Algerian War

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It was not until October 1999, nearly forty years after the end of hostilities, that French political authorities officially adopted the term Algerian War. It designates the period when Algerian nationalists were fighting the French army for control of the political future of their country (1954–1962). Among ordinary people in France and elsewhere, however, there was a general consensus from the start that war was the right word for the conflict. In Algeria, by contrast, it was often called a "revolution" (thawra) ora "national war of liberation."

From the outset, the various terms point to different agendas. To acknowledge a state of war leads one to examine the events in terms of the traditional characteristics of wars: armed troops and battles, but also two agents, each implicitly viewed, even at the time, more or less as a nation. Terms such as national war of liberation or revolution, conversely, describe the conflict in terms of its outcome, a break with the existing colonial order. The term war connotes progress whereas national liberation was conceived at the time more as a call to action than as a description of the conflicts. Thawra belongs to the same lexicon as the works of Frantz Fanon, one of the major theoreticians of the war; it stresses the importance of violence in the process of the Algerian people's liberation. In fact, Fanon believed it was his duty to spearhead a "revolutionary violence," turning the violence of conquest against the colonial oppressor.

Taken together, all these terms grant a particular identity to the period between 1 November 1954 and 19 March 1962. The war began with a series of coordinated attacks throughout Algeria. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN; National liberation front), a group unknown at the time, claimed responsibility. The declaration of war is thus identified and authenticated by the "proclamation" signed by the FLN and found at the sites of the attacks. As for the end of the war that had torn apart Algeria and metropolitan France for almost eight years, it is associated with the cease-fire decreed by the 1962 Évian Accords, which did not lead to a formal peacetreaty.

Although these dates were deemed politically valid by French and Algerian authorities, historians have subjected them to a reconsideration. The first act of war has thus been pushed back to May 1945, and the end of the conflict could legitimately be placed in July 1962, when Algeria obtained its official independence.


France's prestige was damaged with the country's defeat by Germany in May 1940, and the Anglo-American landing in Algeria in November 1942 further undermined it in the eyes of its colonies. Two years later, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, led by General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), attempted to undertake reform in all its colonial territories. Although Algeria was already theoretically and juridically part of France, this limited spirit of change would affect it as well. About sixty thousand Algerian men, selected on a merit basis (law of 7 March 1944), were granted the right to vote in national elections without having to renounce their status as Muslims. The extension of the franchise to all "French Muslims of Algeria," as they were called, was delayed temporarily, but the path to full civic equality had been cleared.

Yet the promise of reform could not satisfy Algerian nationalists, whom the French had long repressed and treated with contemptuous mistrust. Although a moderate nationalist, Ferhat Abbas declared that he wanted "an autonomous republic in a federation with a new French republic, one that is anticolonialist and anti-imperialist." His followers, members of the movement Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté (Friends of the manifesto and of freedom), joined with the more radical Parti du Peuple Algérien (PPA; Party of the Algerian people), which in May 1945 demanded the release from prison of their party leader, Messali Hadj, and asserted the Algerians' right to self-determination. They referred explicitly to the principles of the Atlantic and United Nations charters. Thousands demonstrated in North Constantine, in the region of Sétif, and in the town of Guelma, purposely choosing the day of the Allied victory over the Nazis. Repression was swift and riots led to the deaths of nearly one hundred European civilians. In the weeks that followed, punitive expeditions, disguised as safety measures to prevent unrest, were mounted, with hundreds of summary executions carried out by the French army, police, and above all, by European civilians organized into militias. Although an official report attempted to assess the extent of the repression and though historians also considered the question, the various estimates of the dead are still far apart. Nevertheless, there seems to be no doubt that at least several thousand Algerians were killed. May 1945 can thus be considered the beginning of a war that would not erupt full-scale until nearly a decade later.


While ostensibly working toward an appreciable amelioration of relations, the French in fact continued their century-long habits of neglect and humiliation, and the Algerian nationalists became radicalized. A legislative body, the Algerian Assembly, was established in September 1947, holding out the prospect of a representative government, a voice, and political weight for Algerians; but the seats were apportioned to maintain French domination. In addition, the first elections were marked by intimidation of nationalist parties and the results were thoroughly rigged.

For the most radical nationalists, it was obvious that Algerian reform could not be accomplished by legal means. The main nationalist organization, Le Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD; Movement for the triumph of democratic liberties), went through a period of crisis that culminated in 1954 with a splinter group opting for armed struggle.

