Algerian War of Independence
This article is part of the History of Algeria series.
Algerian War of Independence
Algerian War of Independence (1954 - 1962) was a period of guerilla strikes, terrorism, counter-terrorism and riots between the French army and colonists in Algeria and the FLN and other pro-independence Algerians.
The main instigator of the struggle was the Front de Libération Nationale (or FLN), who had headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. By 1954, when the FLN became active in Algeria, France had already lost the colonies of Tunisia and Morocco.
The FLN's main rival – with the same goal of Algerian independence – was the National Algerian Movement (Mouvement National Algérien – MNA) whose main supporters were Algerian workers in France. The FLN and MNA fought against each other both in France and Algeria for the full duration of the conflict.
|Table of contents|
4 Conduct of the War
5 Committee of Public Safety
6 De Gaulle
7 The Generals' Putsch
Beginning of Hostilies
In the early morning hours of November 1, 1954, FLN maquisards (guerrillas) launched attacks in various parts of Algeria against military installations, police posts, warehouses, communications facilities, and public utilities. From Cairo, the FLN broadcast a proclamation calling on Muslims in Algeria to join in a national struggle for the "restoration of the Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam." The French minister of interior, socialist François Mitterrand, responded sharply that "the only possible negotiation is war." It was the reaction of Premier Pierre Mendès-France, who only a few months before had completed the liquidation of France's empire in Indochina, that set the tone of French policy for the next five years. On November 12, he declared in the National Assembly: "One does not compromise when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity and integrity of the Republic. The Algerian departments are part of the French Republic. They have been French for a long time, and they are irrevocably French . . . . Between them and metropolitan France there can be no conceivable secession."
The FLN uprising presented nationalist groups with the question of whether to adopt armed revolt as the main mode of action. During the first year of the war, Abbas's UDMA, the ulama, and the PCA maintained a friendly neutrality toward the FLN. The communists, who had made no move to cooperate in the uprising at the start, later tried to infiltrate the FLN, but FLN leaders publicly repudiated the support of the party. In April 1956, Abbas flew to Cairo, where he formally joined the FLN. This action brought in many évolués who had supported the UDMA in the past. The AUMA also threw the full weight of its prestige behind the FLN. Bendjelloul and the prointegrationist moderates had already abandoned their efforts to mediate between the French and the rebels.
After the collapse of the MTLD, Messali Hadj formed the leftist MNA, which advocated a policy of violent revolution and total independence similar to that of the FLN. The ALN subsequently wiped out the MNA guerrilla operation, and Messali Hadj's movement lost what little influence it had had in Algeria. However, the MNA gained the support of a majority of Algerian workers in France through the Union of Algerian Workers (Union Syndicale des Travailleurs Algériens). The FLN also established a strong organization in France to oppose the MNA. Merciless "café wars," resulting in nearly 5,000 deaths, were waged in France between the two rebel groups throughout the years of the War of Independence.
On the political front, the FLN worked to persuade--and to coerce--the Algerian masses to support the aims of the independence movement. FLN-oriented labor unions, professional associations, and students' and women's organizations were organized to rally diverse segments of the population. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from Martinique who became the FLN's leading political theorist, provided a sophisticated intellectual justification for the use of violence in achieving national liberation. From Cairo, Ben Bella ordered the liquidation of potential interlocuteurs valables, those independent representatives of the Muslim community acceptable to the French through whom a compromise or reforms within the system might be achieved.
As the FLN campaign spread through the countryside, many European farmers in the interior (called pied-noir) sold their holdings and sought refuge in Algiers, where their cry for sterner countermeasuresm, including state of emergency, capital punishment for political crimes and denouncement of all separatists, swelled. Colon vigilante units, whose unauthorized activities were conducted with the passive cooperation of police authorities, carried out ratonnades (literally, rat-hunts; synonymous with Arab-killings) against suspected FLN members of the Muslim community. The colons demanded the proclamation of a state of emergency, the proscription of all groups advocating separation from France, and the imposition of capital punishment for politically motivated crimes.
By 1955 effective political action groups within the colon community succeeded in intimidating the governors general sent by Paris to resolve the conflict. A major success was the conversion of Jacques Soustelle, who went to Algeria as governor general in January 1955 determined to restore peace. Soustelle, a one-time leftist and by 1955 an ardent Gaullist, began an ambitious reform program (the Soustelle Plan) aimed at improving economic conditions among the Muslim population.
