French Resistance and the Algerian War

Martin Evans has tracked down and interviewed many of those who helped the Algerian FLN - and outlines here the links between the experience of resistance to the Nazis and the struggle against colonial rule.

During the 1950s the Algerian struggle against France and its white settlers for independence inflamed passions and hatreds in both countries - while a small number of Frenchmen and women helped the Algerian liberation movement in defiance of their government and the sentiments of the majority. What made them do it?

The French conquest of Algeria began in 1830. In 1848 Algeria was annexed as three French departments. During the nineteenth century there were two waves of French immigration: post 1848 and post 1881. At the same time Algerians were systematically pauperised. Traditional patterns of land ownership were dismantled and French settlers were allowed to buy or confiscate land. In 1954, French Algeria was a society rigidly polarised along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. On the one side there were one million French settlers; on the other nine million Algerians. So from the outset the relationship between Algeria and France, French and Algerians, was a racist, colonial one, based on violence.

Colonialism began with violence and it was ended by violence. The Algerian war started with the insurrection organised by the National Liberation Front (FLN), on November 1st, 1954, and lasted until 1962 when Algeria became independent. During those eight years one million Algerians died. In 1954 there were 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries. Slowly but surely the FLN began to organise Algerians in France. It was Algerians in France that were to finance the war. Through a well organised system of collectors, the FLN taxed every Algerian in France on a sliding scale – 500 old francs a month for students, 3,000 for workers, to 50,000 and upwards for shopkeepers. Getting this money out of France presented a major problem for the FLN. Any Algerian that was a courier would immediately arouse suspicion. This meant that the FLN looked for French people sympathetic to their cause who would give them practical support. At the same time a small minority of French people actively looked for contacts with the FLN. They saw working with the FLN as a legitimate way of expressing their anger at the Algerian war. What they were involved in was illegal, clandestine work, hiding FLN members, transporting money that the FLN received from Algerian workers, 'passing' Algerians across frontiers.

Of the French people actively involved with the FLN the most famous are those associated with the Jeanson network. This had been set up by Francis Jeanson in 1957, Jeanson was an intellectual closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. During the late 1940s and early 1950s he had visited Algeria twice. Shocked by colonialism he contacted Algerian nationalists and on returning to France he wrote a number of articles warning of the explosive situation. In 1955 he co-authored a book fiercely attacking French policy in Algeria and highly sympathetic to the FLN. The Jeanson network became so notorious because of the arrests in February 1960 and the subsequent trial in September of the same year which received large media attention. But there were other networks elsewhere in France, in Marseille, Lyon and Lille. Apart from these networks there were French people that worked directly with the FLN. This actively brought together a wide range of people, often in the most unlikely combinations. One network operating in the Lyon/Macon area was made up of an anarchist, a Trotskyist and a Roman Catholic priest.

What motivated a minority of French people to help the FLN through illegal activity? What events and experiences provoked the kind of defiance necessary to consider such activity? Why and how did people discover what their ideas were, where their sympathies lay, and how far they were prepared to go in their opposition to the Algerian war and support for the FLN? What values did they invoke to justify their action? What practical examples did they look towards to guide them?

Between March and October of 1989 I conducted a series of interviews with former resisters. Through oral history I wanted to understand their motivations for resistance. I set out to recreate the atmosphere of the Algerian war to show the particular climate in which people made certain choices. What I wanted to emphasise were motives, feelings and consequences – surely all concerns of history.

Inevitably in the time that has elapsed since the end of the war memories have been 'worked over'; but much less so than in other circumstances. Firstly many of the participants were young at the time, under thirty, and their memories have 'frozen' as a result. For many the Algerian war was their first major political involvement. They were highly committed and the events have remained intense, unique, deeply personal. The result is that the issues and motivations have not blurred with time.