At the time, the French Empire was roiling from the loss of Indochina after an eight-year war that had received little attention at home but had done serious damage to the armed forces. In the summer of 1954, the Geneva Accords consummated the victory of the Vietminh, while unrest marked the North African (Maghrib) protectorates. In Algeria, however, the situation seemed calm. An exceptionally large presence of French men and women—accounting for almost one million of Algeria's nine million inhabitants—seemed to constitute a bulwark against any radical change. In reality, the war would transform Algerian society and, albeit less dramatically, seriously alter French society.


Officially, the few regiments that were sent to North Constantine and the Aurès in 1954 were only supposed to "maintain order," to provide backup in the repression of the nationalists, which, as usual, was entrusted primarily to the police. But it quickly proved necessary to modify the legal basis of intervention. A law passed in April 1955 decreed a state of emergency in several arrondissements, or districts, of Algeria. The French government authorized the police to take exceptional measures and extended the jurisdiction of military law, thus departing from common law in two respects. Authorities used their desire to wage an effective campaign against the so-called rebels or terrorists to justify these measures.

While each side was taking stock of the other and preparing to fight, a popular uprising on an unprecedented scale erupted in North Constantine on 20 August 1955, the second anniversary of the deposing of the Moroccan sultan by the French. European civilians as well as moderate Algerians became the targets of savage violence and the French army undertook a brutal repression. In this region, affected by confrontations since its conquest in the nineteenth century, the breach between French inhabitants and Algerians widened inexorably.


When the state of emergency expanded to include the entire territory after the 20 August riots, that breach spread to the whole of Algeria. French authorities decided that such legalistic maneuvers were inadequate. A new government in France, headed by the socialist Guy Mollet and supported by political parties in favor of "peace in Algeria," asserted that victory on the ground was the precondition for any negotiations. In March 1956, the French legislature granted Mollet "special powers" to settle the Algerian question. Specific measures granted under the "state of emergency" were superseded by the principle of absolute executive power over all matters concerning Algeria. These special powers were to last six months and had to be renewed by every new government. At the same time, the government decided to send the entire cohort of draftees for the year 1956 to Algeria. Henceforth all young men could be deployed "to maintain order" in what French authorities described as a "police operation."

In providing the legal and conceptual framework for intervention in Algeria, the special powers shaped events in the ensuing years. They were extended to the French metropolis in the summer of 1957 and then systematically renewed by successive governments under the Fourth Republic and in the early years of the Fifth. This meant, first, that beyond the powers granted the executive branch, the governor in Algeria was accorded immense latitude. These special powers also gave the army significant prerogatives that, despite their provisional character (which was regularly reasserted), had considerable political consequences.


Unrestricted, the French army launched a total war. Concerned about the impact on the general population, it created special administrative sections (SAS) designed to bring some measure of relief to even the most remote areas of the colony. The army also took charge of educating Algerian children, even using soldiers as primary schoolteachers, while others worked to improve the health of Algerians, notably through vaccination campaigns.

At the same time, the army advised an all-out war grounded in intelligence operations. Inspired by methods the colonial police had used in Indochina, the French army gradually adopted torture to extract by force information about "the rebellion" otherwise unobtainable because of the army's limited infiltration into Algerian society. Torture turned out to be particularly well adapted to a war largely rooted in terror. In addition, the suffering that French soldiers intentionally inflicted on people was a way to assert the power of the colonial authority over individuals and families, villages and political parties, and the Algerian people as a whole.

Violence spread all the more readily in Algeria because the army, given significant powers, had developed a new theory that located the war's epicenter outside traditional battlegrounds and within the general population. Obliged to adapt to the guerrilla tactics of the nationalist forces of the Algerian Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN; National army of liberation), the French army counterattacked by advocating counterrevolutionary actions relying on psychological warfare adapted to various groups implicated in the war, including the military, Algerian and European civilians, and underground guerrillas. It also employed unconventional combat methods such as indoctrination of the enemy, using torture, carrying out summary executions, and orchestrating "disappearances."

Thus, in the name of strategic imperatives, the army authorized illegal actions by ordinary soldiers, not just special forces trained to so act for reasons of state. The military had its own way of running the war, which involved repeated and regular violations of the law, to be approved after the fact by political authorities faced with a fait accompli. The interception in October 1956 of a Moroccan airplane carrying four leaders of the FLN is symptomatic in that regard. In stopping the plane, the army violated Moroccan sovereignty. The French government, informed only when the operation was already under way, covered up the incident and imprisoned the Algerian political leaders Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohammed Boudiaf, Hocine Aït Ahmed, and Mohammed Khider.

