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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Guerre d’Algérie PCF La mémoire d’un difficile combat

by Claude Lecomte

The War in Algeria: Memories of a Difficult Struggle

Translated Friday 18 August 2006, by Patrick Bolland

The veterans of the French Communist Party recall in particular their underground activities in the French army

During two days, on 21 and 22 April 2001, French communist activists discussed their experiences in the French army in the colonial wars, particularly in Algeria. The context was provided by the “The Friends of the PCF veterans” (l’Amicale des vétérans du PCF), headed by Louis Baillot. A campaign against torture, spear-headed by le Monde and l’Humanité, has been calling on those responsible, on all those with any information, to speak out, to acknowledge the long-suppressed hidden truths.

But it’s not enough to condemn the excesses, we have to find the root causes. Torture was not invented in the Algerian war. In Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), it was already institutionalised before World War II. In Algeria itself, by 1945, it was already a common practice in police stations. But, at that time, for millions of French people, Algeria, was still a French département, a part of France itself.

The discussion focussed partly on how difficult it was at the time to persuade French public opinion, a largely intoxicated public opinion, that there was another way of looking at what was being done. This was a time of widespread repression when, for instance, an activist in Morbihan was sentenced to two months in prison for having distributed a tract calling for the liberation of Algeria. The verdict in this case stated that it was unacceptable that “the authority of France be questioned in the territiories over which it exercises this authority”. L’Humanité, together with l’Avant-Garde, the paper of the Communist Youth, was banned by the courts as soon it mentioned this interdiction. Under these conditions, the only alternative within the army was underground, clandestine. A number of those involved in these events provided the two day meeting with personal testimony of this need to go underground in challenging the French oppression of Algeria. (1)

Opposition to the French occupation of Algeria was always with the goal of encouraging popular pressure to end to the war. So communist organisations called for popular support as they demonstrated when troops were returning from Algeria to the army camps, such as at Rouen, or in the trains transporting the troops. At the Richepanse army camp in Rouen, the demonstrations lasted several days, with soldiers refusing to leave for Algeria; beyond the barracks, the movement was supported by dockers and factory workers of the city as a whole, as described by Roland Leroy, at the time secretary of the communist federation.

Throughout the whole Algerian War, the PCF published underground newspapers destined for the soldiers engaged in the war. Six million copies of Soldat de France were printed, handed out on the trains and on the ships with the help of the railway workers and sailors, thrown over the walls of military barracks, sent by mail in France, and, for sending to Algeria, printed in special airmail editions for the “Algerian postal sector”. French communist activists, such as Alfred Gerson, were seconded to the Algerian Communist Party to publish the Voix du soldat, which was so embarrassing to the military administration that Massu himself referred to the “enormous effort” that the police services would have to undertake to arrest those who were responsible.

The actions within the army included also the soldiers who refused to participate, such as Alban Liechti. But, under the conditions of this war, there were only a few dozen like him. There were, however hundreds, among them many communists, who opposed the generals’ aborted coup d’état, throwing in prison those of their officers who were tempted by the rebellion. All these testimonials have been collected together and are now available for consultation in the PCF archives. Further eye-witness accounts are being added from this two-day conference, with the agreement, of course, of the witnesses. The Amical des vétérans is considering other ways of following up these issues, that have for too long remained unknown.

(1) Among those participating at the two day meeting were Henri Alleg, Alban Liechti, Jean Vendart, Alfred Gerson and Henri Martin.

This article was first pushed on 29 May 2001.

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