French Language Blog

Powerful French Movie: “Hors-la-loi” (Outside the Law) Posted by on Sep 22, 2012 in Vocabulary

If you were looking to discover a new powerful French movie, then here is one strongly recommended for you to watch: It’s called “Hors-la-loi” (“Outside the Law.“)

One film reviewer had this to say about it: “A tense, energetic historical drama on a grand scale — somewhere between Bertolucci and Michael Mann.

In the previous post, we introduced it by talking about the actor who played Lucien in “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.

You can find the movie intro in full here.

Today, we’ll go through the historical backdrop of the storyline.

Trailer of “Hors-la-loi” (“Outside the Law”) by Movie Director Rachid Bouchareb

* * *

When the Second World War came to a long-overdue end, hundred thousands of Algerians, whose country had been -it must be emphasized- illegally occupied by France since 1830, poured in the streets to celebrate the end of the war.

They went out to celebrate V-Day (“Victory Day“, that is), just like every country in the world—well, except, of course, for the “Axis Countries“, Germany’s Third Reich and Japan (Italy had already gotten rid of its Il Duce” Mussolini by then, so they had two reasons to celebrate.)

Among the demonstrators in Algeria were native Algerian soldiers enlisted in the French army, whose participation in the war proved instrumental in the liberation of France from the Nazis.

The demonstrations were mainly held in the Algerian cities of SetifConstantine, and Skikda. 

But what was more, the demonstrators waved Algerian flags, and chanted demands ranging from le droit de l’autodétermination (self-determination right) to the full and immediate independence of Algeria.

During the War, the French government, in desperate need for soldiers to fight the Nazi military machine, appealed to Algerians, who were then living under very harsh colonial conditions. They were promised freedom once they helped bring the war to a successful end.

That’s all the demonstrators were asking for, on V-Day, May 8th, 1945: To grant them the freedom they were promised. They fully deserved it, especially after fighting side by side with the French, if not always in the frontline, to kick the Nazis out of France.


The answer of *not all*, but many heavily armed “pieds noirs” (literally called the “Black Feet“), who were often backed by European French soldiers, was a swift and ruthless bloody repression.

In the matter of only a few days after May 8th, 1945, thousands of Algerians were to be massacred in a gruesome bloodbath.

Their crime?

Daring to wave a different flag than the tricolore, and asking the French government to keep its promise of freedom.

* * *

It is important to understand that a lot of French people, intellectuals and ordinary citizens, including a great number of pieds noirs themselves, were truly outraged by these horrific massacres committed on a large-scale against the native population.

But the main problem was that France’s public opinion remained oblivious to what was happening in its so-called “outre-mer” (overseas) colony.

French Public Television “France 2” documentary about the May 8th 1945 massacres in Algeria, which marked the true beginning of la Guerre d’Algérie (The Algerian War), sparked on November 1st, 1954.

After the massacres, some of the leaders of les pieds noirs were known to have prophetically declared: “On est tranquiles pour dix ans” (“We got nothing to worry about for the next ten years”)


Now, who are the “pieds noirs“, you may ask?

The “pieds noirs” is the name of French and European settlers who lived in Algeria as “supercitizens” of some sorts, enjoying countless “legal” privileges, mainly tailored to their own special interests, while the original owners of the land, the so-called indigènes“, were denied the most basic human rights, be it the right to vote, or simply elementary education.

Again, it would be wrong to consider that all the “pieds noirs” were cold-blooded murderers.

But a great deal of them were in fact growing desperate, and were prêts à tout (ready to do anything) to keep alive “l’Algérie française” (“French Algeria”), and with it their stolen possessions and privileged life-style, even at the expense of the interests and the very lives of the so-called “indigènes.”

Some may observe that this situation sounds a lot like the “Apartheid” system set in l’Afrique du Sud (South Africa.) 

Well, like a famous American baseball player once said: “It’s déjà vu all over again“!

Indeed, it was an apartheid—a North African-style apartheid, rather than a South African one.

La Guerre d’Algérie (The Algerian War), which is an important and still painful chapter of l’histoire de France (French History), is in fact nothing more than un épisode of an age-old struggle in the history of humanity. A struggle waged by oppressed natives against illegitimate occupiers, wherever they happened to live sur la planète (on the planet): From the earliest days of l’Empire Perse (the Persian Empire), l’Empire Romain (the Roman Empire), to les Croisades (the Crusades), all the way up to the emergence of l’Empire Britanique, “sur lequel le soleil ne se couche jamais” (“upon which the sun never sets.”)

It’s virtually the same leitmotiv, or the same historical pattern, if you will.

Hors-la-loi” director Rachid Bouchareb: “I only want to open a debate”

Pour revenir au film qui nous intéresse (to get back to the movie of interest to us), here is what a featured reviewer had to say, after watching the movie:

I was afraid of a good Arabs vs bad French people scheme. And I was actually pleased to see that it was not the case. Every one is grey, no white people, not dark either. Every one fights for his own convictions.

C’est vrai (It’s true.) No single people or nation on Earth has the monopoly of le bien (the good) or le mal (evil.)

All of us should enjoy the right to “fight for our own convictions”, as the IMDB reviewer puts it.

But then again, what sorts of “convictions” are these, exactly?

If these “convictions” are meant to indefinitely maintain the oppression of native people under a harsh colonialist rule, and if these very native people decide one day, as the common French expression goes, that trop c’est trop (enough is enough), then no matter what “legal system” is conveniently concocted to perpetuate the reigning colonial status quo, at the end of the day, the natives are the last ones to be viewed as “outside the law.

En d’autres termes (in other words): Whoever is a colonialist is de facto the “hors-la-loi“!

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  1. A. Contreras:

    If I may: be careful of litteral translations. Yes, hors-la-loi can be litterally translated outside-the-law, but it means outlaw, as in the person. When talking about actions or facts, hors-la-loi would then be translated as “illegal”.

    • Hichem:

      @A. Contreras Hello and merci for your comment!
      The translation of “Hors-la-loi” into “Outside the Law” is not mine. That is how the movie title has been officially called in English 🙂