A few months later, faced with the proliferation of terrorist attacks in Algiers—a consequence of the FLN's new tactical orientation adopted after the so-called Soummam Congress in the summer of 1956—the task of maintaining order in the capital was handed over to French army paratroopers. To accomplish their mission, they systematically combed the Arab neighborhoods and practiced large-scale torture on arrested suspects, going so far as to kill one of the principal leaders of the FLN, Larbi Ben M'hidi. The army also resorted to kidnappings on a deplorable scale. At least three thousand people disappeared during the eight-month operation dismantling the nationalist networks in Algiers and those of their communist or left-wing liberal supporters.

Strengthened by their apparent victory after arresting or killing the major FLN leaders and putting an end to terrorist attacks, paratroopers added to their tough image a certified competence in "counterrevolutionary" warfare. This "Battle of Algiers" model spread across Algeria before being in part exported to France, especially to Paris.

The international community disapproved of the French actions in Algeria; the United States in particular pressed for an increased understanding of the nationalists' demands. In February 1958 the bombing of a Tunisian village, Sakkiet Sidi Youssef, gave the international community an opportunity to intervene in what France resolutely presented to the world as a strictly French affair. Aware of that international potential, the FLN sought support abroad for its cause and denounced French policy to the world and to the United Nations. By this juncture, French political authorities seemed largely beholden to the military for their strategy. In May 1958 the army helped bring down the French government, which it considered too soft on the Algerian issue.


Charles de Gaulle, who returned to political office as prime minister in May 1958 and elected president in 1959, immediately had to contend with the high hopes placed in him. He also had to rein in the army, which from the beginning had been given a free hand. General Raoul Salan had come to acquire both political and military responsibilities throughout Algeria, but de Gaulle managed to remove him at the end of 1958.

Little by little, de Gaulle made his mark on Algerian policy. Like his predecessors, he continued to work simultaneously to secure a military victory and to win the confidence of the Algerian population, especially through a determined economic development policy. But this policy was paradoxical in that all-out war was being conducted even as French authorities were launching the most ambitious policy to modernize the country ever undertaken. That paradox attests to the fact that winning the hearts and minds of the Algerian population had become the principal stakes in the conflict. Since the FLN was an integral part of the general population, however, the French had a difficult time distinguishing between the war against the FLN and the war against the population at large.

The FLN, in fact, was considered to be within the population like "a fish in water." The military believed they had found the solution, proposing to separate out "the fish," a strategy that led to the establishment of huge internment camps where, within less than two years, some two million people, one-quarter of the Algerian population, were confined. Deprived of their homes, separated from their fields, work, and activities, people were condemned to miserable living conditions, which in the end undermined the French cause. At the same time, these camps clearly indicated France's desire to remodel the country entirely, to construct a new French Algeria, making use as necessary of the tactics of a war of conquest.


In this context, both sides had difficulty adopting a moderate stance. In Algeria, the FLN's elimination of moderates, like General Jacques Massu's repression of the liberals in 1957, indicated the growing radicalization of the war. As the years passed it seemed that cultural identity was becoming increasingly important; most Algerian residents would no doubt have said, as did the Algerian-born Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, "I believe in justice, but will defend my mother before justice."

Although radicalization was less significant in metropolitan France, where there was more respect for freedom of expression, radicalism could be found in particular groups. Among Algerian workers, a fratricidal war put the supporters of the FLN at odds with the nationalists close to Messali Hadj, who belonged to the Mouvement National Algérien (MNA; National Algerian movement). In this power struggle within the Algerian camp, assassinations were committed on a daily basis, resulting in several thousands of victims. Algerians living in France, oppressed by French policies, were also involved in the war at home and obliged to contribute money and to hew the party line. By contrast, non-Algerians remained largely above the fray. Opinion polls gradually registered growing concern about the events in Algeria, and public opinion slowly came to favor greater autonomy, then self-determination, as de Gaulle's policies evolved step by step and he asked the French to validate them by referendum.

An infinitesimal minority in France chose to support the FLN by sheltering people or clandestinely channeling money to the movement. The discovery of one of these networks, headed by the philosopher Francis Jeanson, came as a shock to the French. But it showed that some people were capable of envisaging a different kind of relationship with the Algerians. While the trial of the Jeanson network made headlines, the position of the many French intellectuals who signed a declaration claiming that those in the military had the right to insubordination demonstrates that, in the fall of 1960, the war was becoming a disturbing feature of French life. Had not General de Gaulle talked of an "Algerian Algeria" the previous March? In November he even spoke of an "Algerian republic"; then, in April 1961, he offered the prospect of a "sovereign Algerian state."

