La Guerre d’Algérie

“War is an act of violence that has no limit.”[1]

The Conquest of Constantine 1837 by Horace Vernet

Upon Algerian independence in 1962, France and its former colony could look back at an armed conflict that had lasted for eight years, cost the lives of close to half a million people and radically transformed the French Republic itself. When Algerian demands for civil rights and greater autonomy fell on death ears, the resultant actions taken by militant Algerians would trigger disproportionate French reprisals and a spiral of escalating violence would be set in motion. The taboo that still surrounds the topic in modern France bears witness of the tragedy that was the Algerian war in terms of both scope but also the intensity of violent methods employed as both sides would resort to and systematise the most unspeakable acts of violence. Following the classical doctrine of guerrilla warfare, the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) employed terror as a weapon, aimed at provoking violent reprisals from the French regime. The reprisals would lead to a spiral of violence, recruiting soldiers to the guerrilla movement, whilst disrupting society and force public opinion against the incumbent political administration. The polarisation and mobilisation of a society in which the metropolitan imperial power was in an overwhelming minority would ultimately lead to defeat, as public opinion in the metropole’s democratic system would not tolerate the coercive methods used to maintain sovereignty.

To seek the causes for the violent nature of the decolonisation one must see the transition in terms of the events and circumstances preceeding it, the particularities of Algerian society, culture and geography, the French metropolitan regime and policies, the FLN’s ideological agenda and the doctrines of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency.

L’Algérie Française

We did not bring to Africa our liberal institutions; instead we dispossessed it of the only ones which resembled them.”[2]

Containing some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, Algeria is situated northeast on the African continent, covering the lion’s share of the Maghreb, second only to the Sudan in size. With most of the population inhabiting the arable and hilly areas along the coast, the interior is sparsely populated with rugged terrain, alternating between desert and mountains. It is here the native Berbers would seek refuge from the various conquerors that through the course of history settled along the Mediterranean. The three most influential of these conquering peoples in relation to Algeria’s modern society were the Arabs, the Ottomans and the French. With the Arab invasions came Islam and the associated Arabic language and culture, the Ottoman Turks was the first power that would establish Algeria as a distinct political entity in the Maghreb, whilst the French would extend the frontiers to penetrate deep into the Saharan desert[3].

Realising a plan initially devised by Napoleon, Bourbon France launched an assault on the Regency of Algiers in 1830, rapidly capturing the city and exiling the Ottoman Dey. France would however be met with considerable resistance another seventeen years, most notably from the emir of Mascara Abd al-Qadir, using the terrain and highly mobile troops to attack the French in a guerrilla fashion[4]. In a premonition of what would follow over one hundred years later, the emir’s resistance strategy and tactics would in substantial ways be mirrored by the FLN, both in terms of using neighbouring states as sanctuaries, emphasising mobility, engaging the enemy on their own terms and the use of the terrain to their own advantage. In the same manner and initially on the receiving end, French strategy would evolve to meet the challenge put forth by the emir, under the leadership of Marshal Bugeaud. Combining a surge of troops, mobile “flying-columns”, punishment raids, a brutal scorched earth tactic, a network of army posts and direct political administration of villages to quell the resistance[5].

Marshal Bugeaud

Over the 1840s France would subsidise immigration of European settlers leading “eventually to the formation of a sharply divided caste society[6], the Second French Republic ultimately declaring Algeria to be an integral part of its land in 1848. The initial forty-year period of French rule, Algeria was primarily administered by the military, with local governance in the hands of Marshal Bugeaud’s Bureaux Arabes[7]. With a growing European population, referred to as the pied noir, demands for political reform was met by the metropolitan authorities in the 1870s, the reforms enacted would largely be in place until Algerian independence. This included the formation of three départements in Algiers, Oran and Constantine. These were the regions that had seen the most pronounced European immigration, and the settlers would be afforded similar rights and political representation as those of mainland France. Above the departmental prefects was the governor-general, traditionally never a pied noir, which in turn would report to the French Ministry of the Interior. The councils advising the governor-general was both dominated by Europeans, with partially elected members and the remaining appointed from the cadre of officers and prefects. The minority Algerian delegates underwent careful screening before being appointed[8].  Outside the three départements direct military rule prevailed, whilst the lowest level of civil administration was either the communes de plein exercice or the communes mixte[9] depending upon the ratio of pied noir to Muslims. Irrespective of Muslim proportion the pied noir held sway over every important political position, reserving three fifths of the municipal council seats for Europeans. The communes mixte resembled most the European model of ‘empire on the cheap’ and would as such also be the source of most Algerian dismay over the course of the 20th century. Consisting of an appointed pied noir administrator, ruling with the help of local caïds[10], the ratio of administrators to natives could reach 1:60,000[11].

