(La barricade) est également le symbole d’une fracture entre Français: d’un côté les Français de métropole las de cette guerre et qui soutiennent la proposition d’autodétermination du président de Gaulle, et d’autre part, les Français d’Algérie qui se sentent trahis et abandonnés.
(The barricade) is also the symbol of a split in French (public opinion): on the one hand, the people of mainland France who are sick of this war and support De Gaulle’s proposal for home rule, and on the other, the French of Algeria who feel betrayed and abandoned.
“Allons, enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé…..”, whistling the French national anthem through trembling lips, clasping his hands above his head in a sign of victory, punching the air and waving to the militants perched on top of the piles of masonry, T kept on walking towards the barricade. He could see the bright afternoon sunlight glinting off the gun barrels trained on him.
He had gone out that morning to join the crowds straight after the ceasefire announcement on the 19th of March, 1962, as he was itching to shake the hands of FLN fighters— those heroes who had, against all odds, beaten the French fighting machine, who had defied the military might of France and won. A real David and Goliath struggle, from which David seemed to have emerged victorious once more.
T had been searching for an FLN barricade, to see his idols in the flesh and thank them personally, and above all, to see their flag flying proudly against the blue sky of Algiers. For once, the fidayine were out on the streets of Algiers, not hiding in the warren of the Casbah or up in the mountains of Kabylie. He suddenly spied what seem to be an FLN barricade in the distance and, waving his arms enthusiastically, started running towards it.
Suddenly, he came to a screeching halt. Through the oily black smoke from the burning tyres, he saw, to his horror, the red, white and blue French tricolour flapping in the breeze. Pure unadulterated terror surged through his veins, icy daggers straight to the heart. His chest tightened and his eyes widened in panic. If he turned and ran, he wouldn’t stand much of a chance. If he kept on walking, he could perhaps be taken for a pied noir and so bluff his way through.
His mind made up, he began walking towards the barricade on shaky legs, whistling La Marseillaise and waving at the extremists perched on top of the pile of masonry, who lowered their guns and responded in kind. Still waving, he kept on walking — past the barricade — until he reached the next street corner. Once out of sight, he began to sprint down the street to safety. How stupid would that have been? To die once the war was more or less over bar the shouting?
When the ceasefire had finally been declared, many pieds noirs had refused to accept it. The “enemy” was seen as threatening their homes, well-being and culture, and were repeatedly dehumanized and debased, portrayed as barbarous and cruel. So the extremists defied the authorities by setting up a number of barricades on the streets of Algiers.
Barricades, usually constructed out of bricks, paving stones, old furniture, burning tyres and any other objects to hand, have never been seen in Britain, but are very much in the French tradition of rebellion. Although present in various incidents of the French Revolution of 1789, they had never played a central role. The nineteenth century, however, had been the classic era of the barricade, with the ramshackle constructions a highly visible element in many of the insurrections occurring in France during that turbulent century, including the June Rebellion of 1832, smaller in scale than others, but made famous by Victor Hugo’s account in Les Misérables.
The problem was that, even after the ceasefire had been declared, Algiers was still a dangerous place to be. No longer were Algerians seen by the French as human, only as enemies and threats, so the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) had been gunning down anyone who appeared to be Algerian, even following the ambulances transporting the wounded so as to finish them off when they were lying on their stretchers. The fidayine were also often jumpy and trigger-happy.
Even before the ceasefire, T and his friends had been forced to take every precaution on their way to school. Anxiety sat below their smiles, their actions, their silly jokes, as they walked past blocks of flats and other buildings, keeping a wary eye on the windows, conscious that behind every shutter, every drawn curtain, could be a sniper with his gun trained on them, their heads in his crosshairs. Other students had apparently been killed in this way, whether by accident or design it is hard to tell.
There were, however, many pieds noirs who did not agree with the way the war was being conducted. Fellow students with communist parents supported the Algerian fight for independence, even participating in pro-FLN demonstrations. T’s teachers had also never discriminated against “Arab” students; they treated everyone equally and showed no favouritism towards their own kind. T managed to maintain his excellent grades, despite the tense political situation and the many dangers lurking outside.
No-one knew what might happen the following day; no-one knew when the hostilities would end. One day in February, 1962, just before the ceasefire announcement, T had refused to attend classes as another student strike was on the cards. He received a letter from the headmaster of his school the very next day, threatening him with expulsion if he did not desist from his intention “de poursuivre une grève illimitée jusqu’un gouvernement compétent, résolu et adéquat puisse assurer à tous la sécurité qu’ils sont en droit d’attendre.” (to continue an indefinite strike until a competent, resolute and adequate government can ensure that every citizen has the secure environment that is his right). Slightly surrealist thinking — to be punished when his demands were entirely commendable.
When he had stumbled upon the French barricade, his European looks had saved his life, but a few days later, they were, on the contrary, to cause him almost to lose it. Again he was in search of an FLN barricade and had set off that morning from Maison Carrée determined this time to find one.
After a few hours of walking, he finally reached Parliament Square – la place du Cheval or du Duc d’Orléans, as it was called by the French settlers. Then he saw him — a fidai — a freedom fighter, dressed in camouflaged glory and holding a MAT 49, the iconic French submachine gun, used at Dien Bien Phu and all over Algeria.
As T began to walk towards him, admiration in his eyes, wanting to clasp his hand in gratitude, the fidai immediately slid a bullet into the the chamber and took aim. To the fighter, T looked like any other French settler, with his pale skin, straight brown hair and European features.
T’s first instinct had been to flee and put as much distance as possible between himself and the gun. It would, in fact, have been a fatal mistake, as he would immediately have been cut down by a bullet in the back. Luckily his muscles were paralysed by fear and his brain too fried to take action.
Instead he shouted desperately, “Wesh kayan?” (What’s wrong?), his voice quavering and his arms raised in the classic gesture of surrender. The fidai (FLN urban fighter) looked firstly taken aback, then slightly disappointed. “Anta arbi? Rouht nahtilak haba fi rassek! ” (You’re Arab? I was going to put a bullet in your head!)
If T had not then instinctively shouted out in Arabic, causing the fidai to hesitate and put up his gun, he would soon have been lying cold and lifeless in the street. Just another anonymous corpse, lined up next to others like a row of fallen dominos, ready to be thrown into a mass grave. Dead at twenty-one years of age, without his family ever knowing what had happened to him.