Algeria: France's Undeclared War
It is instructive to compare the decline and post-Second World War destiny of the British and French empires. Whereas a Labour government in Britain, resigned to the end of its imperial role, granted independence to India and later governments through the 1950s and early 60s handed power to a string of new states in Africa and Asia, largely peacefully, France fought two disastrous wars in a futile bid to hang on to its colonial possessions. The war in French Indo-China ended in the rout of France’s army at the hands of the nationalist/Communist Viet Minh movement at Dien Bien Phu, while the war in Algeria against the Arab nationalist FLN , the subject of this impressive study, ended in an even more bitter humiliation – one with repercussions that still echo in France today.
Throughout most of the seven years (1954-62) that the Algerian conflict lasted the government in Paris, which conducted a ferocious war fuelled by the shame of its defeat in Indo-China, was run by Socialists. Prominent among them was Guy Mollet, the prime minister who collaborated with Britain in the 1956 Suez misadventure because Nasser’s Egypt was the main backer of the FLN; and a young and ambitious politician named François Mitterrand. The future French president served successively as interior and justice minister. One of the surprises of Martin Evans’ book for those who might associate the Left, especially the French Left, with anti-imperialism, is how deeply the Socialists were committed to the concept of French Algeria, even to the extent of condoning the torture and extra-judicial execution of captured FLN fighters. Finally a conservative French patriot, Charles de Gaulle, brought the war to an end and with it France’s 130-year rule over Algeria.
The FLN’s well co-ordinated uprising had begun in 1954 the same year as the Dien Bien Phu debacle. From the outset the struggle was conducted with appalling savagery. One means by which the FLN forced the majority of Algeria’s nine million Muslim inhabitants to back them was to make themselves even more feared than the French. Thus the massacres in villages, the gouging of eyes, slicing off of breasts and genitals and burning of babies became commonplace. The French responded in kind using electric shocks and waterboarding.
The conflict was more complicated than most colonial struggles, as Algeria had a sizeable European community of perhaps one in ten of the population fanatically determined to protect its privileged position in a system that preached the fiction that there was no difference between Calais and Oran. Allegedly all Algerians were French citizens (except that some enjoyed more liberty, equality and fraternity than others).
It was Algeria’s whites, known as Pied Noirs, a term Evans dislikes, who adamantly opposed any concessions to the FLN. They looked on the army as their saviours. It was the alliance between settlers, knowing they had no future in an Arab-ruled Muslim Algeria, and an army determined not to repeat its shameful defeat and retreat from Indo-China that prolonged the conflict and brought down governments in Paris and finally the Fourth Republic itself. De Gaulle accepted that there was no alternative to handing over power to the FLN. The Pied Noirs, offered a choice between ‘the suitcase or the coffin’, chose the former and fled in their hundreds of thousands to a motherland many had never seen and which they bitterly believed had betrayed them. The FLN, for its part, hardened and corrupted by the war, turned inwards with murderous infighting that killed many of its surviving leaders. Independence brought not the freedom that so many had fought and died for, but a military dictatorship that has held power ever since.
Martin Evans has written a thorough and dispassionate history of a war which, with the Arab Spring fast turning into winter and anguished debates over the morality of torturing ‘terrorists’, has a grim topicality for our times. Whereas the standard English history of the conflict, Alistair Horne’s superb but dated A Savage War of Peace, emphasised the French side of the war, Evans’ great achievement is to ‘Algerianise’ the struggle. He takes us inside the murderous politics of the FLN and its current ossified leadership, whose original pan-Arab Socialist nationalism now looks impossibly untenable and eventually fated to fall before the hot desert wind of fundamentalist Islam.
Nigel Jones is the author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson, 2011).
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