The Guy for the job

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Pieds noirs majority areas across Africa, in black. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons, GNU License

In the aftermath of Philippeville, the FLN had established itself as the somewhat disputed face of Algerian resistance to France. As there were still other contenders to the job description, the FLN set about removing them. Over the next two years, Ferhat Abbas and almost every major Algerian voice was absorbed into the FLN fold, giving it a broader legitimacy. For those who refused the offer, like Messali Hadj’s MNA or the Algerian Communist Party, there was no room for them in the FLN’s new Algeria. Over the next months and years Algeria and France were the sites of the Café Wars, as a series of bombings and assassinations claimed 4,000-5,000 from both sides.[1] By the end of the Algerian War Hadj’s MNA had effectively ceased to exist, its members either driven underground or killed. Nor was there space for French sympathizers, as the FLN made repeatedly and often very graphically clear.

Often just as violently, the pieds noir community made it clear that they saw no future for themselves if France were to accept an independent Algeria. The reason for the European stance isn’t hard to understand. The FLN had reopened the door to a world where neighbors could turn on each other violently at a moment’s notice. It was a new reality something that many local groups of pieds noirs had taken to with gusto. Vigilante killings, dubbed “Ratonnades”, or rat hunts, spiked accordingly.[2] As the French mostly turned a blind eye to these revenge killings, the only route open for aggrieved Muslim Algerians who lost a family member narrowed to joining the FLN and hoping for revenge. Little wonder most pieds noir dreaded the prospect of an independent Algeria as a death sentence. By 1955, the flight of Europeans from Algeria to France was also well underway. Many simply saw their way of life as unsustainable, no matter who won the war.

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Prime Minister Guy Mollet, envisioning the migraine his time and office will leave him with. Photo Credit: French National Archives

In 1956 the Algerian War crisis had caused another government to shudder and collapse. But its replacement was made of significantly sterner stuff. New Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet had cast a wider net, and demanded stronger commitments from his new coalition partners in a bid to keep the plate spinning a little while longer. The resulting Republican Front incorporated every major leftist party, including the Communists for the first time since their expulsion.

While a union like this was the most likely to consider a ceasefire or political talks, and Mollet initially discussed the idea of a more federated “third way” for Algeria, this concept wilted in the face of opposition from the pieds noir. On his first official visit to the country, they pelted Mollet with tomatoes. While the police were able to get a handle on the riot that followed, the situation rattled the Prime Minister badly and he seemed to veer towards a harder line supporting the European community.

For his own part, Mollet’s time in office feels like a tragedy. A surging recovery in domestic France had led to a wave of policies creating a more humanitarian government, with extensions to pensions, sick days, maternity leave, and all of the other support that help ensure a better quality of life. For Algeria Mollet continued and expanded the campaign to show Algerians that France was investing in their future. Their literature emphasized the incredible economic progress Algeria was making with French help, the oil resources that had just been found and developed in the Sahara, the schools that were being built, the massive redistribution of lands that would build a fairer and more equitable Algeria. By all accounts Mollet and his allies were even determined to ensure this actually happened, but for any kind of brighter future to have room to grow, that meant pacifying the country.

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A French trooper on patrol in Algeria, 1956. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The resulting military escalation called in a massive wave of new reservists. In all, close to half a million French soldiers would be deployed to Algeria, breaking the previous record for largest concentration of troops outside of France.[3] For many reservists, the call to arms, dubbed Operation Valmy,[4] was deeply unwelcome. The war was already unpopular, and dark rumors were beginning to swirl from Algeria. Many revolted, but their traditional political allies the Communists were actually a part of the Republican Front. For all the crippling diversity of parties in Fourth Republic France, there was no voice for the dissenting reservist. They, like the French Army, were all committed to the war they were going to fight in Algeria. The revolts were quietly broken up, with the leaders transferred to areas where the FLN was most active.

For many reservists just entering Algeria in 1956, it was a journey up the river of human morality. Much of the reservist’s time was spent manning checkpoints, guarding the concentration camps rural villagers were herded into, and occasionally interrogating native Algerians.[5] From time to time, they would be forced into a firefight or a bomb would go off nearby. In one highly publicized 1956 attack, 19 conscripts were shot and killed in an ambush.  While many would try to live up to the supposed ideals of peacekeeping and earning the support and trust of the locals, it was easy to simply paint all Muslims with the FLN brush. Torture was a disturbingly common practice, often relying on methods that left few physical marks, like electrical shocks that used a field telephone to set the dosage, or water torture. The sensation of the jackboot being on the other foot was not lost on many, especially the actual veterans of the Resistance. During Operation Hope, one Foreign Legionnaire explicitly made the connection in his diary, “if one day there was a new Nuremburg Trial, we would all be guilty”.[6]

[1] At least one historian notes that the ratio of European to Algerian victims of the FLN was something like 1:6.

[2] As if rat hunt wasn’t offensive enough, the term is a pun on “raton” a racial slur itself for the local Arabs. This is probably the first pun the author hasn’t enjoyed.

[3] Incidentally a record Algeria had set for itself in 1830.

[4] A deliberate patriotic callback to the French Revolution. While the confrontation was more “skirmish with a bunch of waterlogged and demoralized Austrians” than it was “heroic victory”, everyone needs something to rally behind in a moment of crisis.

[5] The camps were an old and unironic idea for the French. As Mao famously stated, if the insurgents were fish in a civilian lake, the French were resolved to drain the FLN’s habitat.

[6] Evans 2013.

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