France in Algeria: Algerian Independence and its Lasting Legacy — History is Now Magazine, Podcasts, Blog and Books

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In 1945, WWII came to an end, but the European presence in North Africa did not, and tensions between settlers and local populations grew in the years that followed. In the case of Algeria, a “malaise politique”[1] set in between Algerians and French settlers. Eventually, this deteriorating relationship would push Algeria to achieve independence from France in 1962. Under French control, Algerians suffered. Questions, ambitions, and public sentiments regarding national identity animated the conflict, which would become increasingly violent in nature. The story of the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the history of Franco-Algerian relations before the conflict reveals how French colonialism took root and operated. The history, however, continues to resonate. The war’s cascading effects are present in the disturbing rise of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic politics in contemporary France. The foundations of twentieth century French nationalism are rooted not only in the civic commitments to liberté, égalité, and fraternité, but also in the suffering the French inflicted upon Algerians in defense of their imperial acquisition. In the last ten years, France has seen a rise in violence and nationalist far-right ambitions, much of which can be linked to the human rights abuses, violence, and torture Algerians underwent at the hands of French colonial forces as they sought independence.

 

France in Algeria

French involvement in Algeria began in 1830 when France took direct political control of port cities on the Algerian coast, seeing in the territory a vast supply of raw materials for its nascent industry and presaging a process of accumulative expansion. In addition to natural resources such as oil, the Algerian territory was ideal for wine production as well as other agricultural products.[2] The years that followed led to an increasing number of French settlers and French présence: “En 1930, les terres issue de cette colonisation officielle représente 1,500,000 hectares sur les 2,300,000 possédés par les Européen.”[3] French colonization of Algeria only serves as one example of the broader rise of imperialism in Europe, as white settlers subjugated “natives” across the Global South. In 1919, the first Algerian social movement for independence would be created under the leadership of Ferhat Abbas (1899-1985), which would send representatives to the League of Nations to fight on behalf of Algerian independence. In the first half of the twentieth century, rightist ideology in European countries grew in response to social inequality. In response to this, the Algerian movement expanded in reach and popularity.

Following the Second World War, given Algeria’s economic dependence on French subsidies, the Algerian colonial economy was devastated. “The wine, grain, and livestock industries collapsed leaving an impoverished, unemployed proletariat of 10 million Muslims governed by an increasingly French colonial state” (Hitchcock 2003, 184). If the French were to stay in Algeria, how could they let its people suffer? Algerian resentment began to rise. In 1945 in a series of articles published by Albert Camus in a daily French newspaper, one article he entitled“malaise politique” depicts the rising strength of Algerian opposition to French rule:

The Algeria of 1945 is drowning in an economic and political crisis that it has always known, but that has not yet reached this degree of acuity. In this admirable country that’s Springtime without legal protection in this moment of its flowers and its lights, men are suffering from hunger and demand justice. These are sufferings that cannot leave us indifferent, because we have known them ourselves.[4]

 

Growing tensions

Camus wrote this piece on May 16th, approximately one week after the beginning of a violent French reassertion of control on May 8th 1945, as France celebrated its own liberation. That day, Algerian citizens began to protest in large numbers. Outraged by this, the French did not hesitate to use violence against Algerian citizens who participated in these demonstrations. One group of Algerians would claim the lives of twenty Europeans. That month, in an effort to retaliate and demonstrate their strength, the French killed thousands of Algerians and tensions between Algerian nationals and French authorities would reach a tipping point: “Over a hundred Europeans died during this month of insurrection, Algerian deaths are unknown, but have been estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000.”[5]

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One of the main concerns for French armed forces in Algeria can be traced to the military defeats they suffered in Vietnam, largely because they were unprepared for the guerilla warfare tactics of the Viet Minh. Paranoia pushed the French military to employ more violent means of maintaining control in Algeria. The French would use excessive force in an attempt to prevent any of the military defeats they had suffered in Indochina.

While France was winning the war in Algeria in the late 1950s, the French public was increasingly opposed to the methods of torture used by French military personnel in Algeria, which were exposed in lurid detail by numerous French publications. Among those covering the war was Claude Bourdet, a journalist for France Observateur, who in an article entitled “Votre Gestapo d’Algérie,” gave his readers examples of the brutality employed by the French military: “l’empalement sur une bouteille ou un bâton, les coups de poing, de pied, de nerf de boeuf ne sont pas non plus épargnés. Tout ceci explique que les tortionnaires ne remettent les prisonniers au juge que cinq à dix jours après leur arrestation.”[6] In his article, Bourdet referred to French military officers as “Gestapistes,” drawing for a French public who had lived only very recently under Nazi occupation a sharp comparison between the methods used by French authorities and those employed by the German secret police.

