In December 2019, as Paris was brought to a standstill by a massive public sector strike, I was happily foraging away in the backroom of the Centre for the Study and Research of International Revolutionary and Trotskyist Movements (CERMTRI). The volunteer archivist, who had ducked off from the picket line to open the archive, assured me that my research did not constitute strike-breaking and gave me free rein to root around in the collection. Amongst the pamphlets, posters, and party bulletins, I stumbled across this portrait of the founder of the first major Algerian nationalist movement, Messali Hadj, and his radical French wife, Émilie Busquant. The story of the painting’s origins, the couple it portrays, and the means by which it ended up in the CERMTRI, underlines how the affective bonds of solidarity that transcended barriers of race were an important and enduring feature of interwar Algerian nationalism. It also highlights the limits of these forms of solidarity in the face of the shifting sands of anti-colonial revolutionary politics in the 20th century.
The creation of the portrait was itself an act of affection born out of a shared commitment to the cause of the emancipation of Algeria. The artist, François Lachastre, an activist on the radical non-Communist left in Paris, offered the portrait in the memory of his friend, Hamed Ben Fékir. Although I could find no trace of Ben Fékir in the archive, his name and the subject of the image suggest that he was one of the many nationalist activists among the ever-expanding Algerian community in interwar Paris. We have no details of how Lachastre and Ben Fékir came into contact, but the fact that the Frenchman would dedicate the time and resources necessary to create this tribute to the departed Algerian is indicative of a close relationship and the significance of the loss to the artist. Thus, the very existence of the portrait is testament to the trans-racial forms of solidarity among radicals and the bonds of friendship to which they gave rise in the heart of the imperial capital.
There is no better embodiment of the radical potential of personal and political relationships that transcended boundaries of race than the couple portrayed in the painting. The intertwined biographies of Émilie Busquant and Messali Hadj have all the makings of an epic Netflix series. She, a young working-class woman from industrial Lorraine employed at a perfume stand in a Parisian department store, he, a newly-arrived migrant from an impoverished family in Eastern Algeria, brought together by chance at the house of a kindly elderly woman they both called upon regularly. Émilie was immediately attracted to the tall and charismatic Algerian while Messali wrote of how he felt ‘drawn’ to the young woman ‘like a magnet’. Although the romance in both their narratives of the relationship’s early days is striking, politics was never far from the surface. Émilie had grown up immersed in the culture of left libertarianism. Her father was a committed anarcho-syndicalist and neither she nor her eight siblings were baptised, a sign of the family’s rejection of social conformity. Messali’s childhood had been marked by a familial commitment to cultural and religious resistance to colonialism in Algeria. The home they soon set up together as an unmarried interracial couple at the epicentre of the French Empire would become, in Messali’s words, the ‘point of departure for the struggle for national liberation’.
The early years of couple’s life together coincided directly with the rise of the first mass nationalist movement in Algerian political history. Both would play an important role in organising migrants in the North African Star movement, first under the guidance of the French Communist Party and subsequently as an independent organisation calling for the liberation of France’s territories in the Maghreb. Messali, a charismatic speaker and impressive autodidact, quickly established himself as the uncontested leader of the movement, working alongside Emilie who co-produced many of his writings in the period. Their unorthodox family life was completely structured around politics, with Émilie working as the breadwinner and Messali juggling his party responsibilities with caring for their young son. The widely shared story, probably apocryphal, that Émilie designed and sewed the first Algerian flag indicated both her stature within the party and the persistence of gendered representations of the couple’s political roles. Her familial heritage in the radical libertarian left reinforced Messali’s suspicion of the domineering Communists and helped forge his many links with Trotskyists and other leftists in France. Together, they formed a fascinating political tandem that simultaneously reproduced and subverted the traditional roles ascribed to men and women and to Algerian nationalists and French radicals in the anti-colonial movement.
