This was originally written as an essay for my Masters degree in Culture and Colonialism.
Does France’s war in Algeria (1954-1962) hold lessons for the understanding of other colonial cultures and conflicts?
‘The Algerian War of the 1950’s was one of the most brutal and exhaustive decolonization wars of the post-World War II period. The French state and groups associated with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) mobilized massive resources to fight the war’.# The more one examines the sheer numbers involved in the conflict, the more one realizes the truth of this statement. It involved over two million French soldiers along with thousands of aircrew, sailors, and police# in combat against Algerian forces estimated by some to number up to one hundred thousand.# The war saw a enormous variety of actions, with both urban and rural guerrilla actions taking place, as well as some aspects of conventional warfare along Algeria’s borders. Not only did the war see combat between France and Algeria, but also combat within both sides as ideological and personal conflicts combined to create bitter civil wars, both in Algeria and Metropolitan France. With such an enormous scale of conflict, it was inevitable that large numbers of casualties would result and the eight year’s of warfare saw massive loss of life, particularly on the Algerian side- the Algerian government today claims over one million of the countries population perished in the conflict.# The war, despite initially having little impact on the citizens of Metropolitan France, cause much governmental instability and eventually led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. The enormous scale of the war is not the only reason it has achieved such prominence in postcolonial studies however- it has also been heavily researched due to its many parallels with other struggles around the world, and its contemporary relevance is stronger than ever. Algeria was one of the first examples of an insurrection by a predominantly Muslim population against a western power, a situation which has been witnessed many times in the decades since, and can still be seen in Iraq and Afghanistan today. It also provides an example of the boundaries between colonizing state and colonized territory becoming blurred, a situation mirrored in many other regions of the world. In this essay I plan to examine these many parallels, and determine what the results of the Algerian War of Independence have to say about the wider issue of colonialism and the violence which results from it. I will use the works of contemporary Francophone authors such as Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to support my arguments and shed further light on the significance of the war. These three individuals all came from very different backgrounds and all offered unique perspectives on the conflict.
The status of Algeria within the French Colonial Empire was a very complicated one as it contained a large minority of European settlers, commonly referred to as the Pied Noirs or ‘black feet’. These settlers formed over one million of Algeria’s entire population of ten million, and only a fifth or so were actually of French descent with the majority originating from other Mediterranean countries most notably Spain, Italy, and Malta#- according to a contemporary analyst there were whole districts in Algiers and Oran where more Italian and Spanish is spoken than French’.# The presence of such a large minority of French citizens was related to a second stumbling block in decolonization- ‘Algeria had never been regarded as a colony. Ever since 1848 Algeria had been categorised as an integral part of France, three French departments no different from Languedoc or Alsace-Lorraine.’# It is noteworthy that Albert Camus, despite a steadfast commitment to equal rights for both European’s and native Algerians, still ‘viewed Algeria as a land belonging equally to the pied-noirs and the Arabs‘, seeing it as his homeland.# He also often referred to the groups as ’French’ and ’Arabs’ regarding both as being Algerians.# Despite Algeria‘s apparent integration into France, the privileges of citizenship were rarely ever extended to the native population, who were for the most part disenfranchised and poverty-stricken, a situation perpetuated by the attitudes of the Pied Noirs- ‘The settlers could not even imagine that the Algerian’s could have equal rights with them’.# The presence of this large European minority was to make any efforts at withdrawal by the French highly problematic. Any attempts at negotiation with the FLN were opposed and this culminated in the formation of the Organisation de l’armée secrete or OAS which originated in opposition to the referendum initiated by Charles De Gaulle which proposed allowing Algeria to secede. The OAS participated in armed insurrection, attacking members of the both factions in the conflict, as well as indiscriminately assaulting the Muslim population of Algeria. This situation can be compared to several other struggles around the world not least the colonial status of Ireland within the British Empire, as it was formally a constituent country of the United Kingdom, complete with a substantial minority of Unionists descended from British settlers. The six counties of Northern Ireland have only remained in the United Kingdom due to the resident majority of unionists and not without considerable dissent amongst the nationalist minority.# The Other notable parallels can be found with the former British colonies of South Africa and Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe) both of which had substantial white settler minorities. Rhodesia declared independence from Britain to maintain white minority rule- an act criticized by one contemporary author as ’an advance by the forces of racialism, fascism and indeed, colonialism in Southern Africa’# -and South Africa was for many decades a officially segregated state with the notorious Apartheid system enforcing the rule of the wealthy white minority- ‘In South Africa there is no longer even the pretence that citizens of different races are equal before the law, or in social or economic rights or duties‘#. However both of these systems gradually collapsed through combinations of internal resistance both violent and peaceful, and international condemnation.## Comparisons have also been drawn with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Tony Judt argues that Israel’s refusal to assimilate the Palestinians will inevitably result in the formation of two separate states with expulsion of Israeli settlers from Palestine- ‘De Gaulle, Judt observes, pulled France out of Algeria. Why can’t the Israeli’s realize the inevitable and do the same?’.# The prior experience of the Pied Noir’s and several other groups certainly appears to suggest that small settler minorities cannot indefinitely retain control of a colonized territory and a withdrawal is often inevitable.