By this time, in fact, negotiations with the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne (GPRA; Provisional government of the Algerian Republic) were an admitted necessity. By staging mass protests the previous December during de Gaulle's visit to Algiers, the GPRA had demonstrated that it alone could represent the Algerian people.

In April 1961, while negotiations toward Algerian sovereignty made halting progress, four prestigious generals—two of them were former commanders-in-chief in Algeria—organized a putsch. Although a failure, it revealed the level of bitterness that de Gaulle's policy incited among the professional military staff in Algeria as well as among the Europeans living there. Some joined a clandestine organization headed by General Salan with the goal of battling those they accused of abandoning French Algeria. The Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS; Secret army organization) operated as a terrorist group, created networks of supporters within France, and was responsible for numerous assassination attempts against de Gaulle himself—even after the war ended.

In 1958–1959, the war gradually extended to metropolitan France. Militants organized meetings against torture, students demonstrated against the war, and counterefforts were made to organize support for French policy. Algerians were increasingly viewed as the enemy and treated as such by the police and public institutions. From 1961 on, particularly in Paris, a curfew was imposed on them. On 17 October of that year, to protest this curtailing of freedom of assembly and association, Algerians in Paris and the surrounding suburbs marched at the behest of the FLN. The police responded with considerable force, arresting about half the demonstrators and killing dozens more.

Although its magnitude remained unknown, a massacre in the center of Paris could scarcely go unnoticed, and protests arose in the days that followed, in the city council of Paris and elsewhere. But gradually the massacre disappeared from the history of the war, wiped out in France by the deaths of nine participants at the hands of police during a left-wing demonstration in February 1962 against the OAS. It was part of a traditional protest by the French Left, who had united against "fascism" at the end of a war, though the various parties' positions during it were far more complex. The French Communist Party had initially voted for the special powers but distanced itself over time from the orientations of the other left-wing parties, the socialists and especially the radicals. The socialist Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO; French branch of the workers' International) had played a key role in prosecuting the war and in instituting the increasingly harsh repressive measures, to such an extent that a minority eventually split off to establish the Parti Socialiste Autonome (Autonomous socialist party), later the Parti Socialiste Unifié (PSU; Unified socialist party). The antifascist movement gave cohesion to the Left while at the same time enabling it to support the major goals and orientation of de Gaulle's policy at the end of the war.


In March 1962, the Évian Accords led to a progressive transfer of sovereignty. In Algeria the FLN had managed to position itself as the only qualified negotiator while, inside the party, a merciless battle for control raged among the leaders. Disregarding the principles Abane Ramdane had tried to establish during the founding Soummam Congress—namely, the primacy of Algerians living in Algeria over those living abroad and of political leaders over military ones—the formerly exiled army chiefs finally prevailed. Abane Ramdane, who would no doubt have become a key political leader in the new regime, was assassinated in December 1957 by his former comrades, and Colonel Houari Boumédienne, chief of the general staff of the Armée de Libération Nationale (the armed wing of the FLN) beginning in March 1960, managed to turn himself into the strongman of Algeria.

During negotiations with French authorities, past leaders were used for their symbolic value. Thus Ahmed Ben Bella was appointed president of the GPRA, even though he had been in a French prison since October 1956. But gradually the founding figures of Algerian nationalism were marginalized by the returning leaders. On 5 July 1962 Algeria was officially declared independent, ending 132 years of French rule.

The months following the cease-fire were especially bloody. The OAS undertook a radical scorched-earth policy while the harkis (Muslim auxiliaries in the French army) were hunted down, threatened, and sometimes summarily executed. The violence led a large number of European Algerians to flee the country and a smaller percentage of harkis relocated to France. Those remaining in Algeria had to face retribution, which in some cases culminated in massacres. As with many statistics relating to casualties in this war, the number of harkis killed is still uncertain. A low estimate would be ten thousand. As for the war itself, the Algerian leadership had always claimed "a million martyrs." That number was reevaluated by historians beginning in the 1960s and three hundred thousand victims suggested as a reliable estimate; nonetheless, the larger number was still used in Algeria at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Among French civilians, it is difficult to say how many were killed by the FLN and how many by the OAS. The only precise figures available are provided by the military: more than twenty-three thousand French people were killed in Algeria, one-third of them non-combat deaths. The number of noncombat deaths underlines the point that the French conscripts were not well prepared for this war. The awakening of the colonial dream was brutal.

See alsoAlgeria; Ben Bella, Ahmed; Camus, Albert; Colonialism; France; French Empire; Indochina; Vietnam War.


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RaphaËlle Branche