The Price of Empire

Paris Massacre
“Here we Drown Algerians”. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst a backdrop of terror strikes by the OAS and the FLN, an army crackdown and stuttering negotiations, the final year of the Algerian War blurred the loyalties of French and Algerian alike. By 1960, some leftists had formed a covert group to support FLN activities called the Jeanson Network. It had even attracted the sympathies and support of noted philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.[1] Fatefully by 1961 many French and French Algerians began to openly demonstrate for an end to the war, and to the restrictive and discriminatory curfews being imposed on the community in France. Needless to say when over 30,000 demonstrators turned out on October 17th, 1961, the Paris Chief of Police, a convicted Vichy official named Maurice Papon,[2] cracked down hard. The police charged the crowd, and in the racial massacre that followed somewhere between 40 and 300 French Algerians were murdered.[3] Some were simply hurled over the side of bridges to drown in the Seine. Even if de Gaulle could hold the metropole together through the crisis, it was clear that if the war went on much longer the French would tear themselves apart. Perhaps it was this concern and the ongoing barrage of attacks from the OAS that pushed the war to its final, agonized conclusion.

On March 18, 1962, the Evian Agreements were signed and a ceasefire declared. France would keep several military bases for up to 15 years, French settlers could retain dual citizenship for three years, then make a choice, and neither side’s followers were to suffer reprisals for their roles in the war. In return, France would support Algeria with aid, and permit its citizens to work in France, though without equal representation. Signed by the FLN’s Provisional Government President Ben Khedda and ratified by the French people, Evian was a sign that de Gaulle had finally severed the Gordian knot. By any measure prior to 1958, the war was a loss for France, a final exhausted retreat.

France 1962 checkpoint
French troops in Algiers watching for the OAS. Photo Credit: Universal-International News

In a desperate bid to disrupt the accords, the OAS launched five mortar strikes not against the FLN, but against the French quarter of Algiers. It was the signal for a final reign of blood that shocked even a nation weary from eight years of war. For a few days, a staggering 120 bombings and attacks were carried out each day in March. Everything from car bombs to a full scale military assault on two French bases in the mountains were carried out across Algeria. In a rage, the French responded to the strikes with 20,000 soldiers and a city wide sweep of Algiers that obliterated the OAS field operation in the area. Enough was enough for the French army. By April Raoul Salan was finally rousted out of hiding and arrested. As the war ended, the OAS scattered to the hillsides, and in an echo to the Nazis many found their way into anti-communist operations the world. After another referendum confirmed the Accords, Algeria officially became independent July 5th, 1962.

As for the other populations that had called Algeria home, many decided to vote with their feet. The exodus of over 1.4 million pieds-noirs and Algerians was the largest migration of humanity since the Second World War, accelerated after FLN units marched into the city of Oran and opened fire in the pieds-noirs district in 1962. Many left their belongings behind, still others destroyed everything as they caught a flight to Paris. Of the hundred thousand French that remained, most would trickle away in the 60’s and 70’s, the target of violent attacks the ruling FLN always seemed to turn a blind eye to.

Harki-j
A Harki soldier in 1961. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Their exodus was mirrored on a smaller scale by the Harkis and their families, many of whom fled to France. Yet if the Harkis thought they would have been welcomed or thanked for their incredible sacrifice, they were wrong. Emigration was actively discouraged by the French, who herded many Harki families into internment camps. Caught in the middle by a state that no longer had use for them, and their vengeful homeland, between 30,000 and 150,000 Muslim Algerians who had either sympathized or worked with the French government were killed in reprisals following the war. Only as recently as President Jacques Chirac have the French begun to acknowledge the role their local supporters had played, and the price they paid for being so thoughtlessly left abandoned.

As for the FLN, Ferhat Abbas was finally sworn in as the new Algerian President in 1962. Yet by 1965 after an internal power struggle between his successor Ben Bella and Houari Boumediene control the country was firmly placed in the hands of a few strong men in the party. Until the 1990s the party would rule as a stable and one party state. To claw their way to independence and power the FLN had purged 6,000 of their own in vicious infighting, and another 4-5,000 in the Café Wars with the communists and the MNA. Over their eight years of chasing shadows, the French government killed around 141,000 ALN fighters, one of the few uncontested numbers in this grim tally. Perhaps 500-700,000 Algerians had died in the revolution. Some estimates for the entire war run as high as a million dead.

Through it all the French left behind 25,000 soldiers dead, and another 2,500 French settlers. As for themselves, the question that no one in power had truly pondered was why.[4] What was the point of the war that had set Algerians and French against each other, and against themselves? At its core, what was the point to holding Algeria?

Though a victim of his own wishful thinking in later years, de Gaulle said it best,

“The spirit of the century…also changes the conditions of our action overseas…leads us to bring an end to colonization…It is quite natural that one feels nostalgia for what was the Empire, just as one can regret the gentleness of oil lamps, the splendor of sailing ships…But for what? No policy is worth anything outside of reality”.[5]

French Algeria was a mirage conjured in the desert, and it would take years of effort and near civil war to bring about that understanding. Keeping it permanently under the French thumb was internationally embarrassing, fiscally and politically expensive, amoral, and ultimately disastrous. Started for political expediency, the effort of continuing the conflict also seemed tangled in reasons that had less to do with Algeria and more with France. The French had already come so far, and turned their army into a horrible parody of the Nazi’s own Gestapo. Mixed with the lingering shame of wars lost and a system of governance too unstable to answer the question, France had to destroy its own government to come to an understanding and realize that there was no good answer. It would take de Gaulle and an entirely new government to eventually bring a resolution to Algeria, one that took years to reach and that many veterans still find deeply dissatisfying.

[1] In a letter defending the Jeanson Network to a military tribunal, Sartre was drawn to the kind of global revolution that the FLN had come to represent for many leftists. A far cry from the exhausted six years of war others like Mollet had championed.

[2] Papon was one of the more odious leftovers from the Nazi occupation. After “disappearing” a few too many prominent dissidents in the 1960’s, he later faced war crimes charges when his signature was found on the deportation slips for French Jews. As with so many other complicit figures of the Holocaust, he defended himself by saying he was “just following orders”.

[3] It’s a historical footnote that has drawn more attention following the tragedy of the Paris massacre last year. It hasn’t been helped that only as recently as current President Francois Hollande was the massacre commemorated.

[4] It’s a question many veterans of the “War with no name” ask today.

[5] Evans 2013

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