Algiers, Battle of (1956–1957)
ALGIERS, BATTLE OF (1956–1957)
Events generally dated from September 1956 to May 1957 that marked an important turn in the 1954–1962 Algerian war for independence from France.
In Algeria, key developments led to the decision by the nationalist leadership of the Front de Libération National (FLN; National Liberation Front), which had largely concentrated on organizing rural opposition to French rule, to bring the war to the capital, Algiers, and other urban centers. These included an increasingly effective French military response to the nationalist insurgency in the countryside as well as the desire on the part of the FLN leadership to both demonstrate its standing in Algerian society and to focus international attention on conditions in Algeria.
The decision to launch a coordinated campaign in Algiers was accompanied by the announcement by the FLN of an eight-day national strike. Organized by Muhammad Larbi Ben M'hidi, a founding member of the executive leadership of the FLN, and Saadi Yacef, the military commander of Algiers, the campaign itself was launched with a series of bombings and assassinations carried out against both the French official and civilian populations. Targets included cafés, restaurants, and offices as well as the French police, soldiers, and civil officials. These acts of urban violence capped a series of similar events carried out by parties on both sides in the summer of 1956.
France's response was harsh. The French commander-in-chief, Raoul Salan, assigned command of operations to General Jacques Massu, commander of the Tenth Paratroop Regiment. Massu turned ruthlessly to the task—his troops broke the back of the general strike by rounding up strike participants and forcing open shops and businesses. More violent still were the measures taken to suppress the FLN network under Yacef and his lieutenant, Ali la Pointe (né Ali Amara). Adopting tactics used in the rural areas, Massu isolated the Arab Muslim quarters and subjected them to massive searches and military assaults. "Most notably he instituted widespread and systematic use of torture as an aid to interrogation" (Ruedy, p. 168). Among the large numbers of victims of interrogation was Ben M'hidi. In 1958, publication of La Question, a firsthand account of torture by French Communist editor Henri Alleg, brought home to many in France the nature of French activities in Algeria.
Massu's measures were in the short term effective; by the summer of 1957, Yacef was in prison and la Pointe dead, their network largely silenced. The level of seemingly indiscriminate violence had soured popular support for the FLN, while continued French suppression led to the flight of the surviving FLN leadership to Tunisia—hence the weakening of its command and contact with the movement within Algeria. In the long term, however, French policies and the nine-month-long conflict in Algiers generated considerable world attention and sparked heated debate within France over Algeria and French colonialism. Negative press outside France and growing disillusionment within France contributed in a significant manner to the ultimate decision by the administration of Charles de Gaulle to accept Algerian independence.
The events in Algiers were the subject of an important film by Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian director. Released in 1966, the documentary-style dramatic La Battaglia di Algeri contributed to the angry debate in France and, more significantly, brought home to a world audience sharp images of French policies in Algeria. Filmed in a grainy black and white and starring, among others, Saadi Yacef, the docudrama remains widely shown on university campuses in the United States and Europe.
see also ben m'hidi, muhammad larbi; front de libÉration national (fln).
Heggoy, Alf Andrew. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Matthew S. Gordon
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