Joseph A. Harriss: When France Lost Its Crown Jewel

Roundup: Talking About History

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, will be released this fall.

WHEN I DISEMBARKED from an Air Algerie flight at Algiers’ Dar el Beida airport long ago as a young newsmagazine correspondent, Algeria was newly independent after 130 years as a French colony. I expected that the recently formed Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria—“neither democratic, nor a republic, and certainly not popular,” the foreign press snickered—would be an Arab country full of fierce-eyed turbaned men, mysterious veiled ladies, soaring minarets with chanting muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, and, hopefully, exotic belly dancers undulating to throbbing drums in the Casbah. I did find some of that, though the revolutionary puritans trying to impose “Arab Socialism” frowned on belly dancing.

But I soon learned that this part of the Maghreb had little resemblance to Arabia. Major cities, with architecture that resembled Dijon or Le Mans, had names like Philippeville, Oran, and Constantine. Most urban men wore business suits, the young women miniskirts. Cathedrals and churches outnumbered mosques, and officious civil servants loved to niggle importantly over details—a close parody of their French predecessors.

Besides the halting development of the new nation, the big story was whether the Soviet Union would succeed in a communist takeover, or at least convince the anti-Western Algerian government to let them set up air and naval bases there. From the terrace of my apartment overlooking the Bay of Algiers, I could see cargo ships with hammers and Sickles on their smokestacks and names like Yuri Gagarin arrive with cargos covered by tarpaulins on their decks. Soviet Air Force MiG-15 jet fighters, intel sources told me, wondering whether they would be piloted by Algerians or Russians. Similar ships were putting into the big port at Mers-el- Kébir, where the Sovs hoped to establish a strategic submarine base in the Mediterranean....

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