Start Date: 1954
End Date: 1962
Military effort by France during 1954–1962 to maintain its hold on its last, largest, and most important colony in the face of a Muslim insurgency. France regarded the Algerian War as part of the larger Cold War and tried unsuccessfully to convince its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners that maintaining French control over Algeria was in the best interests of the alliance. Unsupported by its allies, France found itself increasingly isolated in diplomatic circles. Ultimately, France experienced a humiliating defeat and a colonial exodus.
For 130 years, Algeria had been at the core of the French Empire. France conquered Algiers in 1830 and expanded the territory. Algeria became the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion (at Sidi-Bel-Abbès) and home to the largest number of European settlers in the Islamic world. In 1960 there were 1 million Europeans (known as colons or pieds-noirs) in Algeria. Unique among French colonies, Algeria became a political component of France, as Algiers, Constantine, and Oran were departments of the French Republic and had representation in the French Chamber of Deputies.
Nonetheless, Algeria was not fully three French departments, as only the European population enjoyed full rights there. The colon and Muslim populations lived separate and unequal lives, with the Europeans controlling the bulk of the wealth. Meanwhile, the French expanded Algeria’s frontiers deep into the Sahara.
The Great Depression of the 1930s affected Algeria’s Muslims more than any experience since their conquest, as they began to migrate from the countryside into the cities in search of work. Subsequently, the Muslim birthrate climbed dramatically because of easier access to health care facilities.
While the colons sought to preserve their status, French officials vacillated between promoting colon interests and advancing reforms for the Muslims. Pro-Muslim reform efforts ultimately failed because of political pressure from the colons and their representatives in Paris. While French political theorists debated between assimilation and autonomy for Algeria’s Muslims, the Muslim majority remained largely resentful of the privileged status of the colons.
The first Muslim political organizations appeared in the 1930s, the most important of these being Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD, Movement for the Victory of Democratic Liberties). World War II (1939–1945) brought opportunities for change that increasing numbers of Algerian Muslims desired. Following the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, Muslim activists met with American envoy Robert Murphy and Free French general Henri Giraud concerning postwar freedoms but received no firm commitments. As the war in Europe was ending and the Arab League was forming, pent-up Muslim frustrations were vented in the Sétif Uprising of May 8, 1945. Muslim mobs massacred colons before colonial troops restored order, and hundreds of Muslims were killed in a colon reprisal termed a “rat-hunt.”
Returning Muslim veterans were shocked by what they regarded as the French government’s heavy-handed actions after Sétif, and some (including veteran Ahmed Ben Bella) joined the MTLD. Ben Bella went on to form the MTLD’s paramilitary branch, the Organization Speciale, and soon fled to Egypt to enlist the support of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Proindependence Algerian Muslims were emboldened by the Viet Minh’s victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in May 1954, and when Algerian Muslim leaders met Ho Chi Minh at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, he assured them that the French could be defeated.
Ben Bella and his compatriots formed the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN, National Liberation Front) on October 10, 1954, and the FLN revolution officially began on the night of October 31–November 1. The FLN organized its manpower into several military districts, or wilayas. Its goal was to end French control of Algeria and drive out or eliminate the colon population. Wilaya 4, located near Algiers, was especially important, and the FLN was particularly active in Kabylia and the Aures Mountains. The party’s organization was rigidly hierarchical and tolerated no dissent. In form and style, the party resembled Soviet bloc Communist parties, although it claimed to offer a noncommunist and non-Western alternative ideology, articulated by Frantz Fanon.
As France steadily increased the number of its military forces in Algeria to fight the growing insurgency, French officials sought support from NATO partners in the Algerian War, arguing that keeping Algeria French would ensure that NATO’s southern flank would be safe from communism. As a part of France, Algeria was included in the original NATO Charter, but this argument fell on deaf ears in Washington.
The Arab League promoted Pan-Arabism and the image of universal Arab and Muslim support for the FLN. The French grant of independence to both Tunisia and Morocco in March 1956 further bolstered Algeria’s Muslims. When France, Britain, and Israel invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, both the United States and the Soviet Union condemned the move, and the French, unable to topple Nasser, were forced to contend with an FLN supply base that they could neither attack nor eliminate.
On August 20, 1955, the FLN attacked colon civilians in the Philippeville Massacre, and colon reprisals resulted in the deaths of several thousand Muslims. In September, FLN operative Saadi Yacef commenced a terrorist-style bombing campaign against colon civilians in Algiers. Meanwhile, other FLN leaders targeted governmental officials for assassination. The FLN movement faced a setback on October 22, however, when Ben Bella was captured.
Under Socialist premier Guy Mollet, in 1956 the bulk of the French Army was transferred to Algeria, and in December 1956 and January 1957, battle-tested French troops with combat experience in Indochina arrived in Algeria to restore order in the city of Algiers. Among them were General Raoul Salan (commander in chief), paratrooper division commander Brigadier General Jacques Massu, and Colonels Yves Godard and Marcel Bigeard, both of whom were adept at intelligence gathering and infiltration. Massu’s men made steady headway, and Saadi Yacef was captured in September 1957. The Battle of Algiers was now won. The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, produced by Gillo Pontecorvo and Saadi Yacef with Algerian support, garnered international acclaim while depicting the French as brutal occupiers and revealing the murders and torture practiced by the French Army. The FLN, on the other hand, routinely murdered captured French soldiers and colon civilians.