 

Frantz Fanon on colonialism

Similar coverage in French mass media stimulated a snowball effect for domestic discontent and opposition to the war in Algeria. Indeed, the hypocrisy of employing Nazi-associated torture methods after the ruthless devastation France faced during WWII did not escape an increasingly conscious French public. The brutality of French colonial administration after WWII, in Indochina and Algeria, and the associated atrocities committed against “natives” pushed Frantz Fanon, a French psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique to write The Wretched of The Earth. He published this work as France was finalizing the last stages of its official exit from Algeria. In the first part of his work entitled “On Violence”, Fanon focuses on the vital role of violence as a necessary tool for activists to fight for independence. Principally basing his argument on the current events and recent history of what had taken place in Algeria, Fanon paints the portrait of decolonization as a violent process no matter where or no matter who is involved. He relates this tendency to a colonial structure he defines as the presence of a native population inevitably dehumanized by the settlers. Two foundational principles that come out of his work to explain the long term impact of colonization. First, he explains that it is the replacement of one’s population by another. Second, he describes the manner in which natives know they are human too and immediately develop a progressively deepening rebellious and resentful attitudes towards the settlers. Camus was warning the French public of this in 1945 when he was explaining the “malaise politique” he perceived was growing rapidly in Algeria between the settlers and the settled. 

Fanon would also explain that the colonial process divides the native population into three distinguishable groups: native workers valued by the settlers for their labor value, “colonized intellectuals” a term he uses to refer to the more educated members of the native population who are recruited by the settlers to convince natives that the settlers are acting properly, and “Lumpenproletariat” a term Fanon coined based on Marxist principles to refer to the least-advantaged social classes of the native population. He explains that this third, least advantaged group of natives will naturally be the first to utilize violence against settlers as they are the worst-off from the effect of colonization: “The native who decides to put the program into practice, and to become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to him that this narrow World, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.”[7] Some of the long-term effects Fanon focused on would help to explain the long-term cultural and human impact from colonization. French violence during Algerian occupation followed by the French-Algerian war would lead to long-term devastating impacts to Algerian nationals and generations to follow: 

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In ‘On Violence’, Fanon highlights the mechanisms of the colonized violence against themselves. (…)The exacerbated militarization og the ‘indigenous sector’ in Algeria manifests itself physically in the de-humanization of the colonial subjects who turn the colonial violence and repressed anger against themselves (madness, suicide) or against each other (physical fights, murder) in a desperate attemt to extricate themselves from and escape the sordid reality of colonialism.[8]

 

 

Fanon’s work is important in explaining not only the violence that Algerians being the colonized needed to use to fight for their independence, but also in highlighting the internal social and cultural devastation that would lead to violence and devastation among Algerians themselves. Fanon suggests that the impact of colonialism can directly be linked to violence between the colonists and the natives, and indirectly between the natives themselves. This can be linked to the frustration, pain, and suffering felt by Algerians leading to internal deprivation and conflict among themselves. 

Fanon was an outspoken supporter of Algerian independence from France and of the FLN’s operations to accomplish this goal: “The immobility to which the native is condemned can only be called into question if the native decides to put an end to the history of colonization – the history of pillage – and to bring into existence the history of the nation – the history of decolonization.”[9] Fanon’s unique and powerful reflection on colonial violence and the long term effect of colonization would serve as an instrumental source to enlighten the French people of what was taking place in Algeria and that it needed to come to an end. Eventually public attitudes and the seemingly endless violence in Algeria would push French President Charles de Gaulle to move towards granting Algeria independence and put an end to French involvement in the region.

 