This ambiguous status of Algeria, led to a reluctance to categorise the ongoing conflict as a war. After the initial attacks of All-Saints Day 1954 ‘the revolt in Algeria did not arouse the greatest public interest’ in France.# Little information about the conflict was allowed to circulate, with severe restrictions on press freedom enacted- ‘Almost from the beginning the Faure government responded to criticism of the war or the policy of “pacification” by seizing the offending papers’.# The government continually refused to acknowledge the situation as a war often attempting to characterize it as a ‘problem of maintenance of order’ or a ‘judicial-policing matter’.# On the international this evasiveness was replicated as the French attempted to portray the conflict as an internal affair-’successive French governments, much like the other European colonial powers, generally refused to admit any UN jurisdiction in matters of Empire’# Efforts were also made to portray the FLN as a communist group with Soviet backing# (A view supported by Camus)# despite the French Communists Parties support for some degree of French rule over Algeria# and the Soviet Unions recognition of Algeria as French territory.# Fanon, an active participant in the Algerian rebellion, described characterization of it as a communist uprising as a complete myth.# At no point did the French government admit that it was facing an anti-colonial war that was ‘bloody, violent, dangerous and undeniably militarized‘.# This refusal to acknowledge the conflicts true nature continued after its end- ‘The Algerian War was not one of the most glorious episodes in French history and it is not surprising to find that scarcely a few months after its conclusion some manifestos did their best to forget it.’# Until 1999 it was officially denied by France to have been a war and was commonly referred to as ’The War with no Name’.# Veterans of the war, whether French, Pied Noir or native Algerian (Over a quarter of a million of whom served for the French and were commonly referred to as Harki’s coming from the Arabic word for ‘war party‘) were given little recognition, with many Harki’s abandoned by almost certain death at the hands of the triumphant FLN# and Pied Noirs being made unwelcome in their alleged mother country# – such an outcome was predicted by Camus who felt that at best, Algerian independence ‘would make the country’s humble white folk.. Into foreigners and second-rate citizens’.# In addition to this the events of 17th October 1961 in which a peaceful demonstration of Algerian’s was attacked by Paris police resulting in the deaths of between two and three hundred individuals, went virtually unreported and was mostly forgotten about by mainstream French society despite its deep significance to the North African immigrant community. It only received widespread coverage when Maurice Papon, the police chief responsible, was tried for unrelated war crimes committed under the Vichy regime.# This refusal to acknowledge the wrongs committed through colonialism did not go unnoticed by Fanon who remarked that ‘In 1945 the 45,000 dead at Setíf could pass unnoticed; in 1947, the 90,000 dead in Madagascar could be the subject of a single paragraph in the papers; in 1952, the 200,000 victims of the repression in Kenya could meet with relative indifference’.# Similar instances of authorities refusing to admit that they are engaged in warfare can again be seen in Ireland with the use of what ostensibly police officers to combat the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War, or the characterization of both that conflict and the later struggle in Northern Ireland as ’troubles’ rather than war. However the experience of Algeria suggests such efforts fail to convince many.
