In the aftermath of the terrible and tragic attacks in Paris the French Government moved to revoke civil liberties and beat the war drums. James O’Toole looks at the bloody history of the French Empire and shows that the French state is a greater threat to the people of France and the world than any terrorist.
François Marie Denis Georges-Picot, a French diplomat, and Englishman Mark Sykes sat down on the 16th of May 1916 to discuss the Middle East. The agreement they made, known as the Sykes-Picot treaty, was a secret until Russian revolutionaries published its details in November 1917.
The pact, between Tsarist Russia, Britain and the French, would see the Empires carve up the Middle East. The fate of millions of people was decided by a handful of bureaucrats from the Imperial powers drinking brandies and drawing lines on a map.
Britain took the coastal strip between the sea and River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre. France was to take control of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Tsarist Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and some Armenian territories.
Although the treaty made provision for an Arab state, ruled by a Western backed puppet, the French moved quickly to occupy Syria. They removed King Faisal from power in 1920 dividing Syria up into smaller sectarian statelets. General Gouraud wanted to celebrate the French victory and went to desecrate the tomb of Saladin. He kicked it, and said:
“Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”
But Syria wasn’t the first country in the Middle East to come under the heel of French boots. The so called ‘Second French Empire’ began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830. The French brutalized the local population- killing anyone who stood against their rule.
“This is how, my dear friend, we must make war against Arabs: kill all men over the age of 15, take all their women and children, load them onto naval vessels, send them to the Marquesas Islands or elsewhere. In one word, annihilate all who will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs.”
By 1845, the French military was routinely engaged in massacres. Directed by Marshall Bugeaud, who became the first Governor-General of Algeria, the conquest was incredibly violent, marked by a “scorched earth” policy which included mass murder and mass rapes designed to break the will of the people and destroy any opposition to Imperial rule.
General Aimable Pélissier reported the murder of 1,500 people who had taken refuge in a cave. The French troops burned these Berbers alive. This included all the men, women and children.
The Algerian people rose up again and again only to be met with vicious repression. In 1945 an uprising against French settlers was repressed with French aircraft bombing towns. Many villages were burned to the ground in what became known as the ‘Sétif massacre’.
‘Pied noir’ (French settler) vigilantes lynched Muslim prisoners taken from local jails or randomly shot Muslims not wearing white arm bands. Estimates for the dead vary but between 6,000 and 45,000 Algerians were murdered by French forces in a matter of weeks.
In 1957 the French Minister of Interior declared a state of emergency in Algeria and granted extraordinary powers to General Massu. General Massu’s ’10e division parachutiste’ made widespread use of horrific methods which had been tested by the French Army during the Indochina War (1947–54).
There was systematic use of torture, including against the civilian population, countless executions and kidnappings by the French Army which would later become known as “death flights.” French priests justified the torture and murder of the locals in a text distributed to all units:
“If, in the general interest, the law allows a murderer to be killed, why should it be seen as monstrous to submit a delinquent who has been recognized as such, and is therefore liable to be put to death, to an interrogation which might be painful but whose only object is, thanks to the revelations he may make about his accomplices and leaders, to protect the innocent? Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures.”
But the Middle East wasn’t the only part of the world under French rule. In the Far East the French Empire conquered what is now Vietnam and Cambodia forming French Indochina in 1887. The First Indochina War saw the Viet Minh rise up against French rule. The French responded with vicious repression.
In early 1948, French Union ground and naval forces opened fire on and bombed the village of My Thuy killing 562 villagers, including the women and children. French Union paratroopers then went on a shooting rampage while naval assault forces used heavy cannons to flatten what was left of the village.
On 11 May 1951 three hours after a shooting of a French police officer by rebels , local French authorities transferred 20 Vietnamese prisoners into a truck and took them to a secret location located deep in the jungle near the Cam Ly creek and executed them.
In the same period the people of Madagascar, armed mostly with spears, took on a well-armed, 30,000-strong French army. The soldiers carried out a strategy of terror and psychological warfare. According to General Staff reports, they killed 89,000 people to “pacify” the rebellion, they were using “torture, summary executions and villages were forcibly evacuated and torched.”
“The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, moving from its home, where it assumes respectable form, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” (Karl Marx, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” New York Daily Tribune, January 22, 1853).
But is this just past history? French governments are willing to work with brutal dictators, like Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast. In 2011 they backed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali when popular protests broke out. French war planes undertook 35% of bombing raids over Libya the same year.
In 2013 French war planes pounded the North of Mali killing 100 people in a week of bombing. The French military maintain bases in Chad from which they can intervene across North Africa.
In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris the French ruling class (while talking about ‘freedom’) are acting against the interests of the people of the Middle East and the French working class. The French state machine is more of a threat to the French working class than any terrorist. No matter what excuses Hollande uses to justify war it is clear that the French state is no friend of freedom.