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Algeria and War, 1954-62

In the early morning hours of 1 November 1954, small units of Algeria Muslims, organized by the Front de Libération National (FLN) attacked police posts, warehouses, communications facilities, and public utilities military installations. Their weapons were hunting rifles, shotguns, and home made bombs. The rising was accompanied by a broadcast from the FLN headquarters in Nasser's Egypt, calling on Muslims in Algeria to join in a national struggle for the "restoration of the Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam."

Mendès-France sent paratroopers, with their red berets and camouflage battle dress, showing the government's determination to keep Algerian French, the soldiers wining fervent applause from the settlers, who believed the soldiers had just returned from Vietnam. A whispering campaign begun by rightists in Algeria suggested that Mendès-France, a Jew, was a communist and a Soviet agent. The Algerian lobby managed to bring an end to the Mendès-France regime in February, after six months in office, which was replaced by the slightly more conservative Edgar Faure – another member of the "Radical" political party. Meanwhile the guerrilla movement in Algeria was picking up recruits and increasing its actions. In the month of April the guerrilla actions were officially recorded at around 200, which included isolated attacks on persons and property, the shooting of a constable and sawing down a telephone pole. The number of acts counted increased to 900 in October, 1000 in December. By then the French government in Paris had 120,000 troops in Algeria, but without being able to prevent more FLN actions. In March 1956 FLN actions were counted at 2,624. (John Talbott, War without a Name, p. 48.)

Mohamed V visiting Berkeley

Mohammed V visiting UC Berkeley in 1957.

The idea of freedom from French rule had been encouraged elsewhere, including Cameroon. On July 13, 1955, France outlawed the political party the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC), which inspired the beginning of guerrilla warfare there.

In 1955 amnesty was offered to Tunisia's guerrillas and autonomy, with French control over foreign affairs. But with a division between Habib Bourguiba group and a more radical group, the French relented and on 20 March 1956 it gave Tunisia complete independence, with Bourguiba as president of a “National Constituent Assembly” and designated as Prime Minister.

in Morocco in 1955 the French faced rising violence and a united demand for the French to all the return of Sultan Mohammed V and in late 1955 Sultan Mohammed won a gradual restoration of Moroccan independence within a framework of French-Moroccan interdependence. The Sultan agreed to institute reforms that would transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. In February 1956, Morocco acquired limited home rule, and on March 2 France and Morocco signed an agreement giving Morocco complete independence.

Guy Mollet

Guy Mollet, the new prime minister beginning 1 June 1956.

Since January 1956 the prime minister (premier) of France was the socialist Guy Mollet who compares with a patriotic cold war Democrats in the United States. Mollet had what can be compared to President Johnson's Tonkin Gulf Resolution: the Special Powers Law of March 16, 1956, which parliament gave to the government in a vote of 455 to 76. The government sent draftees to Algeria, who were more like guards while the professional and more glamorous paratroops, about three percent of the total forces, dashed from one fire to another.

The FLN tightened its organization and began focusing on terrorism in the cities, mainly Algiers. Their stronghold in Algiers was the thickly populated Casbah, described by some as a slum. European settlers tried terror of their own. On August 10 they blew up an apartment building in the Casbah, killing at least fifty Algerians. The FLN retaliated with bombings at popular European hangouts.

By 1 January 1957 the French had 308,000 soldiers in Algeria. On 28 January1957 the UN was scheduled to debate the Algerian question, and for that day the FLN scheduled a one-week work stoppage in Algiers by Muslims against French rule. France's General Massu broke the strike, forcing Muslims back to work and breaking in the storefronts of recalcitrant shopkeepers. That year General Massu broke the FLN's network in Algiers. There were check points in the streets, but that was mainly show for reassuring settlers that something was being done. The real action was patrols, from door to door, during the day and night, the rounding up of suspects and questions such as who is the person in your area who collects funds for the FLN. The French show captured low ranking guerrillas documents describing other guerrillas as working for the French and then release the guerrillas, and some are taken in by the trick, resulting in the purging within the FLN. The army was able to trace down FLN operatives and believed that torture was helping them do so. The French succeeded in forcing FLN soldiers to flee Algiers, and this success was celebrated by French hardliners and the European settlers.

