I was a student during the Indochina War. I trembled with all of France during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. The French army was stuck in a basin surrounded by hills occupied by Viet Cong “rebels” who could attack at their pleasure. The siege seemed to last forever, it was heroic. France was anxious, palpitating. The heroine was a young nurse, Genevieve de Galard, who was fortunately able to escape at the last moment.
The independence of Indochina seemed inevitable, no force would be able to overcome a people so fortified by their liberty. Eventually, France was defeated, only to be replaced by the Americans, who, during a second war of independence, were similarly met with defeat.
The war in Algeria was much more painful. Algeria, in reality, was not merely a colony but rather an integral part of France itself. There were countless French colonists who had been living in Algeria for generations. The war was long, bloody, and full of horrors on both sides.
I was in Greece for my military service when one day I was called and ordered to return home at once. At home I received news that my cousin François de France had been killed in Algeria. While in France for his interment in the family pantheon at Dreux, I found my family broken. There was also a thoughtful letter from General de Gaulle to my uncle Henry, the Count of Paris.
The war could not continue indefinitely, and yet nobody could stop it, not in one sense or the other. The army accused the Republic of shameful weakness, and secretly desiring to let go of Algeria. Before the timidity of the 4th Republic, the army, the ones doing the fighting and paying the heaviest price, considered taking power in France. I was studying at Sciences Po when my uncle Henry called me to Louveciennes. A plan was drawn up to evacuate the family if the army entered Paris. I was to seek refuge at the Greek embassy, which was informed of the plan in advance. Each day we expected the arrival of the army from Algeria. The 4th Republic took many measures, each one more ridiculous than the last. They made many declarations, each one more grotesque that the last.
In lieu of the army from Algeria, it was de Gaulle who came to power. All of France was relieved. And so began his extraordinary reign that I had the chance to live through. Whether liked or loathed, de Gaulle was an incredible personality. Each one of his televised addresses was an event in itself, followed closely by all of France, not necessarily to know what he thought, but rather to see this fabulous show. Having observed him closely, and having had the honor of meeting him, I would say that above all de Gaulle was history’s greatest illusionist. He began by convincing France that they had won a world war that they had in fact lost. He then convinced the people that France was a great world power, when it no longer was. After coming to power in 1958, owing to fears of a military takeover but also in order to fulfill the wishes of this same military, he persuaded the French in Algeria that they would keep Algeria while at the same time holding secret negotiations with the “rebels” for the independence of this exact same Algeria. This is how the Algerian war ended. The army, however, was furious. A secret organization, the OAS, was formed and carried out attacks in France against the supporters of de Gaulle and an independent Algeria. My uncle, the Count of Paris, was almost a victim. A bomb knocked down a part of the wall of his office, fortunately nobody was injured. I must admit that despite the attacks and bombings, I never felt unsafe in Paris. Oh the joys of youth!
Soon de Gaulle granted independence to the other African countries. Surprising personalities came to power. I was sent by the Greek government to meet with some of them. This is how I met Leopold Senghor, the president of Senegal, a writer, cultured, intelligent, and extraordinarily gentle. I was also sent to Guinea, where I met the communist president Sekou Touré. I thought he must be a sorcerer of some sort, for when he spoke, the tone of his voice and the slight movements of his chest were hypnotizing. Earlier, before these voyages, I had met with de Gaulle at the Elysée to brief him on the purpose of my visits. He listened to me detail my program then opened his arms, just as he had done so many times on television, and simply said “Africa is empty.” Other political figures that came to power in Africa, who were given the name “Black Kings” by the French, shamefully profited from the payments made by an excessively generous France. A race of billionaire was created, which continues to multiply. De Gaulle created African client states that have remained loyal to France up until the present, while England and her commonwealth have produced a much less faithful clientele.
I lived through the independence of Morocco. In French Morocco, the rebels played football with the heads of French gendarmes. We feared for our cousin Micky and her family who lived in isolation in northern Morocco on a farm of the type that were regularly targeted by the rebels. We were ignorant of the fact that over the years she had established very close connections with smugglers who passed constantly between the borders of Spanish and French Morocco and often used her paths. She was protected by these smugglers, and lived through this terrible period without issue.
In Spanish Morocco, in Larache, the rebels doused the Pacha with oil and set him on fire. Crowds passed by my grandmother’s garden screaming death threats. The staff, mostly women, sought refuge in the basement and recited the rosary while my grandmother watched the passing crowd with great interest from the terrace with her binoculars.
The French had removed and exiled the Sultan Mohammed V, whom they accused of having supported the rebels. They placed the old and rather weak prince Ben Arafa on the throne, nicknamed Ben Gagafa by my grandmother. I happened to be in Rabat on the day that a line of French tanks surrounded the royal palace. The situation was bad, we anxiously returned to Larache to await news of the regime change. Ben Gagafa wouldn’t last. The French were losing ground and it was clear that the legitimate sultan would have to return. My uncle supported this with all his efforts. Before returning to Morocco from his exile in Madagascar, the sultan came to Paris and paid a visit to Louveciennes. I was present. Sultan Mohammed V was a grand seignior, not very talkative, but courteous and possessing a certain charm. His children, both sons and daughters, were rather petulant. His heir, the future Hassan II, at age 18 or 19, already had an explosive personality. He spent day and night dressed in military fatigues. We brought him dressed like this to Chez Maxim’s, where I had never previously set foot. It caused quite the sensation.
We forget that the end of the last world war did not mean an immediate end to all colonies, even those in Europe. The Dodecanese islands had been given to Italy following World War I, and they were able to reclaim them as a small consolation for their late entry on the side of the Allies.
In 1948, these islands, with entirely Greek populations, finally rejoined Greece. King Paul and Queen Frederika hurried to visit them. And so it came to be that seated on a boulder in the mountains on the island of Rhodes, while contemplating the wondrous landscape, a shepherd slowly approached the royal couple. Standing upright he looked them in the eyes and said simply “yia sou patrida”, “hail to the fatherland.”
Photographs by Justin Creedy Smith