Sétif and Guelma

de Gaulle and Giraud US Archives
de Gaulle and Henri Giraud pose for a pleasant photograph with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943. De Gaulle’s constipated expression perfectly reflects his thoughts on the situation. Photo Credit: US Archives

To the native Algerians the Americans and their attitudes were a breath of fresh air, and words like “chewing gum” actually entered the local vernacular. President Roosevelt himself also gave de Gaulle’s mustache a hard yank by publicly suggesting that World War II really was about global liberties, rather than just defeating the Axis. By this time De Gaulle himself had relocated the Free French headquarters to Algiers, and had muscled out the former Vichy commander Giraud who had been running the show.[1] While his semi hostile takeover wasn’t exactly what Roosevelt or Churchill had in mind, they had to acknowledge that there was no getting rid of the tall Frenchman afterwards. In turn, de Gaulle was aware that the war precluded any rebuttal to Roosevelt’s high minded vision for the future. As an olive branch to both the Allies and his own colonial subjects, de Gaulle unilaterally set out a path to enfranchise the upper class of the Muslim Algerian population, as well as anyone who had served in the French Army without requiring conversion.

In spite of the tiny proffered carrot, it was hard for Algerians to forget the high concepts of liberation the Americans had been talking. Somewhere along the giant game of telephone that is rural communication many began to think that the American’s arrival hadn’t been just about ousting the Vichy as part of some realist military stratagem in a larger war, but about an idealistic war for global freedom itself. While Americans do have an unhealthy relationship with wars against nebulous concepts, this wasn’t one of those occasions, and they were just as surprised as everyone else by the events that followed.

Setif rally at Kherrata vikoula 5 wiki commons
A later rally in Kherrata responding to the Setif massacre. Note the Algerian flag, a new design for Hadj’s independence movement. Photo Credit: Vikoula, Wiki Commons

May 8th, 1945, the same day Victory in Europe was declared, the eastern Algerian district of Constantine played unwitting host to the first shots in a post-colonial era for France. In the middling sized town of Sétif a VE Day celebration transitioned into a rally for Algerian independence; which in turn escalated into full scale riot with alarming speed. The flash point occurred when a 14 year old boy unfurled an Algerian national flag, as the tune of crowd changed to less French approved chants like “End to occupation”, or “Free Messali Hadj”.[2]

The pieds-noirs police of Sétif moved to shut the rally down. Already primed for a fight, the armed Algerians struck back, and the police fired into the crowd. The situation immediately boiled over, and the Arab and Bedouin population of Sétif turned on their erstwhile French neighbors with a brutal fury. The local communist leader had his hands cut off, and the town’s socialist mayor was executed. By the following day the violence spilled out into the neighboring community of Guelma, boosted by hysterical rumors that the Americans themselves were invading in support of the liberation. In three days over a hundred pieds-noirs were dead, and the French moved to act.

Snubbed at the Yalta Conference and only included as one of the post-war negotiating powers at the very last minute, Gaullist France was in a bit of a national sulk. This sense of indignation and a desire to prove that yes, France was still a great power might have played a role in how the French themselves continued to view and react to events playing out in Algeria. In response to Sétif and Guelma, de Gaulle appointed General Martin to suppress the violence by any means he saw fit.

Setif Massacre commemoration 2010 auberviliers hegor
French officials publicly commemorate the massacres in 2010. Photo Credit: Hegor Wiki Commons

Cashing this blank check, Martin mobilized the air force and 10,000 soldiers in a strike on the entire region. While the attacks on settlers were both gruesome and terrifying, in no world did they justify the 42 tons of explosives the French indiscriminately dropped on small towns across the region; or the subsequent low flying raids by fighter craft, or the 800 shells fired on coastal towns from French ships, or the infantry sweep that followed in the mountains. Even by their own estimates, the French crackdown left 1,165 dead. More non biased sources actually put the death toll closer to 6,000, while the FLN maintains to this day that the massacre killed a total of 45,000. Given that many of the victims were literally set on fire or dumped into the sea for disposal, it is likely impossible to peg the precise figure. Regardless, the French had watered their newly seeded Fourth Republic with a gallon of blood.[3]

[1] Actually the second former Vichy commander on site. Admiral Darlan had been assassinated in December 1942 by the Free French. Even if the Allies had been interested in the Realpolitik turnover, the Resistance would exact a price in blood from the collaborators they could bring down.

[2] Five Pillars. 2015. 8th May 1945: Remembering Algeria’s Setif Massacre. Zakat Foundation. Available at: http://5pillarsuk.com/2015/05/08/8th-may-1945-remembering-algerias-setif-massacre/

[3] The French reaction to this massacre remains a permanent sore point in modern Algerian relations. Only in 2005 did French officials formally attend a ceremony commemorating the massacre in Setif, and officially apologize. Ironically the same year French legislators proposed a resolution recognizing the “benefits” to former colonial territories.

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