Secondly, unlike the Second World War resistance movement, the resistance to the Algerian war has never been legitimised. In the period after the Liberation, the ambiguities of the Occupation tended to be effaced and the phenomenon of resistance was placed within a simple historical continum, that of patriotic duty against the invader. Their action was no different to that of French people during the First World War. Thus the question of motivations for many Second World War resisters was a straightforward affair: 'I was patriotic against the Germans'. This has never been the case with the French resistance to Algerian war. Many remained in prison until 1964, two years after the end of hostilities. They were not given amnesty until 1966 and many found it difficult to reintegrate into French society.

During the Algerian war the resisters' activity was seen as 'abnormal' behaviour, it marked them out as traitors, rebels, outsiders in the eyes of French society. And, despite the time that has elapsed, even now a large number of French people would be reluctant to endorse what they did. For the right they were traitors; for the established left they were irresponsible, adventurists. The Communist Party might have taken a clear position against the war but it never condoned illegal action. Any member found to be working with the FLN was immediately excluded. Prejudice and hostility continues to exist, something accentuated by the re-emergence of extreme right- wing racism during the 1980s. In siding with the FLN in such a way they crossed too many taboos. This means that their action has never been accepted within the dominant culture in the way that Second World War resistance was.

Because of the transgressive nature of their activity the question of motivations, why they did what they did, has, I feel, always remained an issue. Testament to this was the fact that during oral transmission the sharpness of accusations and feelings about torture, the Battle of Algiers, had not diminished with time. All retained a clear idea of the path they had travelled, the taboos they had crossed, in arriving at illegal activity. A sense of personal development and personal change was very strong. 'In 1954 I was like that – by 1962 I was like that' many told me.

A lot of the life stories involved painful ruptures with their families. Jean-Louis Hurst deserted from the French army in 1958 because he did not want to fight in Algeria. He has not spoken to his father since. Indeed his father, a Second World War veteran, even offered to go and fight in his place. Anne Preiss was a member of the Lyon network. She managed to leave France before she was arrested. In 1961 she was condemned to ten years in prison in her absence. Her parents were deeply shocked. Even now the subject is a difficult one.

Across the oral testimonies I found that a sense of the Second World War resistance to Nazism was a vital reference point. The way that interviewees remembered the Second World War was central in explaining their motivations for resistance to the Algerian war.

What position then, did 'resistance' hold in post-1945 French culture? How did those who worked with the FLN appropriate the word 'resistance' and invest it with their own meaning in the context of the Algerian war?

In post-Second World War France 'resistance' was a powerful word and it is not surprising when we consider how much it stood for in the experience of France after the Occupation. Resistance and a whole cluster of words associated with it, like occupation, liberation, maquis, torture, deportation, immediately conjured up images of unforgettable clarity that were seen to evoke something pro- found about French identity. Powerful feelings and images gathered around these words testifying to the intensity of the Nazi occupation. In post-1945 France these words came together to build a picture of resistance which had great emotional force.

The resistance came to be enshrined in monuments, ceremonies, books, films, popular comics and associations of former resisters. Each political party tried to appropriate the spirit of 'resistance', creating its own memory of the Second World War. Gaullists emphasised the Cross of Lorraine and the role of de Gaulle as the pioneer of resistance; the Communist Party presented itself as the party of martyrs because of the huge number of Communists that had been shot or deported by the Nazis.

The issue of resistance continued to occupy centre stage under the Fourth Republic. There was the argument over the re-arming of West Germany in the early 1950s. Both de Gaulle and the Communist Party were against it. To re-arm Germany would be to betray the memories of the victims of Nazism, this was the position of the Communist Party. In January and February 1953 the leaders of the SS division, Das Reich, which was responsible for the massacre of over 600 French people at Oradour-sur-Glane in June 1944, were put on trial in Bordeaux. In an opinion poll in July 1954, 85 per cent of French people said that Nazi atrocities had not been exaggerated, 61 per cent feared the reopening of concentration camps, and 45 per cent preferred a Germany that was weak and divided.

Resistance meant many things to many people. In post-1945 France a number of images of the Resistance co-existed unevenly. There was the image of the Resistance as a regular army; then the image of the Resistance as an irregular, transgressive force, involving illegal, subversive activity.

