Can a country which gave its own Muslim citizens of Algeria the right to vote only in 1947 and massacred millions in colonies claim to be the champion of democracy and justice? wonders Soroor Ahmed

Apparently Presidential election in France has little to do with the readers in India. Why should they be so interested  in the political development in a distant European country which was not even our colonial master in the past. 

Yet the poll in France is something different as the country is not only witnessing the fast emergence of the far right forces, even the centrist En Marche party leader Emmanuel Macron, who got elected has repeatedly been accused of adopting anti-Islam policy on the plea that he stands for strict secular and liberal values.

Ironically, France, as such, is known for anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and racist policies  notwithstanding the fact that it largely owes its present existence to none else but the people of the same North Africa, who sacrificed so much to save this country when it  was attacked and occupied by the Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940 till its liberation in August 1944.

Curiously, the main far right opposition National Rally party candidate, Marine Le Pen who recently got 41.5 per cent votes is openly pro-Putin in an era when the entire West has virtually ganged up against the Russian President.  

However, when Russia attacked Ukraine,  Marine Le Pen said that Putin had crossed the red-line. At the same time she called for strategic rapprochement  between NATO and Russia once the war in Ukraine is over.

On the eve of April 24 poll she also announced that France would leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation once she is elected to power.

In 2017, that is just before the previous Presidential election, Le Pen was heartily welcomed  in Moscow by Putin and she hoped that a new world order is emerging with Donal Trump taking  over in Washington earlier the same year. She, with Trump, wanted to wean Putin away from China.

Though President Emmanuel Macron returned to power with a much reduced margin (58.5 per cent) in comparison to 66 per cent in 2017 yet his centrist party too has problem with migrants, especially Muslims from North Africa. In the name of following a strict secular policy France, among other things, had banned the wearing of scarf by Muslim women. Not only that, on the plea of freedom of expression, cartoonists and satirists are allowed to caricature and lampoon Prophets and respected figures of any religion.

The champions of freedom of expression need  to be told that France is the one European colonial power which had  maximum contact with the Muslims, who lent full support to the country in time of crisis such as the two World Wars, especially the second one.

As most of the French colonies were in North and Sub-Saharan Africa  (besides Vietnam  and some islands in  far off oceans) they were very much familiar with the Muslim religion, culture and languages. Even in the Indian sub-continent there were several French in the army of Tipu Sultan who fought the British forces till the last ditch.

It needs to be reminded that Paris did not consider Algeria, which it captured in 1830, as a colony but an integral part of France. This is something peculiar. It got independence after eight long years of bloody war between 1954 and 1962 and led to the death of 10 to 15 lakh Algerians and thousands of French.

Had Algeria not been treated as the integral organ, the story of present day France would have been over in June 1940 after the German occupation of Paris and large parts  of northern  and eastern chunk of the country. The Vichy government of south-west  France under the dictatorship of Marshal Philippe Petain, otherwise the hero of World War-I, was just a puppet of Nazi Germany.  Hitler allowed the Vichy (a place in south France) government to have control of the rest of the colonies but not without condition. Marshal Petain’s government fully  participated with Germany in its war-efforts till 1942.

May sound unbelievable yet true, the Vichy government – actually a setup of Nazi collaborators and traitors  of France – was recognised by 40 countries, including the United States of America, which joined World War-II much later. In fact, it was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 6-7, 1941, which dragged the US into World War-II. It was in 1942 that Germany occupied entire France.

It needs to be reminded that after the fall of Paris in June 1940 one of the ministers and veteran general, Charles de Gaulle, fled to Britain to carry out the struggle against the Nazis and Vichy government under the banner of Free France.

A large number of French and British soldiers had also escaped to England after the occupation of France. Charles de Gaulle then started his military campaign to snatch the French colonies in Africa from the German-backed Vichy government. The people of colonies had to pay a huge price in this intra-French bloodletting in which thousands died. Charles de Gaulle finally succeeded in capturing Algeria and in 1942 shifted there from Britain.

It was the entire North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, which became the battleground of the Allied and Axis forces between 1941 and 1943. The British, French and now the US, finally succeeded in defeating the German-Italian combined forces. The French and British threw lakhs of soldiers from their colonies in Asia (including undivided India) and Africa into the battles. It was North Africa which became the launching pad for the liberation of France from Germany. 

After the re-capture of France by Allied powers and Free France, which was later renamed as Fighting France, Charles de Gaulle became the head of the Provisional Government between 1944 and 1946.

But after the end of World War-II, France, as several times in the past two centuries, plunged into political uncertainty and anarchy. The struggle for freedom started in colonies, most prominently in Vietnam.

The Fourth Republic collapsed in 1958 and military had to intervene frequently. A year later the Fifth Republic came up with a new Constitution, but the country once again plunged into chaos in 1968 leading to the escape of the then President de Gaulle to the same Germany, against whom he fought so bitterly during the World Wars.

In the meantime the French government gave the Muslims of Algeria the voting right in 1947 and thus after more than a century of complete control started treating them as citizens. This right was given in recognition to the contributions of the Algerian people during World War-II. Such is the track record of the country which boasted about Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. 

But all these efforts failed to check the growing struggle for freedom by Algerians. The French ruthlessly tried to crush it but in vain. Lakhs perished in the bloodbath. In 1962, Algeria, which was considered an integral part of France, finally became an independent country.

In over a century of colonial occupation of Africa, the French looted the mineral, forest and human  resources of the region. Twenty-first century France still interferes in the internal affairs of those independent African countries and always ensures that no  government hostile to Paris comes to power there.

French military intervention is quite common.

Not to speak just about ban on scarf, even African origin footballers – non-Muslims too – playing for France (or other European countries) often face discrimination on and off the field. Everyone knows how they treated Zinedine Zidane, one of the all-time greats, and the hero of the 1998 FIFA World Cup, and that too against Brazil. In the final he scored two of the three goals.

The moot question is: Can a country which gave its own Muslim citizens of Algeria the right to vote only in 1947 and massacred millions in colonies claim to be the champion of democracy and justice? Where were liberal and secular values between 1940 and 1944 and even before that?

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