- The Observer, Sunday 22 November 2009
As the French nation prepared for the crucial World Cup qualifying match against Ireland on Wednesday evening, the streets of Paris were already in carnival mood long before the kick-off in the Stade de France. From 8.30pm onwards, throughout the city football fans waved flags, blocked traffic, hooted horns and sang songs of celebration. The party atmosphere clearly bemused newly arrived tourists and Irish fans on their way to the match. Most confusingly, with their green, white and red flags and football songs in Arabic, these supporters were obviously not French. They were in fact Algerians – several thousand of them – who were celebrating a 1-0 victory nearly 3,000 miles away in Khartoum.
More specifically, the Algerians were celebrating that they had, for the first time since 1986, qualified for the World Cup. As the final whistle blew in the match against Egypt, there was near-delirium across Paris. As the evening went on, more than 12,000 Algerians poured on to the Champs Elysées, which was closed to traffic as youngsters danced on the roofs of cars, chanting "One, two, three, Vive l'Algérie", and throwing fireworks into the dank November night. "I can't believe it," I was told by Samia, a 20-year-old student. "I've never seen anything like it. It's not just about football. It has to be about something else."
About midnight it became clearer what that something else might be. Armed police had by now gathered around the Arc de Triomphe, trying to break up the crowds. They were met with taunts, stones and fireworks. The party soon degenerated into a riot and the cries of "Vive l'Algérie" were replaced by the familiar battle cry of "Nique la police" (Fuck the police). The police responded with teargas and baton charges.
There were 60 arrests, and similar scenes in Lyon and Marseille. The violence carried on and by Friday morning the police reported that more than 200 cars had been burnt in the suburbs of Paris. On Thursday night, I watched standoffs between youths armed with sticks and Robocop-style police in Place de Catalogne and Rue de L'Ouest. Suddenly it looked for a brief moment as if France might be facing a re-run of the riots that ripped through the country in the autumn of 2005.
The sourness surrounding the Algerian victory seemed such a long way away from the famous "rainbow" French team of 1998 that beat Brazil in a glorious World Cup final at the Stade de France. That team brought together a generation of players who all had their origins outside France – including Youri Djorkaeff (whose family came from Armenia), Lilian Thuram (French Caribbean), Bixente Lizarazu (Basque) and Patrick Vieira (Senegal). The key image, which went across the world, was of the face of Zinédine Zidane – an Algerian born in Marseille – being lit up in red, white and blue across the Champs Élysées under the rubric Zidane Président. The new tolerance and comradeship was known as L'Effet Zidane. This moment was hailed as the beginning of a new era in French cultural life.
Eleven years later, that moment seems to belong to a very distant past. Indeed, the divisions in French society seemed to have hardened since then. In 2005, at the height of the riots, Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, famously added fuel to the fire by describing the rioters as racaille (scum). Meanwhile, films such as Michael Haneke's Hidden – which dealt with the repressed memory of a notorious night of violence against Algerians in Paris – have revealed the deepening inner tensions at the heart of 21st-century society. None of this has been forgotten by the youths who were out in force on Wednesday night.
But the anger on show was not just about football and racism. It also stems from the fact that many Algerians, living in France or Algeria, have never really freed themselves from their longstanding love-hate relationship with France. More precisely, during the years of the French occupation, which began in 1830, Algeria was no ordinary colony, but an integral part of France with the same status as Alsace or Brittany. To be an Algerian was therefore – at least in theory – to be in effect a Frenchman. All too often in practice, as generations of Algerians have discovered, it is to be treated as a second-class citizen. Worse still, to be an Algerian is to be a bicot or mélon – racist terms for Muslims (and all of which I overheard in the mouths of white Parisians on the Métro on Wednesday night).
The history of French Algeria is further complicated by the fact that the country was also home to several million European settlers known as pieds noirs. The pieds noirs felt that Algeria belonged to them as much it did to the Arab and Berber population. When France granted independence to Algeria in 1962, however, this community was forced to leave Algeria for France – the mother country that they felt had betrayed them. It is the bitterness of the pieds noirs that has filtered down to the vicious anti-Algerian racism of contemporary France.
The story of Algerian independence is not a happy one. Throughout the 1990s a civil war raged between the government and Islamic terrorist groups. Conservative estimates reckon that 200, 000 Algerians were killed. In 2002 President Abdelaziz Bouteflika offered an amnesty to the fighters. Since then, Algeria has been trying desperately to reassure the outside world that normality is being established.
But the traces of the civil war are clearly visible these days in the streets of the capital, where security and tension are still high. In the former pied noir district of Belcourt, the house of the writer Albert Camus is now a mobile phone shop. Camus himself is despised by locals – when I was there a few weeks ago he was variously described to me as a filthy colonialist, a racist and a Frenchman.
The targets of the Islamists were journalists, writers, artists, musicians, all those who were perceived to belong to the French-speaking elite of the country. Downtown Algiers is French-designed, truly beautiful and deserves every bit of its title as "Paris in Africa". But it is an illusion.
"On the one hand, France means for us Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," I was told by Fatiha, a university teacher, "but somehow that model never came to Algeria. So this place might look like France, but in reality it is the opposite. We cannot leave here. We have no money or visas. So really Algiers is a prison."
It is this mixture of desire and frustration that best defines the bond between France and Algeria. It also explains why all attempts at reconciliation are so fraught. In 2001 a France-Algeria football match, a friendly meant to establish brotherhood between the two nations, broke down into pitch invasions and riots. When I interviewed Zidane about this for Observer Sport Monthly in 2004, he described it as the worst moment of his football career. Most damaging of all to him were the chants "Zidane – Harki". This is indeed a deadly insult: the Harkis were the Algerians who had fought for the French against their side and who are nowadays considered as traitors in their own communities.
"The problem is that Algerians cannot forget their past," I was told by one of them in a bar on Wednesday night, "but they must also learn that their fury is dangerous. No one knows where it will lead."
But what is certain, however, is that, as France and Algeria prepare for South Africa 2010, there will be two very different versions of the World Cup to be played out in the streets of France.
Andrew Hussey is the Dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. He is writing The French Intifada for Granta