A history lesson for the father of the House

A bizarre historical allusion in the House of Commons yesterday. Sir Peter Tapsell, Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle (and, as the longest-serving MP, ‘father of the House’) had this question for the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was on his way to Algeria for an official visit—the first since independence by a British PM:

As my right honourable friend sets forth on his pacific mission to Algeria, will he, with his great historical knowledge, bear in mind that when Louis Philippe sent his eldest son to Algeria in the 1840s on a similar venture, it took a century, massive casualties, the overthrow of the Third Republic and the genius of General de Gaulle to get the French army back out of the north African desert?

It’s hard to work out quite what the father of the House was going on about here. King Louis Philippe’s son, the duc d’Aumale, was indeed sent to Algeria in the 1840s. Here he is:

Wikimedia commons image of Henri, duc d'Aumale

At this time the French ‘pacification’ (ie, conquest) of the territory had run into trouble, in the shape of concerted resistance led by the Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir. Henri was one of the leaders of the French army that spent a decade or so being run ragged by the emir, but eventually ground his forces down to an armed surrender. Did Peter Tapsell really want to compare David Cameron’s trip to Algiers, accompanied by the head of MI6, to a brutal colonial conquest? I’m not sure if this is how the prime minister would like any British military involvement in Algeria to be presented, especially as it would rely on Britain’s close security cooperation with the Algerian government.

The rest of the question is stranger still. Which ‘massive casualties’ is Sir Peter referring to: the people killed by the French army when it conquered the country, or the people killed by the French army when it was trying to hold onto it during the war of independence (1954–62)? Or the people killed by the French army on various occasions in between—for example, at Sétif and Guelma, following demonstrations on VE day where nationalist flags were waved? Hard to tell, but at least it’s true that the casualties were very numerous. But the Third Republic didn’t start until more than two decades after Louis Philippe himself had been deposed, and ended when France was defeated by Germany in May–June 1940. (Its own deputies voted it out of existence when they voted plenipotentiary powers to Marshal Pétain to sign an armistice: Pétain, who hated the Republic, instituted the Etat de France: what we know as Vichy.)

The end of l’Algérie française did lead to the downfall of a republic, but not the one Sir Peter mentions. The Fourth Republic, set up after the liberation of France, was overthrown (if that’s the word) in 1958, as a direct result of the Algerian war. General de Gaulle, called back to power after a near military coup launched by army officers in Algeria, ditched the parliamentary constitution of the Fourth Republic and got it replaced by the far more presidential, rather less democratic, but stable constitution of the Fifth, which is still with us. But it was another few years before his ‘genius’ finally accepted Algerian independence. (Recommended reading on what this meant for France: Todd Shepard’s The Invention of Decolonization.) Here he is in Algiers in 1958, telling the crowd of European settlers “Je vous ai compris!”: they thought he meant that he was going to fight to keep Algeria French, and at that point he probably did.

Charles de Gaulle in Algiers, 1958

You can see why French people still call a certain kind of corkscrew a ‘Charles de Gaulle’:

Tire-bouchon Charles de Gaulle

So: I’m not sure what Sir Peter thinks the Prime Minister’s trip to Algeria might be getting us into, but he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about himself. I’ll finish with the PM’s own response, a friendly jab at Sir Peter’s personal knowledge of ancient history:

I can reassure my right honourable friend that I am planning only to visit Algiers. I am sure he put down an urgent question at the time of the events to which he referred, and got a response.

Parliamentary quotes from Hansard, 30 Jan 2013

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