Tribes of Yes Men, Mountains of Death

A 1950 edition of the Journal of Algerian Liberty. Messali Hadj is front and center. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The Fourth Republic had opened with promise for Algeria, but it quickly turned into the equivalent of a pat to the back followed by a swift punch to the stomach. Over fierce resistance from the pieds noirs and supporting conservative parties a new home legislature. The move paired well with de Gaulle’s 1944 proclamation laying out an easier path to enfranchised citizenship for Muslim veterans and the upper crust of the civil service, as well as a universal pardon for all political exiles. The other major line item was essentially a universal pardon for major political figures. Arguing for independence or not, men like Messali Hadj were allowed to return home. Both he and Ferhat Abbas quickly founded new political parties committed to independence. The very French devil was in the details though. For a start, the new legislature was divided into two houses; one elected by the pieds noirs and enfranchised Muslims, roughly 1.5 million people, the other by the other 8 million Muslim Algerians.[1]

Even more frustrating was how the electoral process was actually carried out in 1948. At the time the French Administrator on the ground was Marcel-Edmond Naegelen. Naegelen’s background wasn’t ideal for the post of Governor of Algeria, but like many moderate socialists of his stripe he felt it was his duty to improve the livelihood of Algerians as a part of France.

Yet as the election drew near and the independence parties were shown to be clear favorites, Naegelen decided that the will of the people was vastly overrated. The resulting ballot boxes were so badly and blatantly stuffed that “Algerian Election” became a running political joke. Of the 60 seats offered to the Algerian voters, just 17 were given to Hadj and Abbas’ parties. The remaining 43 went to rubber stamp independents who the Algerians quickly and hilariously dubbed “Beni-Oui-Oui”.[2]

Sort of tangential to the narrative here, but a 1949 cyclist’s tour offers some insight in the pre-war Algeria. While many of these places became infamous in time, it’s interesting to see them as mundane. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

For those Algerians like Abbas and Hadj who had been legitimately trying to play the electoral game even as the goal posts kept shifting, it was an enduring and final humiliation. Every party in France had essentially turned their backs on anyone but the settlers, and the vague attempts at compromise always felt belated or insulting; if they were offered at all. For a final kick in the teeth, nationalist leaders were again rounded up or sent into exile. Algeria then turned on itself in another spasm of low level violence between Muslims and settler terror groups. But the global status quo had changed. Maybe in another time this would have meant another generational reversion, but there was something in the air now. By 1954, Morocco and Tunisia were independent, and a horrible climax to the First Indochina War was happening out in the jungles of Vietnam.

The French had now been in Vietnam for eight years, sometimes coming out ahead of tactical genius Võ Nguyên Giáp, but often losing ground to their evasive foe. After the first few years had failed to deliver a triumph, the French had started to pair their military strikes with political concessions. Yet part of the problem was that each offer of political autonomy was always a few years behind when the Vietnamese leadership had proposed it, and often with caveats that left Ho Chi Minh aware of how little the deal might mean in reality. The other half of the problem was that like the French political leadership, the military’s command kept passing the war around like a game of hot potato. Unlike Giáp’s clear and confident strategy, the French made little long term plans.[3] Giáp’s men were also growing more capable with each passing year, transforming into a fully fledged and professional force with the assistance of the USSR and Mao Zedong’s new People’s Republic of China.

Stanley Karnow 1983 Dien bien phu
Trapped on all sides, French troops dug in to avoid the worst of Vietnamese shelling. A World War I style nightmare. Photo Credit: Stanley Karnow 1983.

With the eyes of the world watching,the new French commander Henri Navarre attempted to stop Giáp from broadening the war into neighboring Laos by baiting the Vietnamese into attacking the fortified village of Dien Bien Phu. It wasn’t the worst idea, and it had worked before.[4] But the key to this sort of strategy relied on both building a defense and keeping the place resupplied. In a veritable orgasm of poor planning, the resulting Battle of Dien Bien Phu showed that the French had not followed through effectively on either of these steps. Cut off from reinforcements, and surrounded by heavy artillery and anti air batteries the French hadn’t even known Giáp possessed, more than 11,000 French soldiers were drawn into the fighting and ultimately surrendered after a two month siege. Yet again, the French government collapsed into disarray as it was forced to admit defeat and cede  unconditional independence to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos on August 1st, 1954.

With the final defeat in Vietnam, our stage is finally set for November 1st, 1954. A French government stuck in permanent musical chairs, an army both embittered by loss and experienced fighting insurgent warfare, a million French pieds noirs mostly cozy to the status quo and against any change, and eight million very disillusioned and pissed off Algerians. The kindling had been stacked for decades, and it was time for someone to throw a match.

[1]#notallpiedsnoirs, but a vocal portion of the pieds noirs community was actually committed to a more equitable Algeria. Its most famous son at the time was probably Albert Camus, philosopher and author of works like The Stranger. Yet for the record of the 60 seats offered to the European community in their new assembly, 55 went to right wing party men opposed to most anything the majority population wanted.

[2] A bilingual joke, roughly translated as “The Tribe of Yes-Men”.

[3] A similar error was regularly laid at the feet of the United States during our own misadventure a decade later. It turns out that draftees on a six month tour of duty usually fail to become the kind of hardened veterans that win wars.

[4] In this case the 1952 battle of Nà Sản.


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