under those circumstances they naturally had recourse to the British Consul General to be their intermediary in obtaining protection from further violence, and Mr Newton at once addressed himself to H. E. M. Lépine on their behalf, thinking it necessary at the same time to inform the British Admiral of the situation.

“The energetic measures taken by the Governor General for the reestablishment of order seem eventually to have been successful, and it is to be hoped that the rioting is at an end.  But, in view of the damage and loss which appear to have been inflicted upon British subjects, I am sure that the Government of the Republic will understand and appreciate the anxiety of H. M. Consul General to secure for his fellow-subjects all the protection possible.” (Public Record Office, FO 27 3393, No 47)

This intervention was not well received.

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