Despite victory in Algiers in 1957, French forces were not able to quell the Algerian rebellion or gain the confidence of the colons. Some colons grew fearful that the French government was about to negotiate with the FLN, and in the spring of 1958 groups of colons began to hatch a plan to change the colonial government. Colon veteran Pierre Lagaillarde organized hundreds of commandos and began a revolt on May 13, 1958. Army leaders, believing that they had been sold out by the Paris government in Indochina, were determined that this would not happen in Algeria. Soon, tens of thousands of colons and Muslims arrived outside of the government building in Algiers to protest French government policy. Massu quickly formed a Committee of Public Safety, and Salan assumed leadership of the body. Salan then went before the throngs of protesters.
Although the plotters would have preferred someone more frankly authoritarian, Salan called for the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle. Although de Gaulle had been out of power for more than a decade, on May 19 he announced his willingness to assume authority.
Massu was prepared to bring back de Gaulle by force if necessary, and plans were developed to dispatch paratroopers to metropolitan France from Algeria, but the military option was not required. On June 1, 1958, the French National Assembly named de Gaulle premier, technically the last premier of the Fourth Republic. The colons and the army professionals had managed to change the political leadership of the mother country.
De Gaulle visited Algeria five times between June and December 1958. At Oran on June 4, he said about France’s mission in Algeria that “she is here forever.” A month later, he proposed a budget allocation of 15 billion francs for Algerian housing, education, and public works, and that October he suggested an even more sweeping proposal, known as the Constantine Plan. The funding for the massive projects, however, was never forthcoming, and true Algerian reform was never realized. It was probably too late in any case for reform to impact the Muslim community.
Algeria’s new military commander, General Maurice Challe, arrived in Algeria on December 12, 1958, and launched a series of attacks on FLN positions in rural Kabylia in early 1959. Muslim troops loyal to the French guided special mobile French troops called Commandos de Chasse. An aggressive set of sorties deep in Kabylia made much headway, and Challe calculated that by the end of October, his men had killed half of the FLN operatives there. A second phase of the offensive was to occur in 1960, but by then de Gaulle, who had gradually eliminated options, had decided that Algerian independence was inevitable.
De Gaulle braced his generals for the decision to let go of Algeria in late August 1959 and then addressed the nation on September 19, 1959, declaring his support for Algerian self-determination. Fearing for their future, some Ultras created the Front Nationale Français and fomented another revolt on January 24, 1960, in the so-called Barricades Week. Mayhem ensued when policemen tried to restore order, and many people were killed or wounded. Challe fled Algiers on January 28, but the next day de Gaulle, wearing his old army uniform, turned the tide via a televised address to the nation. On February 1, army units swore loyalty to the government. The revolt quickly collapsed. Early in 1961, increasingly desperate Ultras formed a terrorist group called the Secret Army Organization (OAS) that targeted colons whom they regarded as traitors.
The Generals’ Putsch of April 20–26, 1961, seriously threatened de Gaulle’s regime. Challe wanted a revolt limited to Algeria, but Salan and his colleagues (ground forces chief of staff General André Zeller and recently retired inspector general of the air force Edmond Jouhaud) had all prepared for a revolt in France as well. The generals had the support of many frontline officers in addition to almost two divisions of troops. The Foreign Legion arrested the colony’s commander in chief, General Fernand Gambiez, and paratroopers near Rambouillet prepared to march on Paris after obtaining armored support. The coup collapsed, however, as police units managed to convince the paratroopers to depart, and army units again swore loyalty to de Gaulle.
On June 10, 1961, de Gaulle held secret meetings with FLN representatives in Paris and then on June 14 made a televised appeal for the FLN’s so-called Provisional Government to come to Paris to negotiate an end to the war. Peace talks during June 25–29 failed to lead to resolution, but de Gaulle’s mind was already made up. During his visit to Algeria in December, he was greeted by large pro-FLN Muslim rallies and anticolon riots. The United Nations recognized Algeria’s independence on December 20, and on January 8, 1962, the French public voted in favor of Algerian independence.
A massive exodus of colons was already under way. Nearly 1 million returned to their ancestral homelands (half of them went to France, while most of the rest went to Spain and Italy). Peace talks resumed in March at Évian, and both sides reached a settlement on May 18, 1962. The formal handover of power occurred on July 4 when the FLN’s Provisional Committee took control of Algeria, and in September Ben Bella was elected Algeria’s first president.
The Algerian War resulted in some 18,000 French military deaths, 3,000 colon deaths, and about 300,000 Muslim deaths. Some 30,000 colons remained behind. They were ostensibly granted equal rights in the peace treaty but instead faced official discrimination by the FLN government and the loss of much of their property. The FLN remained in power until 1989, practicing a form of socialism until changes in Soviet foreign policy necessitated changes in Algerian internal affairs.
See also Algiers, Battle of; Battle of Algiers; Ben Bella, Ahmed; Bigeard, Marcel; Challe, Maurice; Front de Libération Nationale; Godard, Yves; Ho Chi Minh; Massu, Jacques Émile; Sétif Uprising
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