Charles de Gaulle’s impact

General Charles de Gaulle, who was elected president of France in 1958, made it one of his main responsibilities to move France out of Algeria as peacefully as possible. His plan consisted of a gradual removal of French military personnel in Algeria in the goal of keeping what was left of any kind of relationship between the two countries as strong as possible. While he chose not to exit Algeria abruptly and quickly, de Gaulle wanted Algeria to be decolonized and for Algeria to eventually declare its independence. At the same time, he was attempting to preserve any international relationship they had before the years of the war: “Depending on one’s politics, the endgame that de Gaulle played in Algeria may be seen as the brilliant management of an explosive crisis in which he brought France to accept the inevitability of Algerian independence.”[10] Eventually, de Gaulle would put an end to the conflict in 1962 when he would formally declare Algeria to be an independent nation. On July 1st 1962, a referendum in Algeria was held with a voting population of 6,549,736 Algerians. The question which respondents had to answer in the affirmative or negative was: “En conséquence la Commission Central de Contrôle du référendum constate qu’à la question: ‘Voulez-vous que L’Algérie devienne un Etat indépendant coopérant avec la France dans les conditions définies par les déclarations du 19 Mars 1962’, les électeurs ont répondu affirmativement a la majorite ci-dessus indiquées.”[11] The declarations this central referendum question refers to are the conditions of a structured exit of France from Algeria in which both countries could continue to maintain a mutual and positive relationship. Of those who participated, 5,992,115 (91.5%) expressed that they experienced suffrage under French control, and 5,975,581 (91.2%) responded in the affirmative to the main question asked. In 1962, Algeria had an estimated population of approximately 11.62 million. This means that a large majority of the Algerian adult population participated in this referendum, meaning that the results were significant in showing the extent to which Algerians felt they had suffered under French control and were devout supporters of a new independent Algerian nation.

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Among many other factors which contributed to the growing foundations for a successful right-wing nationalist political party, many viewed France’s withdrawal from Algeria as another military defeat, like they had suffered in Indochina. 

The purged collaborators of Vichy France joined virulent anti-communists and those disillusioned by the weakness of the Fourth Republic (1945-1958) to form a ready clientele for anti system nationalist movements. The impetus for the Radical Right in postwar France was seventeen years of unsuccessful colonial War, first in Indochina (1945-1954) and especially in Algeria (1954-1962).[12]

 

After independence

Post-independence relations between Algeria and France would lead to a massive increase in legal migration of Algerians into France. The 1960s and 1970s naturally became a time in which many first generation French citizens from non-french parents were born. This was also met by an increase in the number of mosques and Muslim establishments in France. Traditional French families became increasingly in number disfavorable to the transformation in the ethnic makeup of France’s population. The Front National’s (FN’s) resurgence can largely be connected to these trends, and Algeria was the principal country from which Muslims from the Maghreb immigrated into France. In 1999, the largest immigrant population in France was still Algerians at 576,000 total immigrants. Today, more than 8.8% of the French population is Muslim, and many of them are second or third-generation descendants of individuals who had migrated in the 1960s from the Maghreb. In recent years, the resurgence of the Front National was largely in response to the millions of Muslim migrants, many of whom were political refugees from Syria and other countries.

The French-Algerian War carried on for eight years. These were eight years of bloodshed in which hundreds of thousands of people died, the majority being under-sourced and outmatched Algerian nationals. The violence and oppression felt by natives during this time carries a burden for generations to come. Specifically, the perpetuation of this burden is reinforced by islamophobia and highly conservative views on topics of immigration. In 1962, once Algeria had finally declared its independence, many immigrated into France making Algerians the largest population of Muslim immigrants from North Africa. While speculation is foolish, one can certainly establish a link between far-right ideology, its resurgence in recent decades, and its relation to French colonial history. The implications of colonialism, as Fanon explains, can only lead to violence and long-term animosity between the settlers and the natives. The long-term sysemic oppresion facing french Muslim citizens of North African descent, perpetuated and reinforced by the populist far-right of France, are the implications that Fanon correctly forecasted in 1961 and symbolic of the stigmatizing view shared by so many in our world today. 

 

What do you think of France’s actions in Algeria? Let us know below.

[1] Camus, Albert. “Le Malaise Politique.” (Paris: Combat, 18 May 1945).

[2] William I. Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe: the Turbulent History of a Divided Continent, 1945 to the Present (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 184.

[3] Marie Fauré, La Guerre d’Algérie: La Terre aux Remous de la Décolonisation (Ixelles: Lemaitre Publishing, 2017), 7.

[4]  Camus, Albert. “Crise en Algérie,” Combat, 13 May 1945.

[5]  Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe, 185.

[6] Bourdet, Claude. “Votre Gestapo d’Algérie.” France Observateur, 13 January 1955.

[7] Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Homi K. Bhabha. The Wretched of the Earth. (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2017), 37.

[8] Sajed, Alina. Postcolonial Encounters in International Relations: The Politics of Transgression in the Maghreb. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2013).

[9]  Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Homi K. Bhabha. The Wretched of the Earth. (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2017), 51.

[10] Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe, 189.

[11]  Sator, Kaddour. Proclamation Des Résultats du Référendum D’Autodétermination Du 1er Juillet 1962. (Algerie: Commission Centrale de Contrôle Electorale, 3 July 1962.)

[12] Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. (Vintage Books, 2005), 177

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