News / Europe

France, Algeria: Two Lenses on the Past

Lisa Bryant
PARIS — As Algeria marks its 50th anniversary of independence from France, two exhibits in Paris explore a painful chapter in their shared history through very different lenses. 

Algeria's war of independence from France has been retold many times - in movies and in history books on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Today, the French Army Museum in Paris offers the latest narrative - casting a sometimes brutal look at 132 years of French colonial rule. 

Exhibit curator, Lieutenant-Colonel Christophe Bertrand, says the honesty surprises visitors - especially Algerian ones. "We tried to balance our outlook"  he says, "to have a historic vision - so it's a fairly new view of what the French army did," he said.

Bertrand says the exhibit is trying to offer a building stone toward a reconciliation that must eventually take place between these two sides.

France's occupation is told through a treasure trove of objects - uniforms, weapons, paintings, documents, photos and movies. It begins in 1830.

Bertrand says French troops began settling in the capital, Algiers, and along the coast, ending the Ottoman presence.  As French conquered Algerian territory, an opposition was born, first spearheaded by Emir Abd el-Kader.

Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of French, or "pieds noirs," settled in Algeria. Algerians fought alongside French troops in the first and second world wars. But the seeds of resistance remained.

Bertrand says the events of May 8, 1945, when French shot Algerian demonstrators, helped spark the country's war of liberation in 1954.

The exhibit offers grainy films of the fighting and photographs of Algerians being tortured. Later come images of Algerians celebrating their independence, on July 5, 1962.

Fifty years later, the Army Museum's exhibit counts among a flood of books, documentaries, debates and shows here marking the anniversary.

At an art gallery across town, portraits by Algerian artist Mustapha Boutadjine celebrate the women who fought for Algeria.

Boutadjine says some of these women were tortured, raped and killed during the war. Some were Algerian but others were French. He says nobody talks about their story.

A native of Algiers, Boutadjine was 10 years old when his country became independent.

Boutadjine says his parents were tortured during the war. "They lived the revolution like all the other Algerians."  He says it is something he will never forget - but he feels no hatred toward the French.

Ties still bind the two nations. Alongside the returning pieds noirs, millions of Algerians have since immigrated to France, raising French children. Arabic words like "toubib," or doctor, now pepper the French language. And singers like Cheb Khaled are household names.

But diplomatic relations are rocky. And the past remains painful.

Visiting the Army Museum, 61-year-old Corinne Mathis says the exhibit sheds light on a period few French know much about.

Mathis says school history classes spend little time teaching about France's presence in Algeria. French must be curious to find out on their own.

Another retiree, Algerian Nourredine Kadra, admits ties today could be better.

Kadra says there shouldn't be any problems between France and Algeria. But politicians in both countries are stirring things up.

Curator Bertrand believes historians - like the French and Algerians who helped realize the exhibit - will help bring the two nations closer. With time, he believes, both France and Algeria will reconcile with their common past, and be able to look ahead.

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