During the war the issue of French troops behaviour towards Algerian civilians became highly important. From the beginning of the war instances of unruly behaviour by ill-disciplined soldiers were commonplace, with instances of vandalism and looting.# This behaviour can to some extent be explained by the fact that the French troops which were initially tasked with combating the FLN were not properly trained or equipped, facing a harsh existence particularly in the rugged mountainous regions of the Aures and Kabylia.# However, as the war continued to escalate, more sinister forms of behaviour emerged, and torture quickly became a routine interrogation method- in March 1955 a report by a civil servant named Wuillaume recommended that torture should be institutionalised due to its already widespread adoption by the authorities and its alleged effectiveness.# Its widespread use was largely due to the influence of soldiers who had seen combat against the Viet Minh in the recently concluded First Indochina War, many spending ‘humiliating months as prisoners of the Viet Minh. This experience had provided them with the opportunity to make an intimate study of the victor’s technique.’# The most prominent of these individuals was General Jacques Massu, commander of the 10th Para division, who assumed ‘full responsibility for maintenance of order’ in Algiers from January 1957.# He was despatched at the height of the Battle of Algiers which took place in 1956-57, during which the issue of torture was to become highly prevalent. This was not the pitched battle that its name implies, but rather a bombing campaign by the FLN which targeted Pied Noir civilians. Such indiscriminate killings provoked very different reactions in Camus who argued for a ‘civil truce’ in which both sides would avoid targeting civilians#, and Fanon who claimed ‘No one takes the step of planting a bomb in a public place without a battle of conscience’# but that for the colonized life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler’.# In 1958, with great foresight Edward Behr commented that the French had operated with ‘a ruthlessness and a brutality which may temporarily have staved off the worst bouts of urban terrorism but which in the long run may prove fatal to French interests in Algeria.’# This indeed proved to be the case, with widespread condemnation from around the world- ‘The human rights violations that occurred during the battle for Algiers aroused strong reactions in Whitehall, on the floor of the House of Commons and in the British press.’# Much criticism also came from within France, with increasing unease over the methods of counter-insurgency being used motivating many French citizens to oppose the conflict particularly the 1959 revelation that torture was being used on suspected FLN operatives within France itself- ‘Many described this as the last straw because it showed the capacity of the Algerian war to cross the Mediterranean and do untold harm to democratic structures on mainland France’.# Probably the most damaging impact that the widespread use of torture had upon French rule in Algeria was its alienation of all Muslim’s moderate or radical- ‘In the first place indiscriminate bombing, torture and the like have immeasurably swelled the ranks of the rebels… At the same time, such methods systematically alienated from France that very élite from which, it might have been hoped, some form of moderate, enlightened leadership would have come.’# Camus and Sarte, although both in favour of reform of France’s relationship with Algeria had highly differing opinions on this issue, with Camus often been criticized for ‘complaining about Communist repression in Hungary but not protesting the use of torture by French troops in Algeria’# while Sartre strongly criticized such use of torture# but often showed a distinct reluctance to criticize the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union#- both appear to be displaying the prejudices resulting from their backgrounds and ideologies. Fanon on the other hand, clearly shows a distain for the practice of torture in his writings describing it as a terrible act which harms both the tortured and torturer, inflicting severe mental damage.# Aside from the devastating impact it was to have on public international and intellectual opinion, the effectiveness of torture has often been debated and the Algerian perspective offers contradictory viewpoints. As previously mentioned, its effectiveness was claimed by the Wuillaume report and many high-ranking army officers promoted its use with Colonel Charles Lacheroy of the ‘Centre for Training and Preparation in Counter-Guerrilla Warfare’ remarking that ‘one does not wage revolutionary war with the Code Napoléon.’# However as previously mentioned the use of torture radicalized many moderate elements of Algerian society, undermining any effect it had in dismantling the FLN networks. Its usefulness in gathering information has been called into question by Horne who says that ‘From a purely intelligence point of view, experience teaches that more often than not the collating services are overwhelmed by a mountain of false information extorted from victims desperate to save themselves further agony’.# It certainly appears from the experiences of some French military units that it was possible to ensure better co-operation from Algerians by showing respect towards both civilians- ‘The population was convinced that the army was going to protect them and above all else respect them’#- and rebel POW’s- ‘a fellagha POW was a future ally because this was a counter-insurgency war’.# The tendency for harsh measures by occupying forces to result in an upswing in support for insurgents is one that can be observed in many other conflicts- Once again a parallel can be found in Ireland, with the introduction of internment without trial in Northern Ireland which, although intended to weaken the IRA, actually drove many moderates to support them.# The recent ‘War on Terror’ has seen severe criticism of the treatment of suspected terrorists in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base- ‘The type of justice meted out at Guantanamo Bay is likely to make martyrs of the prisoners in the moderate Muslim world with whom the West must to ensure peace and stability’.# Although there would be debate as to whether these conflicts would be categorized as colonial, they are anti-insurgency campaigns like the Algerian War and therefore lessons could have been learned from the experiences of the French- as Horne said of their use of torture ’the humiliation was double-sided’.#
It is clear that the Algerian War of Independence exerted a massive influence on the world, one which can still be witnessed today. A struggle at the forefront of the decolonization process, the clash between European and Arabic cultures and the chronic instability of the French Fourth Republic, it has become one of the most analyzed conflicts in recent history. The enormous impact it had upon French thought is unmistakable with many theorists and authors other than those I have examined in this essay all voicing their opinions on the issue. Its impact upon later anti-colonial struggle or anti-insurgency actions is also very apparent, with practitioners of both taking their lead from the FLN or the French military. For these reasons the decolonization of Algeria offers many lessons for colonial conflicts and cultures across the globe.