The Algerian Legacy

How France Should Confront Its Past

A woman pushes a pram past a "Je Suis Charlie" street art near Brick Lane in east London, January 14, 2015. Luke MacGregor / Courtesy Reuters

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, the consensus has only strengthened among French and world leaders that the acts marked an escalation in a war with global radical Islam. To show their determination to face down this shared challenge, 40 heads of state—from Italy to Mali, Israel to Palestine—marched in step from Place de la République to Place de la Nation last Sunday.

The similarities between this massacre and earlier attempts to punish supposed insulters of Islam and its prophet are undeniable. The 1989 death warrant against Salman Rushdie, the 2002 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the 2010 attempted murder of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard were also aimed at artists and writers. The cast of jihadists is familiar, too: alienated and frustrated young men living in a Western country, who have reached out to a radical celebrity. All of this serves to link the events in France to the global war on terror. Le Monde’s day-after headline, “France’s 9/11,” and a widely republished cartoon of a plane flying into two pencil-shaped towers drove the point home.

But there are other indications—the scale and intensity of the attacks and the inclusion of a Jewish target alongside the blasphemous cartoonists—that suggest that last week’s events may also be the continuation of an unfinished chapter in French history: the Algerian war. 

The persistence of the Algerian connection is distressing for both countries concerned. Before the two Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, came the Toulouse terrorist Mohammed Merah in 2012, and before him, Khaled Kelkal from Lyon in 1995. Last Wednesday’s attackers had been recruited and radicalized by Farid Benyattou, another Frenchman of Algerian origin briefly imprisoned on terrorism charges.

But there is a major caveat to this linkage: these were Frenchmen, not Algerians. Kelkal left Algeria when he was two years old, and Merah, Benyattou, and the Kouachis were born in France, attended French schools, had French girlfriends, and spent time in

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