Muslim Algerians, regarded as subjects, would have the opportunity to gain French citizenship, but as this would entail renouncing sharia law it remained a theoretical option for the vast majority[12].  The natives would thus be subjected to open discrimination by the colonial state, in terms of political rights and in the access to education and other state provided services.

Triple Exécution a Sétif by Fortune-Louis Meaulle

Prima facie evidence of this discrimination was the series of exceptive laws enacted in the 1870s outside of French common law and applicable only to Muslim Algerians, the code de l’indigénat. The laws, surviving in essence until the Second World War, provided the regime with the right to punish those within its jurisdiction for thirty-three infractions. These included defaming the French Republic, speaking disrespectfully to an official, travelling without a permit or failing to report a birth[13]. As the code de l’indigénat primarily dealt with minor infringements another court system was set up in 1902 to deliver swift justice in more serious cases, the tribunaux répressifs[14].

In tandem with the special judicial treatment, the Muslim Algerians were also subjected to fiscal inequality in the form of a continuation of the Ottoman taxation regime, the impôts arabes, in addition to an introduction of a range of French taxes. Some of these were taxes on land, on livestock, infrastructure maintenance, in addition to an obligation to supply labour, corvée, for the state[15].

Whilst the greatest fault line of French Algeria was drawn between the European pied noir and the Muslim indigènes, another distinct divide existed between the ordinary settler, referred to as the petit blancs and the oligarchic elite, the grands colons. Most ordinary pied noir were working or lower middle-class of mixed European descent, whilst the grands colons were gradually to come into possession of Algeria’s best farmland and largest companies. Of the 984,031 pied noir resident in Algeria by 1954[16] only one fifth were of French origin, the remaining eighty percent were of Spanish, Italian, Maltese or other European descent[17].  These socio-economic aspects of the pied noir population served to heighten their perception of being in direct competition with and threatened by the Algerian natives. Equally, as some were fifth generation colon and perhaps without substantial French ancestry, the pied noir would naturally regard Algeria to be their place of origin and retain a strong affinity to the land.

The asymmetric legal, political and economic status in favour of the pied noir in the mid 20th century was thus apparent. With the circa one million Europeans owning, in a principally agricultural economy, more than 2.7 million hectares of the best cultivable land, controlling all political institutions and using the law as an instrument to reinforce this status quo. French policy had resulted in a marked deterioration of the Algerian economy, with particularly dire consequences for the native peoples, driving them from their farmland through expropriations and agricultural consolidation strategies, leading to urbanisation. External factors such as several poor harvests, the great depression and the Spanish flu would add to and exacerbate the economic consequences of poor governance.

Aside from the political, legal and fiscal-economic discrimination, the native population would also be confronted with little French understanding of the centrality that religion played in their society. With French authorities taking control of all principal religious establishments such as the three madrasas exclusively licensing clerics, in addition to eroding the financial positions of the religious institutions[18].

The 8.5 million Algerians[19] were substantially marginalised despite being in a clear majority in their own land; this laid the foundation for the counter-colonial ideology that would find fertile ground among the population.

Reform proposals from the Algerian elite seeking to alter this privileged pied noir position vis-á-vis the indigenous population was vehemently opposed by settler parliamentary representatives in mainland France. The survival of an apartheid-like system was seen as crucial for the Europeans to continue maintaining an income per capita that was on average seven times higher than that of the indigenous population[20]. The centenary celebrations of the French conquest in 1930 marked a watershed in the political awakening of Algeria’s Muslims. Large public demonstrations took place all over the country, with all social classes joining in.  With the ascension of Léon Blum to French Premiership in 1936 a reform bill, after consulting with former governor-general Maurice Violette, was suggested.

