This piece written by journalist and author William T. Dowell was published by The Essential Edge 10 October, 2010.
Hors la loi (Outlaw), the film by French-born director Rachid Bouchareb that created a scandal at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is on for the next few days at the Pathé Cornavin Rialto next to the central train station in Geneva. The Rialto is the only theater in town to show it, and it assigned it to its smallest multiplex screen room with only 50 seats. That is a shame, because this film has a number of important insights that are crucial to understanding the motivations and strategy of today’s extremist movements.
In contrast to the Battle of Algiers, which dealt with the excesses of French paratroopers, attempting to violently eliminate the underground independence movement on the ground in Algeria, Hors la loi deals with the FLN (National Liberation Front) as a terrorist movement operating among Algerian immigrants in metropolitan France. Many of these Algerians had learned modern warfare while fighting with the French army in doomed efforts to defend France during World War II, and later to defend French colonialism in Vietnam. Inevitably, they merged their new found skills with strategic insights from Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, and then applied them to their own fight for independence and a national identity. Their methods were often particularly cruel, bloody and morally reprehensible. They frequently struck at the innocent, but they eventually succeeded in their immediate objective, which was to get the French to leave.
By the time the war was over, the French had committed crimes as heinous as the terrorists they were fighting. These were obscured by a blanket amnesty that the French government awarded itself at the conclusion of the war. The after effects of the war continued to linger, however. I remember walking through the Casbah in Algiers in the early 1990s with a former member of the FLN who pointed out the various street corners where he and his comrades had ambushed French soldiers. “When they caught one of us,” he said. “They would put out his right eye so that he couldn’t aim a rifle with it in the future. ” I had earlier written about a member of DeGaulle’s “parallel police” force, who had been known as “Johnny, the spoon” for just that reason. In Algeria, once it was pointed out to me, I began to notice a significant number of older men in the Casbah who were missing their right eye. It took half a century for Rachid Bouchared to break the silence.
Although part of the financing comes from French companies, Bouchareb has received vocal criticism in France for allegedly failing to show the atrocities committed by the FLN, but most of this has come from people who never bothered to actually see the film. In fact, Bouchareb explores the brutality and moral dilemmas faced by the partisans in the FLN with a brutal frankness that does nothing to justify the murders the movement committed. His film is more an exploration of the process than an exercise in advocacy. What it does do is force the spectator to see these dilemmas from the FLN’s side. Bouchareb’s most important message–at least as I saw it–lies in his description of the logic underlying the strategy adopted by the FLN. This basically involved manipulating the French authorities into polarizing the Algerians living in France so that they ultimately had no option other than joining the movement.
Initially, as Bouchareb describes it, most of the immigrants had no interest in politics. They simply wanted to get on with life and to become French as quickly as possible. To mould them into a fighting force, the FLN needed to incite the French authorities to act like monsters. To borrow a philosophical insight from former US vice-president, Dick Cheney, the FLN needed the French government “to explore the dark side.”
The reaction to French excesses, the FLN hoped, would force the undecided to finally make a choice, and that choice would not be to side with France. This philosophical insight is learned by Abdelkader, the brightest of three brothers who serve as the film’s protagonists. As a child, Abdelkader is forced to leave school when a corrupt local official, a fellow Arab, seizes the family’s land in Algeria. The French are not directly responsible in this. They are simply too ignorant of what is going on at the village level to notice the daily corruption that is alienating Algeria’s population and forcing them towards revolution. It’s ordinary stuff at a micro level, the everyday reality on the ground. While Bouchareb was probably not thinking of Afghanistan or Iraq when he wrote the screenplay, he manages to describe precisely the kind of thing that is now taking place under the noses of American “advisors” trying to work with the shady, foreign-supported administrations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As it turns out in the film, the education which is denied Abelkader while he is still a boy is compensated when the French send him to the infamous “La Santé” prison near Paris. Having channeled the boy towards revolution, the French now offer him a new education by tossing him into a cell with a handpicked selection of the FLN’s most effective strategic thinkers. By the time that he finally leaves, he is indoctrinated not only with revolutionary fervor but also the latest strategic thinking of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. He has had the equivalent of a PhD in anti-colonialist strategy.
He is joined by his brother, Messaoud, who has also undergone a crash course in military tactics and strategy from both the French army and the Viet Minh, after the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu. They are joined by the third brother, Said, who decides to make his living at crime and vice. The three brothers live in an appallingly filthy shanty town of cardboard and wooden shacks in a sprawling Arab slum that has grown up like fetid mushroom in Nanterre, just outside Paris and adjacent to the area now known as La Defense.
Despite their fervor, the early attempts by these would be revolutionaries to recruit their fellow Algerian immigrants generally end in disaster. The Algerians who have made it to France don’t care about the politics back in Algeria. What they really want is to become French. The brothers soon understand that they need to make it clear that for most Algerians that is never going to happen.
When the brothers deliver their barely credible recruiting speech in a local Algerian café, the owner has them beaten and then kicks them out. He is a partisan for a rival Algerian faction, one that is ready to work with the French. It is at this point that Abdelkader has an epiphany of sorts. He tells his brother, Messaoud that they need to murder the café owner. The object is not to eliminate a rival, or engage in revenge. What Abdelkader is really after is an incident that will incite the French police into over reacting in a way that will polarize the Algerian immigrants and make it impossible for them to identify with French authority.
The strategy works. The French respond to the murder by encircling the Algerian slum at night with overwhelming force and then brutally terrorizing its unsuspecting inhabitants. Hundreds of men, who until then wanted nothing more than to belong, are humiliated in front of their families and then bundled off for a brief session of further humiliation at a French police station. The scene is pure chaos. Messaoud turns to Abdelkader, and says, half questioningly, “You knew that this would happen?” Clearly this is exactly what Abdelkader intended to happen. Mayhem, committed by authority, was the strategic objective. From that point on, neutrality, fence sitting, indecision are no longer possible. Through their own inconclusive violence, the police have not only helped to launch the movement, they have removed any barriers to the movement reacting with greater violence.
After the bumbling police tactics have legitimized the FLN, the DST (Direction de Survelliance du Territoire), France’s equivalent to the FBI, gets into the act. It initially tries to arrest the FLN’s key organizers, but then decides that civilian courts are not up to the job. Torture follows, and then police murder squads who simply assassinate the key figures, while pretending that they are a rival Algerian gang. No one is fooled. With both sides openly engaged in murder, the violence escalates and a full blown guerrilla war erupts on French soil. Eventually, French riot police are beating unarmed demonstrators on the Paris Metro and then Abdelkader is shot and killed by a policeman. The DST colonel who has been tracking him, surveys the body and murmurs, “The victory is yours.”
A year later, the French withdrew from Algeria and formally recognized it as an independent nation. The long struggle to define Algeria’s own post independence identity could be the subject of another film. It was never going to be easy. Some years ago, I interviewed Algeria’s foreign minister at the time. “I used to think that politics or religion was the problem,” he told me. “I am beginning to realize that it is really a question of management.” Algeria is still struggling today, but at least the mistakes that are being made are by Algerians. The problems that most countries face are likely to be as baffling for the natives as they are for the foreigners trying to advise them on what the foreigner thinks they should do. The answers are always elusive, but the one thing that you can count on is that the most credible ones come from those who have a sense of national identity and commitment because they actually belong to the soil they are trying to protect. It’s a lesson which Americans gave to the world during their own War of Independence, and then seemed to forget when the phenomenon took place in other countries. Bouchareb has simply translated it into a North African context.