Historical Notes: Not counter-insurgency but a full-scale war

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The Independent Culture
ON 3 July 1830 France invaded Algeria in an attempt to divert attention from Charles X's unpopular regime. The expedition did not save the Bourbon monarchy from revolution three weeks later, but it did lead to a ruthless war where the French army pitted itself against a national resistance movement led by Abd el-Kader. By 1847 the Algerian opposition had been finally snuffed out and one year later the country was annexed not as a colony but as an integral part of France.

Thereafter, the French presence was marked by an extraordinary level of bloodshed and violence. "Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate settlers, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong"; this was the logic of Marshal Bugeaud, the architect of initial colonisation, and the result was the wholesale expropriation of the indigenous population, who were forced to make way not just for rich colons but for waves of poor whites from France, Spain, Italy and Malta. By the 1950s this had created a rigidly polarised society of one million settlers and nine million natives.

The settlers were hostile to any challenge to the status quo and this intransigence pushed nationalism towards the armed struggle. On 1 November 1954 the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched attacks across the country.

What followed was a pitiless spiral of violence and counter-violence. In September 1956, as revenge for a bombing of the Algiers kasbah by settler hard-liners, the FLN turned to indiscriminate urban terrorism. The "battle of Algiers" had begun and within the kasbah's tiny trap-like streets, the paratroopers and the FLN played out a deadly game of cat and mouse. The paratroopers resorted to the crudest methods to destroy their opponents and during the ensuing months 3,000 FLN prisoners "disappeared".

The settlers' presence made Algeria into an intractable issue and the conflict dragged on for another five years bringing about the fall of six prime ministers and the return to power of General de Gaulle in May 1958. De Gaulle might have found the prospect of FLN victory unpalatable but he quickly saw that decolonisation was an unstoppable process. For this reason he faced off successive rebellions from colonial hard-liners, paving the way for independence in July 1962.

Between 1954 and 1962 24,000 French soldiers were killed and 60,000 wounded, whilst on the Algerian side losses have been calculated as anything up to one million. However, only now, in June 1999, has the French government finally acknowledged that what took place was not a counter-insurgency operation but a full-scale war.

Interviewed in Liberation, Jean-Pierre Rioux, one of France's leading contemporary historians, has described this recognition as a brave move. It is the first step in a healing process that will allow French society to confront the Algerian trauma on a national scale, and here Rioux applauds the role played by Jacques Chirac. By recognising the role of the French State in the Holocaust Chirac has created a new climate of historical honesty which has undoubtedly impacted upon the Algerian issue.

Yet any reappraisal of 1954-62 cannot be separated from the present Algerian crisis. Since the cancellation of elections in January 1992 the struggle between the Islamists and the military have led to 100,000 deaths. With such a large North African immigrant population, the implications for France of this second Algerian war are enormous, but most obviously it means that, unlike the Vichy period, there can be no sense of historical closure. As long as the tragedy continues to deepen across the Mediterranean, finally coming to terms with the Algerian syndrome will be an impossible process.

Martin Evans is the author of `The Memory of Resistance: French opposition to the Algerian War 1954-62' (Berg, pounds 14.99)