In my opinion, in post-Second World War France, this illegal, transgressive side of resistance was down-played, consciously effaced even. This 'normalisation' process began at the Liberation when partisan troops were sent into the regular French army. In bringing maverick partisan troops under the control of career officers the autonomous action and culture which had marked so much of the resistance experience was eclipsed. What was constructed was a unified view of resistance where the interior resistance was more akin to a regular army, closely identified with de Gaulle, and fighting for an uncomplicated, patriotic image of France. Such a view was highly gendered. Emphasis was placed on armed combat, something traditionally associated with men. This image fitted in with the prevailing notions of warfare and meant that recognition was denied other forms of participation. It defined resistance in terms of national characteristics. On the one side were the Germans, brutal and barbaric; then on the other the French, courageous and heroic, the defenders of liberty.

Nevertheless there were a disparate range of public versions of the Resistance. Moving from the public to the personal, how do the interviewees re- member the Occupation? – and how has this memory of the Occupation structured their response to the Algerian war? All interviewees talked about the Occupation as a highly formative experience.

Paule Bolo was born in 1929. In 1944 she was fifteen. During the Occupation she was in the Dauphine:

The Occupation was very hard. At the Liberation not everything was good. We saw people claim to be resisters when we knew perfectly well that they were not. So you see my generation saw too many things not to have a need for a set of moral standards, a value system if you like. Myself, I had this need because of the violence of the Occupation. The problem of moral choices was omnipresent. The hunger confronted you with a concrete reality. For example my sister became anorexic because the food was so bad. It was difficult because she wanted to give me the bread she did not want. It was fundamental things, simple things like that which changed you. What values? Certainly liberty, equality and fraternity – these words still move me. Myself I lived through Vichy when they wanted to take away these words from us. Myself, I heard family, homeland, work.

In 1940 the Vichy regirne replaced liberty, equality, fraternity, the slogans of the French Revolution, with family, homeland and work. In 1953 Paule Bolo had a baby. This was an important moment in her life. She decided she had to change the world she was bringing this baby into. So she decided to join the Communist Party. Why? Because for her the Communist Party was the party of the Resistance.

Claudie Duhamel was born in 1937. She was seven in 1944:

During the Occupation I was in the south of France, in the Pau region, with my brother and sister living with a guardian. This was because we had been cut off from my mother and father during the German invasion in 1940. Our guardian she was in the Resistance. I remember when the local dentist was arrested. Our guardian told us that the dentist had been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. I memorised what she told us so well that I often recounted what had happened as if I had actually seen it. It was the invention of memories. I could not have seen it.

Jean Berthet was born in 1921. In 1944 he was twenty-three. He was born in Saigon in Indochina into an ultra-bourgeois family. A resister during the Second World War, he was put in a camp just north of Paris. With the Allied landings in June 1944 the Nazis decided to move all the prisoners from this camp to concentration camps in Germany:

I was put on the last train to Buchenwald. The Red Cross distributed parcels of food – bread, sliced sausage, salted things. Intuitively I thought – 'I won't eat because it will make me thirsty'. I am not sure how many days the journey lasted. Not a drop of water. Many people died. Some people began to drink their own urine. Others went completely mad. Myself I was practically in a coma when we arrived.

Buchenwald was a remarkable experience for me. When I was arrested I still believed that the best people were the people from my social class and that other people were of no interest. In Buchenwald everybody was on the same social level – everybody was cold and hungry – had the same clothes – total equality. I noticed how people reacted differently. There was an incredible mix of people and I noticed that people of supposedly superior quality were the most egotistical, the most selfish, while those from the common people showed themselves to be extraordinary – dividing their Red Cross parcels and the like. So I learnt not to judge people by their manners. Bourgeois and Christian values had no relation to the day to day realities that I was living through. It is in dramatic situations that people truly show themselves. It was the people from the lower social classes who showed themselves to be exceptional... The deportation opened my eyes about human values.

