The Algerian War: why France is fractured

Political and social instability has become a fact of life in France. Every heavily-armed soldier or police officer on the street testifies to how the country has changed, as does the presidential election campaign.

There are many causes, but looking beneath the surface, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Algerian War of 1954-1962 contains the seeds of much of the unrest.

The great British historian Alistair Horne was in the country when the colonial conflict was raging, and years later he embarked on an exhaustive research process to find out what made this such a brutal conflict.

A Savage War of Peace was first published in 1977, after Horne had interviewed many of the key participants on all sides. It was, and remains, one of the greatest books written on war.


Since conquering the vast Algerian territory in 1830, French governments had encouraged Europeans to settle there amongst the various Muslim tribes. The pieds noirs arrived from France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere in ever-greater numbers, and by the middle of the 20th century one million Europeans lived there alongside eight million Muslims.

France did much to raise Algeria’s living standards -- constructing schools, railways, roads and much more -- and Algeria came to represent something distinct from France’s imperial possessions, it being regarded as part of France itself.

Yet the structure of French Algeria contained a fatal flaw. French citizens controlled the political system, and virtually no Muslims were given citizenship due to the barriers erected to exclude them.

Efforts by the Paris government to remedy problems were obstructed by the pieds noirs, whose complicated relationship to a motherland beyond the water was somewhat similar to the Ulster Protestants towards Britain -- “a love that sought constant reassurance,” as Horne put it. 

Toussaint Rouge

In this environment, Algerian militants gained strength and launched their first paramilitary attacks on All Saints’ Day 1954 (the symbolism of which was not lost on the staunchly Catholic pieds noirs). 

What began with small-scale violence escalated rapidly, as the French military’s ratissage reprisal attacks levelled entire villages, which quickly led to the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) gunmen to abolish the distinction between French troops and European civilians and target all of them mercilessly. Extremists within the European population also began to slaughter their Muslim neighbours.

Their ferocity was matched by that of the French army. Brutalised and humiliated by their reversals in World War Two and Indo-China, and led by their cutting-edge elite in the French Foreign Legion and paratroopers, France’s fighting men ignored the realities of what was an impossible position. France could not win, but its warriors were adamant that they must not lose.

Algerian War victims
"For the victims of the war" / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The scale of the slaughter as outlined by Horne is difficult to comprehend. Possibly as many as one million Algerian Muslims died in the conflict, including large numbers of Algerian harkis who served with the French.

The political cost was enormous too: the war brought down six French governments, destroyed the Fourth Republic entirely and almost led to a coup against President Charles de Gaulle when some French officers realised he was willing to let Algeria go.

Horne’s ability to tell the human stories of those who fought does not distract from the broader narrative of what was a slow but complete FLN victory. In spite of their enormous losses and the fratricidal conflicts within the Algerian camp -- which would contribute to further violence and outright civil war much later -- the organisation achieved all its goals.

France departed completely and retained no stake in Algerian affairs, meaning that the one million pieds noirs were forced to leave Algeria forever.

Complex characters

The story Horne tells is one of courage, rage and tragedy. Simplistic villains and heroes do not exist in reality, and do not appear here either.

Instead, we get countless portraits, like that of General Raoul Salan, France’s most decorated soldier, founding the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) terror group and returning to Algeria to lead an uprising against the president he had helped install.

Horne paints a picture of the fearsome Morice Line which the French built to secure the Algerian-Tunisian border with landmines, electric wire -- not to mention 80,000 troops -- and across the desert landscape we can almost see the FLN fighters again and again seeking to breach it, and suffering horrendous losses in the process.

As the war drew to a bloody conclusion, we are presented with the paratrooper Roger Degueldre, who established the OAS Delta Commando assassins to wage one last battle on those accused of betraying Algérie française.

Above all, we have the embattled President Charles de Gaulle, as his army threatened to mutiny, addressing the nation by television and in one extraordinary performance, rallying a critical mass of Frenchmen to his side. Algeria was lost, but France was saved.

In the Basilica of Notre-Dame d'Afrique in Algiers which the European settlers were so devoted to, where an inscription beseeched Our Lady of Africa to “pray for us and for the Muslims”, we see another aspect of what is an ongoing conflict to this day.

Just as the pieds noirs settled in southern France (where they eventually comprised a crucial support base for the far-right Front National party founded by the Algerian veteran, Jean-Marie Le Pen), many Muslims sought a new home in France too.

In the 2006 edition of the book, Horne noted the recent street violence in the French banlieues. By then, there were over five million people of Algerian extraction living in France, and Horne observed succinctly that the “Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France.”

A presidential election in which the role of right-wing provocateur was played by the Algerian-born Éric Zemmour is just another demonstration of how the bloodshed of those eight years has not been washed away. Anyone considering France’s present and future should look to Horne’s various accounts of its past, and in particular, to A Savage War of Peace.


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