An important watershed in the War of Independence was the massacre of civilians by the FLN near the town of Philippeville in August 1955. Before this operation, FLN policy was to attack only military and government-related targets. The wilaya commander for the Constantine region, however, decided a drastic escalation was needed. The killing by the FLN and its supporters of 123 people, including old women and babies, shocked Soustelle into calling for more repressive measures against the rebels. The government claimed it killed 1,273 guerrillas in retaliation; according to the FLN, 12,000 Muslims perished in an orgy of bloodletting by the armed forces and police, as well as colon gangs. After Philippeville, Soustelle declared sterner measures and an all-out war began. In 1956 demonstrations of French colonists forced the French government to abolish an idea of reform.
Soustelle's successor, Governor General Robert Lacoste, a socialist, abolished the Algerian Assembly. Lacoste saw the assembly, which was dominated by pied-noirs, as hindering the work of his administration, and he undertook to rule Algeria by decreelaw . He favored stepping up French military operations and granted the army exceptional police powers--a concession of dubious legality under French law--to deal with the mounting terrorism. At the same time, Lacoste proposed a new administrative structure that would give Algeria a degree of autonomy and a decentralized government. Although remaining an integral part of France, Algeria was to be divided into five districts, each of which would have a territorial assembly elected from a single slate of candidates. Colon deputies were able to delay until 1958 passage of the measure by the National Assembly of France.
In August-September 1956, the internal leadership of the FLN met to organize a formal policy-making body to synchronize the movement's political and military activities. The highest authority of the FLN was vested in the thirty-four-member National Council of the Algerian Revolution (Conseil National de la Révolution Algérienne--CNRA), within which the five-man Committee of Coordination and Enforcement (Comité de Coordination et d'Exécution--CCE) formed the executive. The externals, including Ben Bella, knew the conference was taking place but by chance or design on the part of the internals were unable to attend.
Meanwhile, in October 1956 Lacoste had the FLN external political leaders who were in Algeria at the time arrested and imprisoned for the duration of the war. This action caused the remaining rebel leaders to harden their stance.
France took a more openly hostile view of President Kamal Abdel Nasser's material and political assistance to the FLN, which some French analysts believed was the most important element in sustaining continued rebel activity in Algeria. This attitude was a factor in persuading France to participate in the November 1956 British attempt to seize Suez Canal during the Suez Crisis.
During 1957 support for the FLN weakened as the breach between the internals and externals widened. To halt the drift, the FLN expanded its executive committee to include Abbas, as well as imprisoned political leaders such as Ben Bella. It also convinced communist and Arab members of the United Nations (UN) to apply diplomatic pressure on the French government to negotiate a cease-fire.
French intellectual Albert Camus, being born in Algeria, tried unsuccessfully to persuade both sides at least leave civilians alone. FLN considered him a fool, most pied-noirs a traitor.
Conduct of the War
From its origins in 1954 as ragtag maquisards numbering in the hundreds and armed with a motley assortment of hunting rifles and discarded French, German, and United States light weapons, the ALN had evolved by 1957 into a disciplined fighting force of nearly 40,000. More than 30,000 were organized along conventional lines in external units that were stationed in Moroccan and Tunisian sanctuaries near the Algerian border, where they served primarily to divert some French manpower from the main theaters of guerrilla activity to guard against infiltration. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the internals in the wilayat; estimates of the numbers of internals range from 6,000 to more than 25,000, with thousands of part-time irregulars.
During 1956 and 1957, the ALN successfully applied hit-and- run tactics according to the classic canons of guerrilla warfare. Specializing in ambushes and night raids and avoiding direct contact with superior French firepower, the internal forces targeted army patrols, military encampments, police posts, and colon farms, mines, and factories, as well as transportation and communications facilities. Once an engagement was broken off, the guerrillas merged with the population in the countryside. Kidnapping was commonplace, as were the ritual murder and mutilation of captured French military, colons of both genders and every age, suspected collaborators, and traitors. At first, the revolutionary forces targeted only Muslim officials of the colonial regime; later, they coerced or killed even those civilians who simply refused to support them. Moreover, during the first two years of the conflict, the guerrillas killed about 6,000 Muslims and 1,000 Europeans.
Although successful in engendering an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty within both communities in Algeria, the revolutionaries' coercive tactics suggested that they had not as yet inspired the bulk of the Muslim people to revolt against French colonial rule. Gradually, however, the FLN/ALN gained control in certain sectors of the Aurès, the Kabylie, and other mountainous areas around Constantine and south of Algiers and Oran. In these places, the ALN established a simple but effective--although frequently temporary--military administration that was able to collect taxes and food and to recruit manpower. But it was never able to hold large fixed positions. Muslims all over the country also initiated underground social, judicial, and civil organizations, gradually building their own state.