The Left in France raised the issue of torture, portraying Massu's men as a reincarnation of the German SS. The Mollet government accused the anti-torture campaign on the "enemies of France," implying it was the work basically of the Communist Party. The campaign against torture was much broader among French intellectuals, while the majority of France remained silent. The protest was futile. Torture by the French in Algeria was common. Many taken captive by the French died in captivity. Paul Teitgen, who had been tortured by the Germans during World War II resigned his post in Algeria and wrote:

Understand this, fear was the basis of it all. All of our so-called civilization is covered wit a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French, even the Germans, are not torturers by nation. But when you see the throats of your copains (buddies) slit, then the varnish disappears.note6

The French military made itself dominant across much of Algeria, resulting in FLN complaints of people no longer wanting to work with them. In searching for suspects the military was uprooting people from their homes and fields and imprisoning them them in camps. To escape the military thousands of Algerians fled to Tunisia or Morocco and joined the FLN there. Military success was not producing political success. The FLN was able to continue its terrorism, killing persons here and there. The war was becoming a matter of which side would wear down the other first. A good bet would have been that the nationalism of the Algerian people, enhanced and broadened by the actions of France's military, would win against the European minority in Algeria and their rightist French supporters. The political right saw the matter in terms of military victory or surrender to terrorism, and they feared a political solution.

President Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle, prime minister in June 1958, president in January 1959.

In the spring of 1958 army leaders and European settlers in Algeria staged a mass demonstration in Algiers directed against any attempt in Paris to form a government that would make concessions to the Algerian Muslim nationalists. In France political leaders of various persuasions turned to Charles de Gaulle as the one person who could solve the divisions created by the war. On June 1, 1958, the National Assembly named de Gaulle prime minister and granted him wide emergency powers, including the right to prepare a new constitution to be submitted to a popular referendum. In September 1958 the new constitution, providing for a presidential system, was overwhelmingly adopted by 83 percent of the electorate. In December de Gaulle was elected president of the France's new Fifth Republic by a 78 percent of the France's electoral college. He was inaugurated in January 1959. Michel Debre became the first prime minister of the Fifth Republic, but the President retained the decisive voice in all matters involving foreign affairs, national defense, and even key domestic policies.

De Gaulle was concerned about France's economy and its position among the world's bigger powers. As Senator John F. Kennedy observed in the United States, the war in Algeria was opposed by Asian-African nations, a Cold War liability and a detriment to economic interdependent between France and those historically associated with France. De Gaulle believed that while the war in Algeria was militarily winnable but not good politics. France's defeat in Vietnam had disillusioned de Gaulle concerning French colonialism. He wanted accommodation with those historically tied to France, not war.

In 1958 France replaced the colonial association called the "French Union" with the " French Community" Member of the French Community were to have substantial autonomy, with France controlling only the currency, defense, and national security strategy. De Gaulle specified that any country within the community would have the option of moving to complete independence. Apart from Guinea, which chose by referendum in 1958 not to join the Community, all French-ruled territories in sub-Saharan Africa joined the community and they in 1960 they acquired independence. They included Cameroon, Togo, Senegal, Niger, Dahomy, Chad, Gabon,Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, The Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire), Mali and, in late November, Mauritania. Since 1956 France had been moving Madagascar toward independence, and it became fully independent on June 26, 1960.

By 1960, de Gaulle believed it was a dreadful mockery to claim that Algeria's Muslims were French. French troops were still in Algeria and de Gaulle continued to favor law and order there, that it was a delusion to see political solution in their integration or Frenchification with France by force. In January he dismissed General Massu who had suggested in an interview opposition to him. Massu was a hero to the European settlers, and they erected barricades in the center of their part of Algiers. French gendarmes ordered them to disperse. The settlers killed 14 gendarmes and wounded 123, Behind the barricades six died and 26 wounded.

In the summer of 1960 de Gaulle spoke of Algeria as Algerian (Algérie algérienne). In his New Year greeting to his fellow French he spoke again of Algeria and Algerian. In April 1961 army commanders in Algeria revolted. It was a fiasco. De Gaulle used emergency powers to put down risings by the European settlers. A Secret Army Organization (OAS) organized by army rightists to keep Algerian French, resorted to terrorism in Paris and to attempts to assassinate de Gaulle. All of it failed. In a referendum on Algerian self-determination, 75.2 percent of the vote in France was in favor. In March, talks between the French government and representatives of the Muslim Algerians were announced. The talks dragged on into 1962, with the status of Algeria's European settlers an issue and France unable to win recognition of part of the desert in the south as not a part of Algeria. In September de Gaulle abandoned his desire for the desert areas remaining separate. The Muslim negotiators assured the French that the European settlers would not have to fear reprisals but the French wanted specific guarantees, while the Europeans settlers were seeing their alternatives under the Muslims as either "the suitcase or the coffin" and almost everyday a settler was killing a Muslim and a Muslim was killing a settler. The Algerian negotiators insisted that everyone who remained in Algeria were to be Algerians, not French. Finally, on March 18, 1962, at Évian-les-Bains, on the French side of Lake Geneva, a 98-page agreement was reached. The conflict, never called a war by France's government, was finished. The Europeans, it was agreed, would receive seats in Algerian public assemblies in proportional to their public number. On July 3, Algeria became officially independent. Meanwhile, around 800,000 – an overwhelming majority – of those in Algeria of European descent had begun their return to Europe.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.