- The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France
The central premise of Todd Shepard's ambitious book will be of no surprise to those familiar with contemporary French society and culture. Modern France, he argues, was powerfully, perhaps even definitively, transformed by its 132-year colonial relationship with Algeria. The notion that French politics and French politicians, voters, and institutions, are still profoundly marked by the severing of that violent yet intimate union will also come as little surprise.
That said, there is much to learn from Shepard's careful historical analysis of the final, dramatic years of "French Algeria" (the entity that existed from 1830 to 1962). [End Page 141] Shepard guides his readers through the twists and turns of judicial and political debates on colonial identities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a war was being waged between the French military and Algerian nationalists. He is certainly correct in his contention that the Algerian Revolution (or war of national independence) was also a French Revolution. The Fifth Republic emerged directly out of the Algerian crisis, shaped by General Charles de Gaulle, who agreed to come out of semi-retirement from public life if allowed to be its principal architect (and beneficiary, critics claim). Shepard examines with a critical eye how leaders such as de Gaulle altered the relationship with the former colony, abandoning interests that had lasted for more than a century, thereby "forgetting French Algeria" (p. 101). Shepard argues that the French "invented decolonization" in the closing chapter of the Franco-Algerian saga, opting to envision independence as an inevitable outcome in the advancing "tide of History." "In Algeria, as elsewhere," he writes, "decolonization now appeared as wholly consistent with a narrative of progress—the ongoing extension of national self-determination and its corollary values: liberty, equality, fraternity and the Rights of Man—that had begun with the French Revolution" (p. 6). But the distinct nature of Algerian decolonization should be recognized.
Shepard has taken up a fascinating and beguiling set of questions in his book. In what ways did French officials classify colonial populations? How French was Algeria in 1930? 1958? 1962? In what ways did the authorities fail to serve and protect individuals who had attained French citizenship? In negotiating Algerian independence, did French officials betray the Republic and republican traditions of assimilation? Although Shepard is not the first to ask these questions, his thoughtful responses, based on new archival materials, are poignant. But the line of inquiry he adopts places him in a peculiar position vis-à-vis those typically considered to be on the wrong side of history. Would preserving French ties in Algeria have been the republican (i.e., egalitarian) decision? Was the far-right paramilitary Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS) somehow justified in attempting to maintain French Algeria, albeit through extreme violence? Shepard certainly does not condone OAS activities, but he offers a serene analysis of a particularly troubling period. He alludes to the hypocrisies of the French Republic in showing how religious or cultural differences helped and hindered the formation of identities in Algeria. Shepard's study is part of a renewed French and non-French scholarly interest in France's colonial history, particularly the ruptures and convergences of the French Republic, nation, and empire.
The French colonial realm was rarely if ever transparent, and Shepard's study convincingly illustrates this point. The war that some in France would not officially acknowledge as such was perhaps the most flagrant of colonial ambiguities. Shepard carefully probes documents from the period, ascribing alternative meanings to words like rapatrié, l'exode, Français, and Algérien. This analysis will probably be of greatest interest to historians-at-heart in search of new insights and compelled by the vicissitudes of colonial rhetoric. The extent to which colonial Algeria and Algerians could become French was perhaps the central point of contention dividing settler populations and metropolitan authorities in Paris. No consensus was ever reached. Well before the shattering of...