Léon Blum

The Blum-Violette bill would extend French citizenship to an approximate 20,000 members of the Algerian native elite, without prejudice to their personal status as Muslims[21]. Although seemingly not radical, the bill defined Algerians, among a range of other qualifying prerequisites, which held certain academic degrees as eligible for citizenship. This could have a substantial impact over time as educational opportunities spread.  However, the proposed reform bill would never be passed due to a combination of pied noir lobbying and French concern against the weakening of its strategic position in Algeria during a growing military threat from Nazi Germany. The failure of the bill only served to alienate the moderate Algerian political establishment, now turning instead to the radical nationalist movements seeking Algerian autonomy such as Messali Hadj’s Étoile Nord-Africaine (ENA)[22]. The moderate integrationist Ferhat Abbas became disillusioned and would later establish Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien in 1946, for then to join the FLN in 1955.

At this point French policy had moulded the social reality in Algeria to fulfil nearly all prerequisites for a militant movement to launch a successful insurgency against the incumbent regime. However, practical capability in the form of military training was still lacking among Algerian youth, but this would soon change with the advent of the Second World War.

The Logic of Terror

“Insurgency is the pursuit of the policy of a party, inside a country, by every means.”[23] Revolutionary wars are by nature political and generally fought as insurgencies; Galula (1964)[24] has identified four key prerequisites for it to be successful: an ideological cause that is widespread among the population; administrative weakness within the incumbent regime; a not-too-hostile geographic environment; and outside support in the middle and later stages.

David Galula

It is inherently an asymmetric type of warfare, whereby the insurgent possesses the strategic initiative, he can choose when to strike and thus under the most favourable circumstances. There is a substantial power difference between the insurgent and counterinsurgent, this is most pronounced in tangible assets such as military weapons and personnel. The successful insurgent on the other hand will possess the most intangible assets in the form of ideological power and he can use the population to become invisible to the counterinsurgent. The regime also possesses a great liability; it must uphold order throughout the country. Creating disorder is the insurgent’s tactical objective; it disrupts the economy and undermines the counterinsurgent. “Moreover, disorder – the normal state of nature – is cheap to create and very costly to prevent.”[25] Following this logic the insurgent should adopt a strategy that involves employing terror as a weapon. The grenades thrown into cafés or the massacre of civilians in a brutal, ritualistic fashion are means to this end. It not only ties up enemy military assets for defensive purposes, it incites fear and polarises the civilian population, eliminating the moderate interlocutors available to strike a compromise.

H34 and French Légionnaires from the 2e REI

As a catalyst to the war that would be unleashed nine years later, the massacre at the town of Sétif on the 8th May 1945 took the lives of 103 Europeans, some of which in a severely brutal fashion. The French retaliation was however disproportionate with estimates of 6,000 Muslims dead from an indiscriminate bombing campaign[26]. The reprisals served to polarise Algerian society, politicising the native veterans returning from the European theatres of war. It also meant a crackdown on all organised Algerian nationalist activities and a false feeling of security for the pied noir. The settler political leadership would however squander the opportunity for reaching out to Algerian moderates and with French defeat in Indochina, the immediate precursor to the FLN would plan the initial strike of the Algerian War[27].  Taking inspiration from this loss of baraka[28] by the French army, the group called the neuf historiques identified their objective clearly as the independence of Algeria and would use the necessary force in terms of violence to achieve this. Guerrilla warfare’s primary intangible asset is ideological power, Mao Tse-tung described a political cause succinctly, as: ”an unsolved contradiction.”[29] In Algeria’s case this would mean the discrimination the native Algerian population had been subjected to for over a century. The FLN precursor also identified other prerequisites that would make their armed struggle likely to achieve success; the administrative weakness of the French, spread out over a vast territory; and possible support from Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

The Philippeville Massacre

For the incumbent pied noir regime, their role as counterinsurgent would begin with the All Saint’s Day 1954 bombings. Although the Philippeville massacre of 1955 would prove a turning point, as the FLN moved into urban areas and employed the most brutal methods of terror in killing pied noir civilians. The following disproportionate French action of killing between 1,273 to 12,000 Algerians in response would seriously escalate the war, mobilise the Algerian population and preclude any peace negotiations[30].