On returning to France I began to think about the experience I had been through with the Resistance and Buchenwald. I realised that at the beginning I had resisted for patriotic, nationalist reasons – but now I said to myself that I had in fact not resisted for France but because I was against oppression. I now began to see resistance differently. Above all it was the struggle against oppression, against humiliation, that was what the Resistance was about.

Aline Charby was born in French Algeria in 1930 into a rich colonial family. She remembers the colonial milieu as an authoritarian, closed world. After the fall of France in 1940 all her family were fervent supporters of Marshal Petain. Gradually she began to rebel against these values culminating in her decision to go and live in Paris in 1951. There her life was transformed when she saw Night and Fog, a film about the concentration camps. From then on she began to make connections between Nazism and colonialism:

I saw Night and Fog when it came out in 1953. I was completely washed out after seeing it. I saw it several times... It was a revelation for me about Nazism. It was a great shock. At the time I made the link between those around me who had supported Petain and those who had supported Hitler.

Aline Charby saw the Algerian struggle against colonialism in terms of the French Resistance. The colonial mentality was a continuation of collaboration and to be done away with. This explains why she joined the Jeanson network in 1958.

The Algerian war, with the nature of the fighting, a regular army against a guerrilla one, triggered off a whole series of associations with Second World War resistance. Memories of occupation came alive again and were thrust into the present.

Pierre Deeschemaeker was a Catholic priest in Lille in the north of France. In 1955 he was sent to Algeria by the Church. On August 20th, 1955, he was in the Constantine region where the situation was tense and there was a lot of fighting.

At midday I heard fighting. In the evening I saw the body of an Algerian which had been left in the street by the French army. This immediately reminded me of the Occupation even if I had not seen such atrocities myself. I was deeply shocked to see that the body was still there four or five hours after the fighting. The normal human reaction would have been to take the body away. It was obvious that it had been left there to inspire fear and terror in the Algerian population.  

As a young boy during the Occupation, Georges Mattei lived with his uncle in Burgundy. His uncle was in the Communist Resistance. For Mattei the Occupation left many vivid images, Nazis burning villages, his uncle being forced into hiding. In 1956 he was recalled to fight in Algeria. On the train to Marseille he kept pulling the brake cord and shouting 'Shoot Mollet', the prime minister. His action was noticed by his superiors and he was sent to Kabylia with the parachutists, the area where the fighting was the toughest:

You have to remember that I am Corsican and that there is a physical resemblance between people from Kabylia and Corsica. One day my unit was sent to a village. We put the older people, women and children on one side, then the young men on the other whom we started to interrogate about the FLN. I was put on guard duty on the outskirts of the village with two other soldiers. Suddenly in the distance I saw an old man walking to- wards us, and you know in appearance he was just like my grandad. The other two soldiers were immediately aggressive with him – but I stepped in and asked him what he wanted. He told me he was worried about his son. He had heard that he had been picked up by the French army and he had some bread and cakes for him. 'He is about your age' he told me. I went away to see if we were still holding his son. After about twenty minutes I realised that we had taken him away that morning and shot him... I felt like a Nazi.

Jean-Marie Boeglin organised the Lyon network. As a young boy he was involved in a Resistance network in the north of France. In 1944 and 1945 he fought in the French army. At the end of the war he was deeply shocked by the discovery of the concentration camps. During the Algerian war when the first books about torture appeared he made the comparison with the concentration camps:

I was not astonished by books like Pierre-Henri Simon's Against Torture. They confirmed me in my convictions, but it is always terrifying to find your premonitions confirmed. I had the impression that it was like after the discovery of the concentration camps when people talked to people who lived nearby and they said they knew nothing about it. It was the same thing with Algeria – those books could only touch people who knew already.  

Madeleine Baudoin was a resister during the Second World War, decorated for bravery. She was recruited into the Marseille network helping the FLN in May 1960. When I asked her if she had any qualms about the tactics of the FLN, bombing attacks and assassinations, she replied:

I was in agreement with such tactics. During the Second World War I had been a terrorist. Terrorism, that is terrorising the occupier, is very effective.

