Algeria was submitted to French authority in 1830 and governed as a part of France from 1848, with over a million Europeans, of French citizenship, settling permanently in the territory. Writing recently in the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz reflects on the legacy of the 1.5 million conscripts, or appelés, who were sent to Algeria to quell the movement for national liberation between 1954 and Algeria’s eventual independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians and approximately 24,000 French soldiers died in the interregnum. Shatz’s pivot is historian Raphaëlle Branche’s recent book, Papa, qu’as-tu fait en Algérie? Enquête sur un silence familial, one of a series of revisionist historical works since the late 1990s that have helped to undermine the official and unofficial silences of the French state and dominant society vis-à-vis the Algerian War. It was only in 1999 that the French state acknowledged it had fought a war in Algeria, Shatz points out, and “another two decades before it admitted to the systematic use of torture.”
Some appelés had left-wing backgrounds. To its lasting shame, the French Communist Party, Shatz notes, “condemned those who refused to go to Algeria: in 1956 it voted in favour of giving the government ‘special powers’ to crush the insurrection, and it instructed conscripted party members to promote communist ideas within the army, and to convert other soldiers to the cause of peace.” Their journals are replete with the shame of having participated in systematic murder, torture, rape, and humiliation. One such conscript, Paul de Bessounet, “who grew up in a part of the Haute-Loire where the Resistance had suffered heavy losses, told Branche that he felt as if ‘we were the invaders like the German army in France in 1940, the SS. So the rebels, the fells, were the maquisards’.”
Much of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a meditation on colonial relations. Fernand grew up in an Arab Muslim neighbourhood, with few Europeans. “Everyone lived together,” he explains at one point, “the Arab market, the Moorish bath, Europeans and Jews, doors open during the night, women in white veils, you’ve probably seen them on postcards, I guess, marriages and circumcisions where the whole neighbourhood was invited, yes, it was all pretty good, and it still is, by the way.” Fernand repeatedly insists that he is Algerian, not French. A soldier standing next to him at trial agrees, telling Fernand that, “out there, every European in Algeria wants him skinned alive. There are pictures of your mug all over Algiers. A traitor, a felon, a white man sold to the fucking Arabs.”
Shortly after they meet, Hélène takes Fernand to Paris where he requires further medical follow up for his recovery from tuberculosis. They stay at Fernand’s grandfather’s apartment, in the seventeenth arrondissement. His grandfather works as a hotel concierge during the day and in the evening hawks the newspaper France-Soir to passersby in the street. Over a mustard pork roast, Fernand engages in the lengthiest excursus on the Algerian colonial reality anywhere in the novel. He describes how the French authorities in Algeria are ignoring basic Muslim demands for equality: “Going to drive us straight into a wall, believe me, without any turn or anything, nose against brick… what is certain is that the Arabs have been organizing for years to be heard, to win equality for all, between every community at home, in Algeria. But it’s like shouting in the desert. Nothing. Zero.”
Colonialism rests both on hypocrisy and wilful cultivation of delusion. Fernand recites the abolishment of Arab political parties and the silencing of opposition, while “we stand oh so tall, with Culture, Liberty, Civilization, those capital letters, paraded up and down, scrubbed and polished in front of the mirror, the shinier the better.” While France was celebrating its victory over the Germans, Fernand explains, “I don’t know how many Muslims, thousands, more, were being massacred in the country, at Sétif, at Guelma. Those names probably don’t mean a thing to you, they’re about 300 and 500 kilometers from Algiers. Anyway, the stories I’ve been told, I wouldn’t dare repeat them to you, I promise.”
Fernand describes a trinity of French soldiers, settlers, and militia men working “hand in glove, all dancing the same damn jig.” It is not just death they mete out, but humiliation, which “goes deeper, gets under the skin, it plants little seeds of anger and screws up whole generations.” Fernand recounts a story of Arabs being made to kneel before the French flag and proclaim, “We are dogs, Ferhat Abbas is a dog. Abbas is one of their leaders and still, he’s a moderate, wears a tie, doesn’t even demand complete independence, he just wants justice. Even the moderates are met with contempt. A French journalist saw it all, I’m not making it up.”
Shortly after the historical execution of Iveton, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a piece called “Nous sommes tous des assassins,” in Les Temps modernes, commemorating his death. In one of the more lucid passages of his mammoth, corydrane-addled, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre suggests that a central contradiction of “racism, colonialism and all forms of tyranny” is precisely that,
in order to treat a man like a dog, one must first recognise him as a man. The concealed discomfort of the master is that he always has to consider the human reality of his slaves (whether through his reliance on their skill and their synthetic understanding of situations, or through his precautions against the permanent possibility of revolt or escape), while at the same time refusing them economic and political status which, in this period, defines human beings.
Oppression, for Sartre, consists in reducing the Other to animality, but that animality is itself acquired, “only after his humanity has been recognised.” The French made the Algerians proclaim themselves dogs because they first understood their fully human capacity for self-rule. Care had to be taken, therefore, if the Algerians were not to recognize that capacity in themselves. “In fact,” Sartre writes, “the most insulting command must be addressed by one man to another; the master must have faith in man in the person of his slaves.”
Law is another stripped façade in Andras’s novel. Every determination of the legal process is a reflection of the wider balance of social forces, of public opinion in France, and among European settlers in Algeria. That opinion forms, meanwhile, against the dialectic of resistance from the FLN and counter-insurgent terror in the Algerian backcountry. Law’s purpose, in the last instance, is here the practical maintenance, as well as the enduring ideological credibility, of colonial order. There is a blood lust for Fernand’s head, and the law will satiate that appetite. Communists in France are divided among themselves on the Algerian War generally, and Fernand’s actions in particular, circumventing, from the outset, any counter-campaign they might have mounted in his defense. His lawyers occasionally bring him the French communist daily L’Humanité in his cell. The party’s muted solidarity expresses itself nowhere more clearly than the buried coverage of his case in the back pages of the newspaper.