The loss of competent field commanders both on the battlefield and through defections and political purges created difficulties for the FLN. Moreover, power struggles in the early years of the war split leadership in the wilayat, particularly in the Aurès. Some officers created their own fiefdoms, using units under their command to settle old scores and engage in private wars against military rivals within the ALN. Although identified and exploited by French intelligence, factionalism did not materially impair the overall effectiveness of ALN military operations.
To increase international and domestic French attention to their struggle, the FLN decided to bring the conflict to the cities and to call a nationwide general strike. The most notable manifestation of the new urban campaign was the Battle of Algiers, which began on September 30, 1956, when three women placed bombs at three sites including the downtown office of Air France. The ALN carried out an average of 800 shootings and bombings per month through the spring of 1957, resulting in many civilian casualties and inviting a crushing response from the authorities. The 1957 general strike, timed to coincide with the UN debate on Algeria, was imposed on Muslim workers and businesses. General Jacques Massu, who was instructed to use whatever methods were necessary to restore order in the city, frequently fought terrorism with acts of terrorism. Using paratroopers, he broke the strike and systematically destroyed the FLN infrastructure there. But the FLN had succeeded in showing its ability to strike at the heart of French Algeria and in rallying a mass response to its appeals among urban Muslims. Massu's troops punished villages that were suspected of harboring rebels by attacking them by mobile troops or aerial bombardment (reminiscent of Nazi tactics against French Resistance) and gathered 2 million of rural population to concentration camps. Moreover, the publicity given the brutal methods used by the army to win the Battle of Algiers, including the widespread use of torture, cast doubt in France about its role in Algeria. Pacification had turned into a colonial war.
Despite complaints from the military command in Algiers, the French government was reluctant for many months to admit that the Algerian situation was out of control and that what was viewed officially as a pacification operation had developed into a major colonial war. By 1956 France had committed more than 400,000 troops to Algeria. Although the elite airborne units and the Foreign Legion received particular notoriety, approximately 170,000 of the regular French army troops in Algeria were Muslim Algerians, most of them volunteers. France also sent air force and naval units to the Algerian theater.
The French army resumed an important role in local Algerian administration through the Special Administration Section (Section Administrative Spécialisée--SAS), created in 1955. The SAS's mission was to establish contact with the Muslim population and weaken nationalist influence in the rural areas by asserting the "French presence" there. SAS officers--called képis bleus (blue caps)--also recruited and trained bands of loyal Muslim irregulars, known as harkis. Armed with shotguns and using guerrilla tactics similar to those of the ALN, the harkis, who eventually numbered about 150,000 volunteers, were an ideal instrument of counterinsurgency warfare.
Late in 1957, General Raoul Salan, commanding the French army in Algeria, instituted a system of quadrillage, dividing the country into sectors, each permanently garrisoned by troops responsible for suppressing rebel operations in their assigned territory. Salan's methods sharply reduced the instances of FLN terrorism but tied down a large number of troops in static defense. Salan also constructed a heavily patrolled system of barriers to limit infiltration from Tunisia and Morocco. The best known of these was the Morice Line (named for the French defense minister, André Morice), which consisted of an electrified fence, barbed wire, and mines over a 320-kilometer stretch of the Tunisian border.
The French military command ruthlessly applied the principle of collective responsibility to villages suspected of sheltering, supplying, or in any way cooperating with the guerrillas. Villages that could not be reached by mobile units were subject to aerial bombardment. The French also initiated a program of concentrating large segments of the rural population, including whole villages, in camps under military supervision to prevent them from aiding the rebels--or, according to the official explanation, to protect them from FLN extortion. In the three years (1957-60) during which the regroupement program was followed, more than 2 million Algerians were removed from their villages, mostly in the mountainous areas, and resettled in the plains, where many found it impossible to reestablish their accustomed economic or social situations. Living conditions in the camps were poor. Hundreds of empty villages were devastated, and in hundreds of others orchards and croplands were destroyed. These population transfers apparently had little strategic effect on the outcome of the war, but the disruptive social and economic effects of this massive program continued to be felt a generation later.
The French army shifted its tactics at the end of 1958 from dependence on quadrillage to the use of mobile forces deployed on massive search-and-destroy missions against ALN strongholds. Within the next year, Salan's successor, General Maurice Challe, appeared to have suppressed major rebel resistance. But political developments had already overtaken the French army's successes.
Committee of Public Safety
Recurrent cabinet crises focused attention on the inherent instability of the French Fourth Republic and increased the misgivings of the army and of the colons that the security of Algeria was being undermined by party politics. Army commanders chafed at what they took to be inadequate and incompetent government support of military efforts to end the rebellion. The feeling was widespread that another debacle like that of Indochina in 1954 was in the offing and that the government would order another precipitate pullout and sacrifice French honor to political expediency. Many saw in de Gaulle, who had not held office since 1946, the only public figure capable of rallying the nation and giving direction to the French government.
