When the Algerian war of independence broke out in 1954, the country's colon population stood at 984,000. Only 11 percent of the population, the colons dominated economic life, held a monopoly of political power, and comprised the majority of the professionals, managers, and technicians who kept the country functioning. Their per capita income was roughly seven times that of Muslim Algerians.
The first colons came to Algeria directly on the heels of the French invasion of 1830, mainly because the collapse of the Turkish power structure left large amounts of property available on attractive terms. By the 1840s, it became official French policy to encourage settlement on the land to ensure the permanence of French conquests and to provide a tax base that could put the colony on a self-supporting basis. Demographic pressures inside France, where population was growing more quickly than the economy, added momentum to the colonization movement. Similar pressures in Italy and particularly in Spain led to large immigration from these two countries as well.
Starting in the 1850s and the 1860s, Algeria also attracted significant amounts of French capital because large amounts of state land became available to corporate interests, and opportunities for investment in rails and other infrastructure were lucrative. The earliest colonial vision saw an Algeria peopled by thousands of small European freeholders. The outcome by the mid-twentieth century, however, was that most agricultural land was held by large landholders who mainly employed cheap native labor, while 80 percent of Europeans lived in cities and towns, employed in industry and, particularly, in services.
From the 1840s onward, colons realized that their ability to maintain and improve their economic status depended upon access to political power. In 1848 they won for the first time the right to elect municipal councils, and in these they were assured two-thirds majorities. Until the last years of colonial rule, the settlers were guaranteed two-thirds or three-fourths majorities in all municipal and departmental bodies. Legislation under the Second Empire in 1865 provided that Europeans were citizens of France, while Muslims were subjects. On numerous occasions during the nineteenth century, the Algerian government attempted to intervene in defense of indigenous rights, which were regularly threatened by expanding settler hegemony. Colons were usually able to foil such attempts by invoking republican principles and condemning what they called government authoritarianism. By the twentieth century, however, republican rhetoric quieted; most colons were increasingly out of tune with the more liberal political discourse of the métro-pole. In each decade of the century, they mounted vigorous movements to block native attempts at improving their status and sharing meaningfully in the political process.
When, during the Algerian war of independence, colons began to fear that the government might make unacceptable concessions to the revolutionaries, they allied increasingly with disillusioned elements of the military to challenge civil authority. While the Evian Agreement of 18 March 1962, which provided the framework for Algerian independence, also included specific guarantees of colon rights, many of them, in the last months of French rule, joined with the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS; Secret Army Organization) in attacks upon Muslims and in systematic destruction of the country's infrastructure. At the same time, unable to countenance minority status, they packed bags and trunks and headed for the ports and airports. By the end of 1962, not more than 30,000 colons remained in Algeria, mostly elderly, or among the minority who had favored the Algerian cause. Their numbers progressively declined in the years that followed.
see also algeria; algerian war of independence; evian accords (1962); organisation armÉe secrÈte (oas).