Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Algerian War of Independence

The two most popular topics in French historiography, understandably, are the Revolution and the Vichy regime; however, the war in Algeria is increasingly coming in a close third. It is still a sore topic in French politics and could even be called a 'current event'. It also central to the French twentieth century.

The French decided to take Algeria in 1830, under Charles X. At the time, Algiers was known as a 'pirate utopia', and the justification for the French invasion was to free the Mediterranean of pirates. However, this was during the era in which la gloire was seen as a worthwhile reason for colonization and it certainly played a major role here as well. The actual colonization of Algeria took the next forty-or-so years and was plagued by uprisings from the start. Surely, the French must have wondered if it was worth it at some time during the nineteenth century.

The colonization of Algeria was given a push by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, in which France was deprived of most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine. Many of the French inhabitants of these regions moved to Algiers, greatly increasing the population of French inhabitants of Algeria, the so-called pieds noirs. The pieds noirs would be central during the war as a reactionary force calling for ever-harsher measures against the Arabs, and forming the backbone of right wing terrorist groups such as the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrète) in Algeria.

It's worth noting that Algeria had a different status than the French colonies by the twentieth century. Instead of being a colony, it was actually considered a department of France (perhaps we could compare a department to a county); therefore, it was actually considered a part of France. This caused all sorts of tensions because the Algerians were considered French, and yet didn't have the same rights as French citizens. They didn't have any say in the government and the situation in Algeria was akin to the Aparteid system in South Africa- there was definitely a pied noir section of the city of Algiers and a far inferior section for the musulmans.

Another major impetus for anti-French resistance was provided by the second World War. Not only was the French fate in the war seen as a sign by many Algerians that the French had lost any sort of baraka that they had once had; it was also believed throughout the colonized world that those colonized peoples who had fought alongside the Allies to liberate Europe now deserved to be liberated themselves. Similarly, Algerians had fought alongside the French in World War I and believed the French should accept Wilsonian self-determination in Algeria. On May 8, 1945, the first volley of the Algerian War, the Sétif massacre, took place when a VE Day celebration in the market town of Sétif turned violent. 103 Europeans were killed, and in reprisal the French killed a number of Algerians, which has been estimated around 6,000.

The war began on All Saints' Day 1954 when the C.R.U.A. or the Comité Révolutionaire d'Unité et d'Action, launched a series of attacks across Algeria. The main resistance group to form from the C.R.U.A. was the FLN or Front de Libération nationale, who became the main focal point of the Algerian War, going from being something of a fringe terrorist group to the most popular resistance movement in the country by the late 1950s. The war lasted until 1962.

The FLN strategy involved guerrilla attacks on police, French civilians, public utilities, and so forth. It is somewhat amazing that they fostered as much support from the populace as they did, but some credit must go to the French military's attempts at 'pacification', which involved widespread reprisals against the Arab population; the so-called 'ratissage' or raking over of the people. The French paratroopers were caught in a bind, between DeGaulle, who began calling for Algerian self-determination and the pieds noirs who called for more violent reprisals Many disgruntled soldiers joined the OAS. An example of how ugly the 'savage war of peace' became was the 1955 Philippeville Massacre, in which the FLN brutally killed 123 French civilians of all ages, and the Governor General Soustelle launched an all-out campaign of reprisals, killing 12,000 Algerians. The war progressed by these sorts of 'tit for tat' measures.

The most controversial of these measures was the French paratroopers' widespread use of torture. While torture gained the French some information about the FLN, it was a tactical and moral failure. The FLN simply instructed its members not to reveal any information for the first 24 hours after their capture- giving the FLN time to flee. Also the French admitted that, for every 100 Arabs tortured, only 2 or 3 would turn out to be FLN. The effect of such widespread and well-publicized torture was that the neutral civilian population turned against the French and towards the FLN. Horror over the use of torture similarly turned many French citizens at home against the soldiers and against the occupation. It could even be argued that the use of torture was decisive in losing the war for France. The war itself was a factor in the collapse of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

The war lasted until 1962, and were formally ended with the Évian Accords and Algerian independence.

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