After his tour as governor general, Soustelle had returned to France to organize support for de Gaulle's return to power, while retaining close ties to the army and the colons. By early 1958, he had organized a coup d'état, bringing together dissident army officers and colons with sympathetic Gaullists. An army junta under General Massu seized power in Algiers on the night of May 13. General Salan assumed leadership of a Committee of Public Safety formed to replace the civil authority and pressed the junta's demands that de Gaulle be named by French president René Coty to head a government of national union invested with extraordinary powers to prevent the "abandonment of Algeria." De Gaulle became premier in June and was given carte blanche to deal with Algeria.
Europeans as well as many Muslims greeted Charles de Gaulle's return to power as the breakthrough needed to end the hostilities. On his June 4 trip to Algeria, de Gaulle calculatedly made an ambiguous and broad emotional appeal to all the inhabitants, declaring "Je vous ai compris" (I have understood you). De Gaulle raised the hopes of colons and the professional military, disaffected by the indecisiveness of previous governments, with his exclamation of "Vive Algérie française" (long live French Algeria) to cheering crowds in Mostaganem. At the same time, he proposed economic, social, and political reforms to ameliorate the situation of the Muslims. Nonetheless, de Gaulle later admitted to having harbored deep pessimism about the outcome of the Algerian situation even then. Meanwhile, he looked for a "third force" among Muslims and Europeans, uncontaminated by the FLN or the "ultras"--colon extremists--through whom a solution might be found.
De Gaulle immediately appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for France's Fifth Republic, which would be declared early the next year, with which Algeria would be associated but of which it would not form an integral part. Muslims, including women, were registered for the first time with Europeans on a common electoral roll to participate in a referendum to be held on the new constitution in September 1958.
De Gaulle's initiative threatened the FLN with the prospect of losing the support of the growing numbers of Muslims who were tired of the war and had never been more than lukewarm in their commitment to a totally independent Algeria. In reaction, the FLN set up the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (Gouvernement Provisionel de la République Algérienne--GPRA), a government-in-exile headed by Abbas and based in Tunis. Before the referendum, Abbas lobbied for international support for the GPRA, which was quickly recognized by Morocco, Tunisia, and several other Arab countries, by a number of Asian and African states, and by the Soviet Union and other East European states.
ALN commandos committed numerous acts of sabotage in France in August, and the FLN mounted a desperate campaign of terror in Algeria to intimidate Muslims into boycotting the referendum. Despite threats of reprisal, however, 80 percent of the Muslim electorate turned out to vote in September, and of these 96 percent approved the constitution. In February 1959, de Gaulle was elected president of the new Fifth Republic. He visited Constantine in October to announce a program to end the war and create an Algeria closely linked to France in which Europeans and Muslims would join as partners. De Gaulle's call on the rebel leaders to end hostilities and to participate in elections was met with adamant refusal. "The problem of a cease-fire in Algeria is not simply a military problem," said the GPRA's Abbas. "It is essentially political, and negotiation must cover the whole question of Algeria." Secret discussions that had been underway were broken off.
In 1958-59 the French army had won military control in Algeria and was the closest it would be to victory. During that period in France, however, opposition to the conflict was growing among many segments of the population. Thousands of relatives of conscripts and reserve soldiers suffered loss and pain; revelations of torture and the indiscriminate brutality the army visited on the Muslim population prompted widespread revulsion; and a significant constituency supported the principle of national liberation. International pressure was also building on France to grant Algeria independence. Annually since 1955 the UN General Assembly had considered the Algerian question, and the FLN position was gaining support. France's seeming intransigence in settling a colonial war that tied down half the manpower of its armed forces was also a source of concern to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. In a September 1959 statement, de Gaulle dramatically reversed his stand and uttered the words "self-determination," which he envisioned as leading to majority rule in an Algeria formally associated with France. In Tunis, Abbas acknowledged that de Gaulle's statement might be accepted as a basis for settlement, but the French government refused to recognize the GPRA as the representative of Algeria's Muslim community.
