algiers barricade (Photo: Algiers barricade by French settlers backing General Jacques Massu, January 1960/Michel Marcheux)

Nearly 50 years after Algeria won independence from France, the unhealed wounds of the war of decolonisation keep wrenching at French society and could play a key role in the 2012 presidential election.

The unending Algerian trauma explains why France finds it so hard to integrate its large Muslim minority, why second and third generation Muslims of Maghreb origin born in France often feel alienated from their country of birth, and why politicians continue to find fertile ground in their quest for votes.

“There is an endless battle of memory, both within France and between the French and the Algerians,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading French historian of the Maghreb.

In the last few weeks, a law has come into force banning the wearing of the face-covering Islamic niqab veil in public, and parliament is debating a bill to strip recent immigrants of their French citizenship if they commit certain serious crimes.

Both measures were part of an offensive by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy to woo voters hostile to immigration, many of whom believe France has too many Arabs and Muslims.