Toussaint Rouge

Ghezaltar wiki commons Queen Kahina
Khenchela is built around a castle of Queen Kahina, a Berber leader who fought the Arab conquests for decades.Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

October 31, 1954 must have seemed a little mundane in Algeria. Granted, there was about one terrorist attack each week, but the last real major burst of violence was almost a decade behind the French, Arab, and Berber communities in Algeria. That night, one of the local football teams in Khenchela fought it out on the field, then marched back into their locker room. They swapped out their jerseys for drabber fatigues, checked and loaded the firearms they had stashed, then slipped out into the night. A police station armory and a soldier’s barracks were raided, all part of a sudden wave of attacks across all three of the administrative regions in Algeria. In all, when dawn rose on a Red All Saint’s Day the strikes by the Maquisard (Resistance) had killed seven people,[1] caused an estimated 200 million francs in damage; leaving behind a trail of blasted railways, cut telephone lines, and ruined bodies. A nation reeling from the attacks picked up the scattered pamphlets left in their wake and searched for answers to a burning question. Just who was the National Liberation Front (FLN)?

In the narrative that has sprung up, November 1st, 1954 is usually marked as the date when the Algerian War began, but this is sort of drawing a bullseye around where the historical arrow happened to land. In reality, sputters of violence had happened before. The French authorities took it seriously, and dispatched three companies of paratroopers to Algeria, but there was no sense that the first shots in a war had been fired. In fact the Front de Libération National[2]and its military wing the Armee de Libération Nationale (ALN) was so completely new on the scene that the initial response by the settler authorities was directed against the group the FLN had splintered from. Regardless of the source, appropriately named French President, Pierre Mendès France, reacted with a forceful speech,

Pierre_Mendès_France_1968 Dutch national archives
French President (’54-’55) Pierre Mendes France. A man so redoubtable even his accented letters can’t be copied or pasted in this document. Photo Credit: Dutch National Archives.

“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.”[3]

In time French efforts to contain and roll back this perceived internal revolution in Algeria would cost them dearly not only in blood and treasure, but any sense of moral distinction from the Nazis they had so heroically resisted just a decade before. In the end, the French Fourth Republic would commit so bitterly to the effort that it would collapse under the weight. In time, what was inconceivable[4] to Mendes-France would become reality, but only after every other possibility had been unraveled.

[1] Five of them white Algerian French, or Pied-Noir.

[2] Hence, the FLN.

[3] Mendès-France, P. 1954. Reaction to the Incident in Algeria. Speech made before the French National Assembly, Paris

[4] Or to put it another way.

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