Claiming that de Gaulle had betrayed them, the colons, backed by units of the army, staged an insurrection in Algiers in January 1960 that won mass support in Europe. As the police and army stood by, rioting colons threw up barricades in the streets and seized government buildings. In Paris, de Gaulle called on the army to remain loyal and rallied popular support for his Algeria policy in a televised address. Most of the army heeded his call, and in Algiers General Challe quickly defused the insurrection. The failure of the colon uprising and the loss of many ultra leaders who were imprisoned or transferred to other areas did not deter the militant colons. Highly organized and well-armed vigilante groups stepped up their terrorist activities, which were directed against both Muslims and progovernment Europeans, as the move toward negotiated settlement of the war and self-determination gained momentum. To the FLN rebellion against France were added civil wars between extremists in the two communities and between the ultras and the French government in Algeria.
The Generals' Putsch
Important elements of the French army and the ultras joined in another insurrection in April 1961. The leaders of this "generals' putsch" intended to seize control of Algeria as well as topple the de Gaulle regime. Units of the Foreign Legion offered prominent support, and the well-armed Secret Army Organization (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète--OAS) coordinated the participation of colon vigilantes. Although a brief fear of invasion swept Paris, the revolt collapsed in four days largely because of cooperation from the air force and army. The OAS was later accused of plans to assassinate De Gaulle.
On October 17, 1961 when, after a peaceful march organized by the FLN, a large number of Algerian civilians were killed in Paris by the police. The exact number of the dead remains unknown but most historians agree on 200 deaths.
The "generals' putsch" marked the turning point in the official attitude toward the Algerian war. De Gaulle was now prepared to abandon the colons, the group that no previous French government could have written off. The army had been discredited by the putsch and kept a low profile politically throughout the rest of France's involvement with Algeria. Talks with the FLN reopened at Evian in May 1961; after several false starts, the French government decreed that a cease-fire would take effect on March 19, 1962. In their final form, the Evian Accords allowed the colons equal legal protection with Algerians over a three year period. These rights included respect for property, participation in public affairs, and a full range of civil and cultural rights. At the end of that period, however, Europeans would be obliged to become Algerian citizens or be classified as aliens with the attendant loss of rights. The French electorate approved the Evian Accords by an overwhelming 91 percent vote in a referendum held in June 1962.
During the three months between the cease-fire and the French referendum on Algeria, the OAS unleashed a new terrorist campaign. The OAS sought to provoke a major breach in the ceasefire by the FLN but the terrorism now was aimed also against the French army and police enforcing the accords as well as against Muslims. It was the most wanton carnage that Algeria had witnessed in eight years of savage warfare. OAS operatives set off an average of 120 bombs per day in March, with targets including hospitals and schools. Ultimately, the terrorism failed in its objectives, and the OAS and the FLN concluded a truce on June 17, 1962. In the same month, more than 350,000 colons left Algeria. Within a year, 1.4 million refugees, including almost the entire Jewish community and some pro-French Muslims, had joined the exodus to France. Fewer than 30,000 Europeans chose to remain.
On July 1, 1962, some 6 million of a total Algerian electorate of 6.5 million cast their ballots in the referendum on independence. The vote was nearly unanimous. De Gaulle pronounced Algeria an independent country on July 3. The Provisional Executive, however, proclaimed July 5, the 132d anniversary of the French entry into Algeria, as the day of national independence.
The FLN estimated in 1962 that nearly eight years of revolution had cost 300,000 dead from war-related causes. Algerian sources later put the figure at approximately 1.5 million dead, while French officials estimated it at 350,000. French military authorities listed their losses at nearly 18,000 dead (6,000 from noncombat-related causes) and 65,000 wounded. European civilian casualties exceeded 10,000 (including 3,000 dead) in 42,000 recorded terrorist incidents. According to French figures, security forces killed 141,000 rebel combatants, and more than 12,000 Algerians died in internal FLN purges during the war. An additional 5,000 died in the "café wars" in France between the FLN and rival Algerian groups. French sources also estimated that 70,000 Muslim civilians were killed, or abducted and presumed killed, by the FLN.
Historian Alistair Horne considers that the actual figure of war dead is far higher than the original FLN and official French estimates, even if it does not reach the 1 million adopted by the Algerian government. Uncounted thousands of Muslim civilians lost their lives in French army ratissages, bombing raids, and vigilante reprisals. The war uprooted more than 2 million Algerians, who were forced to relocate in French concentration camps or to flee to Morocco, Tunisia, and into the Algerian hinterland, where many thousands died of starvation, disease, and exposure. Additional pro-French Muslims were killed when the FLN settled accounts after independence.
1.4 million of the European-descended residents left Algeria – the first prior to the referendum. Departing pied-noirs destroyed their farms and factories and carried off public records. 30, 000 chose to remain. In 2001 General Aussaresses wrote in his book that he was proud to have ordered torture and execution of Algerians during the war. French president Jacques Chirac promptly stripped him of his Legion d'Honneur award.