Although the portrait of the couple is undated, the details we do have suggest it was likely painted at a time when both their authority within the movement and the levels co-operation between nationalists and French radicals were at their peak: the mid-1930s. Messali and Émilie look to be in their mid-thirties with the former sporting a chéchia on his head, an element of clothing associated with his efforts to recast himself as the za’im, or charismatic traditional leader of the Algerian people, in this period. The setting of the portrait is ambiguous, though the wooden rail at the front may suggest a courtroom. Messali’s repeated detentions and trials made him a cause célèbre for both the Algerian nationalist movement and the radical left in France. They also saw Émilie, as ‘Madame Messali’, pushed on to the public stage to speak on his behalf at meetings jointly organised by the radicals and the nationalists, something that could explain her unusual positioning in the foreground of the painting. This was a period in which the Algerians relied heavily on the cover provided by the radical left for their meetings as a means of avoiding police repression. In turn, French activists hoped to capitalise on Messali’s popularity in the Algerian community to build their own support among colonial subjects. The results of this alliance were mixed for both parties, but it did foster widespread admiration for the Émilie and Messali in radical circles in France while also establishing enduring friendships between nationalists and French leftists.
In the dying years of the interwar period, the importance of co-operation between the French radical left and Messali’s movement was fading. The failure of the Popular Front to deliver substantial reforms undermined confidence in the Left among nationalists while Messali’s attention was turning back to his homeland. The couple and their two children moved to Algiers and focused their efforts on building the movement in the colony itself. Initially, Émilie continued to play a prominent role, relaying messages to her husband during his many present stints and maintaining the party organisation in a time of constant expansion. However, the evolution of Algerian nationalism away from a vanguard party based primarily among migrants in the metropole to a broad-based movement that sought to appeal to Islamic reformists and populist nationalists saw Émilie gradually marginalised. Although still generally respected, the Frenchwoman was seen by some as undermining the image of the za’ïm, a man of the people committed to his religion.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Messali’s high-handed management of the party and the ‘cult of personality’ he allegedly cultivated came under increasing attack within the party. His forced exile by the French government in 1952, followed by Émilie’s untimely death in October 1953 saw him increasingly lose his iron grip on the nationalist movement. The major ceremonies that surrounded the death of ‘Madame Messali’ were, in a way, the symbolic swansong in Algeria of the political movement to which the couple had dedicated their life. Many of those who marched behind her coffin as it travelled through the streets of Algiers would reject the political authority of her husband and rally to the FLN in the years that followed. Messali’s speech at her graveside in France celebrated her life as a ‘symbol of the union of the Algerian and French peoples in their common struggle,’ a metaphor that would have struck a chord with Lachastre and the other activists of the late 1930s but had limited resonance among the budding revolutionaries in the Algeria of the 1950s.
The memory of Messali, Émilie and the movement they led was, until recently, largely repressed in the official narratives of the post-colonial state dominated by the FLN and obscured in a France that was rarely eager to revisit the history of the nationalist struggle. And yet, it lived on in the affective communities that had developed around the movement, particularly among Algerian migrants in the metropole and their onetime allies on the radical left. It was this enduring sense of solidarity that motivated Émilie and Messali’s second child, Djanina, to confide the familial archive to the care of the volunteers of the CERMTRI. This, in turn, sparked a flood of private donations, amongst which I found the portrait. Its history as a radical object speaks to both the limitations and the potential, the erasure and the endurance, of personal and political trans-racial solidarity in the revolutionary anti-colonial projects of the early 20th century.
Dr Dónal Hassett is a historian of colonialism and the French Empire at the Department of French in University College Cork. His first book, Mobilizing Memory: The Great War and the Language of Politics in Colonial Algeria, 1918-1939, was published with Oxford University Press in 2019. He was recently awarded an Irish Research Council New Foundations grant for a project on the Decolonisation of Irish Public Heritage. His research interests include international anti-colonialism in the interwar period, history veterancy in colonial contexts and the legacies of Empire in contemporary heritage. You can follow him on Twitter @donalhassett1.