In February 1960 a number of members of the Jeanson network were arrested. In September 1960 they were put on trial. The Manifesto of the 121, signed by leading intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, declared solidarity with their action. It made explicit comparisons between the resistance to the Algerian war and the resistance to Nazism:

The question of conscience was raised as soon as the war began. As the war drags on, it is normal that the question of conscience should be resolved concretely by an increasing number of acts of insubordination and desertion, as well as protection and help for the Algerian fighters. Freedom movements have grown outside the framework of any official parties, without their help and, finally, in spite of their disavowal. Once again, independently of any pre-existing groups or slogans, a resistance movement is born, by a spontaneous awakening; a movement that improvises its actions and methods in accordance with a new situation, the real meaning and demands of which the political groups and opinionated newspapers have tacitly agreed to ignore, either from apathy or doctrinal timidity or from nationalistic or moral prejudice.

What both those people involved with the FLN, and the manifesto were drawing upon was a subversive, transgressive, highly illegal idea of the resistance, something, as I said, which had been effaced out at the Liberation. As under the Occupation a resistance movement had been painfully created through independent, grass-roots activity. Here the resistance was not presented as a uniquely French experience. Instead it was seen as universal, representing the struggle against oppression and humiliation.

But it would be wrong to see a simple extension from resistance to Nazism, to directly helping the FLN. The historical context of the Algerian war was radically different from that of the Nazi occupation. In the way that it organised Algerian immigration on the French mainland the FLN took the war to the coloniser. This makes it, I think, a unique historical example. Within France itself the FLN built an alternative way of life, a society within a society, a society at war with the French government. In actively working with this society within a society, French people created a language of anti-colonialism. This language drew on the Resistance example, but also intersected with other discourses, discourses emanating from the Third World, and defined itself over and against what was seen as the paternalism of the established French left, to produce a distinctive anti-colonial perspective.

Claude Bourdet was a prominent Second World War resister. Deported to Buchenwald he was made a Companion of the Liberation. In the post-war period he was involved with the new left trying to find a third way between Stalinism and social democracy. As a journalist he campaigned against the Algerian war. He wrote the first articles denouncing torture in Algeria. Reflecting back on the Algerian war he emphasises how the links between resistance to Nazism and resistance to the Algerian war were far from automatic ones:

The people of the left of my generation did not perceive the colonial problem. I spent all my years in the Resistance without thinking for one second about the emancipation of the colonies. The idea that they could aspire to anything but being French did not occur to me. To understand this mystification I think that you have to go back to the French Revolution. The people of 1793 wanted to create a society where all citizens would be free and enjoy equal rights. The abolition of slavery seemed to confer a certain reality on this grand design. Myths like these came to be seen as truths and for 150 years French people learnt about the civilising role that France had in the world. The left, from the leaders to the rank and file, was saturated in this ideology, an ideology that was paternalist.

In 1945 there was a consensus right across the political spectrum in favour of the French Empire, even if it was recognised that a new kind of association would have to be developed between France and her possessions. During the Second World War the de- fence of the integrity of the empire had been an essential element in the Gaullist ideology. The Socialist party wanted to emancipate the colonies from the abuses of colonialism, but was opposed to the nationalist movements. This emancipation, it was argued, could only be attained through an ever closer unity with a democratic and socialist France. Meanwhile the Communist Party abandoned its anti-colonialism of the pre-1956 and 1939-41 periods. Like de Gaulle, it regarded the preservation of the empire as crucial to France's standing in the post-war world.

By 1960 a movement in France had been created which had anti-colonialism as its starting point. What was emphasised was the continuity between resistance to Nazism and resistance to colonialism. However illegal, resistance to the Algerian war was al- ways a minority phenomenon. We are talking about 1,000 people, 4,000 at the most. Why? Why was it such a minority phenomenon? If the connections between the Second World War resistance and the resistance to colonialism were so obvious for them, why were they not for many more people? The answers to these questions involve consideration of the language of the majority and the strength of other influences such as colonialism, racism, patriotism and nationalism, and the belief in the civilising mission of France.



In Print


The App