March 19, 1962. With the signing of the Evian Accords in France, the great agony of the Algerian War of Independence comes to an end. The Algerian War is to France what the Vietnam War is to America: a loss of honor, a breaking of trust, utter futility, and a landscape of unhealing scars.
Since the initial French invasion of 1830, the lands that now make up Algeria had been under French dominion. A vast tribal hinterland dotted with coastal cities on the Mediterranean soon became France’s largest colony, an agricultural breadbasket, and a prime market for French consumer goods. 8,000,000 Muslims lived under the French colonial government. Algeria’s economy under France remained weak. 75% of Algerian Muslims were illiterate, chronically unemployed, short of food and lived in poor conditions.
Algeria, though, was a special province of France. Unlike most European nations, or even most of France’s colonies, the French government made a legitimate effort to incorporate Algeria as a core part of the French nation – a French province like Normandy or Burgundy. Most people in France viewed Algeria as an integral part of their nation. Consider the way the United States views Hawaii now: it was hardly a justified conquest, but would we give it up? Keep in mind that America has possessed Hawaii for fewer years than France, in 1962, had possessed Algeria.
Many French civilians migrated to Algeria, and by the 1950s 1.2 million European settlers lived in the colony, known as the pieds-noirs. The pieds-noirs were dominant socially and politically, racially conservative and bigoted toward the Muslim majority. Even though there were many who viewed the Algerians with real affection or respect, the barriers of race and religion meant that the pieds-noirs were always separate from the Arabic population. The rub of the matter, though, was that by 1954 most of the pieds-noirs had been born and raised in Algeria. White Christian Frenchmen or not, they were also Algerians. And now we can begin to understand why this war was so brutal.
By the time World War II broke out, multiple efforts by Paris to reform Algerian government had been defeated by the pieds-noirs. The French colonists were convinced that it was they who had built Algeria and were determined to cling to their privileges. It was this long-term aggravation between the pieds-noirs and the French government that would undermine the war effort during the bad, bloody years. The Fourth Republic that emerged from World War II was also chronically weak and unstable and failed to make any solid policy towards Algeria.
When World War II ended, V-E Day was bitter in Algeria since it was marked by anti-French Muslim demonstrations that ended in violence. The Algerian population was restless, with a small educated clique becoming increasingly aware of their people’s second-class status and looking to the worldwide anti-colonialist movement as a model for possible independence. The First Indochina War, in which France suffered a humiliating defeat, did not help matters. Many Algerian troops served in Vietnam and Laos, and some were inevitably interested in the Viet Minh’s propaganda. France’s defeat in Indochina served as a signal to all its colonies that the French were vulnerable – they could be defeated.
On November 1, 1954, the Algerian War of Independence began. The National Liberation Front (FLN) launched “Red All Saint’s Day.” Even though early French attacks dealt heavy blows to the FLN, their survival gained them prestige among the Islamic population and led them to continue the war. Throughout 1955 and 1956, the FLN constantly attacked French outposts, barracks, and depots; they ambushed patrols and barricades. The FLN also targeted Muslim “collabarators,” farms, and schools – anything that smacked of the French, civilian or not. The Algerian War was marked from the very beginning by brutal terrorism. The tactics of the FLN resembled those of Mao Zedong.
The French Fourth Republic, seeking to avoid a repeat of the Indochina War, was reluctant to admit that Algeria was out of control. By 1956, there were 400,000 French troops in Algeria conducting a blunt counterinsurgency campaign. Almost half these troops were Muslim Algerians. The French used helicopters in a combat attack role for the first time in world history, as well as napalm – presaging the Vietnam War. French counterinsurgency tactics failed to stop the FLN, though they severely attrited their foes.
The military established a policy of “collective responsibility,” subjecting Algerian settlements suspected of helping the guerrillas to aerial bombardment. The French also used an organization called the SAS (or the “harkis”) as intelligence gatherers, liaisons, and scouts, similar to the modern role of Special Operations. French intelligence also carried out false flag terrorist attacks to turn the Algerian people away from the FLN, and resettled hundreds of thousands of people out of reach of FLN terrorists – a similar tactic would later be used in Vietnam.
The bloodletting and terror in Algeria prompted a political response. The weak Fourth Republic was considering ending the war and withdrawing from Algeria. The French military, convinced that another humiliation like Indochina and the betrayal of the pieds-noirs would be too much to bear, took action. In May 1958, a threatened military coup and political revolution overthrew the Fourth Republic and installed World War II hero Charles de Gaulle as the President of France.
De Gaulle was immensely popular to French nationalists and liberals alike, and raised the hopes of the French colonists and military that he could salvage the situation in Algeria. Under De Gaulle’s watchful eye, a new constitution was formed to establish the Fifth Republic – the government that still stands today. With De Gaulle in charge, the French military won its greatest victories in Algeria and looked like they were on the verge of victory. By 1959, however, the loss and pain among the French people, the savagery of the conflict, the revelations of torture and indiscriminate military brutality, and the injustice of the Algerian occupation became too much to bear. Even De Gaulle became convinced it was time to end the war.
The military reacted. They saw withdrawal from Algeria as betrayal. Multiple pieds-noirs revolted in Algiers, and right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen called for revolts in Paris as well. De Gaulle appealed to the troops, however, and most of the rioting soon ended. Some officers of the French Army splintered off to form a terrorist faction – the OAS - to continue the war for Algeria in opposition to the government, including the use of torture. The OAS would attack Muslim communities as well as pro-government French citizens through the next several years.
In 1961, De Gaulle held a referendum in France and Algeria for self-determination; it was an overwhelming success, and De Gaulle began peace talks with the FLN. Even a coup attempt by the French generals in 1961 and an assassination attempt on De Gaulle’s life in 1962 failed to prevent the outcome. While the war dragged on, with terrorism and atrocities by both sides and bloodletting on TV every night, the terms were hashed out, and on March 19, 1962, the Evian Accords brought the struggle to an end.
The fallout was immense. Almost 900,000 of the pieds-noirs fled to France, fearing the FLN’s revenge, and the home country was swamped with refugees. The Algerian Muslims that had helped the French were regarded as traitors and attacked by lynch mobs, and many were murdered. France took in 90,000 Algerian Muslims, sometimes by way of officers violating strict orders, and they became a major portion of the French population ever after.
For the casualties, the figure of 350,000 dead seems the most likely from the Algerian War of Independence. French military listed 25,600 dead, the pieds-noirs 10,000, and almost 150,000 rebel combatants. The remainder were, of course, civilians. Algeria was torn asunder. The vast majority of civilians were killed by the FLN, but the French certainly accounted for their fair share. There are no good figures, and the true numbers will likely never be known.
It is hard, after almost 60 years, to convey the impact of France’s war for Algeria. The ugly conflict dominated European politics in the 1950s the same way America’s war in Vietnam dominated its 1960s. It brought France to the verge of military dictatorship, brought down the Fourth Republic, and caused political upheaval beyond what even Vietnam triggered in America. Hundreds of thousands died, and even larger numbers went into ruinous exile. The guerrilla movement was defeated militarily but won politically. It left the French nation a bitter, broken mess, with scars that have never healed.
Even though France itself had fought its own war in Indochina, it never had the impact of the brutal, terrible war for Algeria. This, above all, was France’s Vietnam.
Book Recommendations: Been recommending a lot of Alistair Horne lately. See A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (London: Macmillan, 1977).