Central to revolutionary warfare is control over the population; as such both belligerents would target civilians. When the French offered poor Muslim Algerians land in exchange for resettlement, the FLN would assassinate any civilian accepting the offer[31]. The French military would also institute a severely repressive regime against the population as the war escalated in the form of torturing any detained Muslim Algerian for potential information regarding the FLN. Torture became routine interrogation practice when De Gaulle in 1958 installed hard-line generals Jacques Massu and Raol Salan, who wanted a decisive French victory regardless of cost[32]. A concrete example of this took place at the end of the war on the 17th October 1961, when two hundred Algerian detainees were tortured, killed and dumped into the Seine on orders by the Parisian Police Prefect[33].

Concluding Remarks

To answer the question as to why the decolonisation of Algeria became so violent, one must seek to answer the question relating to why the Algerians would support the idea of waging an insurgency against the French regime. The discriminatory nature of the présence française, covering all aspects of the Muslim Algerians’ lives affords a substantial rational for supporting a counter-colonial ideology. Most of Algerians efforts of non-violent agitation within the system were frustrated, De Gaulle’s extension of an offer to award unconditionally all Algerians French citizenship in 1958 was too little too late. A key to the problem was the political influence the pied noir politicians and lobby held in metropolitan France. As has been the case in most settler colonies, the settlers themselves have often vested interests in perpetuating a system of inequality and will strongly resist reform. Should the metropole heed to these demands, one might see short term benefits for the minority settler community, but in the longer term one might expect violent uprisings from the stratum that are discriminated against. Once the insurgency was kindled, the French would play into the hands of the guerrilla strategy of responding with the most draconian measures against the general populace. This brutality would partly stem from the pied noir own insecurity and to remain in their adopted homeland, partly the belief that Muslims only respected firm action, and the unwanted realisation that post-war France was in the twilight of empire.


[1] Clausewitz principle cited in Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008) p. 89.

[2] A Jardin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Écrits et discours politiques, (Paris: Gallimard, 1964) p. 207.

[3] John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992) p.1.

[4] Ian F. W. Beckett, Encyclopedia of Guerilla Warfare, (Oxford: ABC CLIO, 1999) p.1.

[5] Beckett, Encyclopedia of Guerilla Warfare, p.6.

[6] John Ruedy, Islamism and Secularism in North Africa, (London: MacMillan, 1994) p. 6.

[7] Alastair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, (New York: New York Review of Books, 2006) p. 32.

[8] Alf Andrew Heggøy, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria, (London: Indiana University Press, 1972) p. 6.

[9] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 33.

[10] Ruedy, Modern Algeria, p.94.

[11] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 33.

[12] Ibid., p. 36.

[13] Ruedy, Modern Algeria, p.89.

[14] Ibid., p.90.

[15] Ibid., p.90.

[16] Ibid., p.69.

[17] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 51.

[18] Ruedy, Modern Algeria, p.100.

[19] 1954 estimate, cited in: Ruedy, Modern Algeria, p.69.

[20] Ibid., p.114.

[21] Heggøy, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria, p. 19.

[22] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 41.

[23] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, (London: Pall Mall Press, 1964) p.3.

[24] Ibid., p.42.

[25] Ibid., p.11. At most, the FLN budget was $30-$40 million a year, less than the French spent in 14 days.

[26] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 27.

[27] Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire, p. 4.

[28] Grace that is accorded from on high.

[29] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, p.21.

[30] Horne, A Savage War of Peace, p. 120.

[31] Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, p.79.

[32]Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire, p. 4.

[33] Ibid., p. 5.

Recommended Reading:

A Savage War of Peace, Horne, A. (2006)

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About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE. http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3202/
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