What did the General have in mind when he said: ‘Je vous ai compris’?

Douglas Johnson

  • A Les Trósors Retrouvós de la ‘Revue des deux Mondes’ edited by Jeanne Causse and Bruno de Cessole
    Maisonneuve, 582 pp, frs 185.00, January 1999, ISBN 2 7068 1353 9
  • La Guerre d’Algórie par les Documents. Vol. II: Les Portes de la Guerre, 10 Mars 1946 à 31 Dócembre 1954 edited by Jean-Charles Jauffret
    Service Historique de l’Armóe de Terre, 1023 pp, September 1998, ISBN 2 86323 113 8
  • De Gaulle et L’Algóerie: Mon Tómoinage 1960-62 by Jean Morin
    Albin Michel, 387 pp, frs 140.00, January 1999, ISBN 2 226 10672 3

From 1830, when it was conquered, until 1962, when the Evian Agreements made it into an independent state, Algeria was said to be French. Since 1962, because of French investment there, and government loans, as well as the presence on French soil of large numbers of Algerians, France and Algeria have continued to form a strange but inseparable duality. Lionel Jospin, sending his good wishes to Abdelaziz Bouteflika, after his election to the Algerian Presidency on 15 April, spoke of the intimate knowledge that each country had of the other, and said that relations with Algeria were fundamental for France.

Before 1830, ‘Algeria’ did not exist. France gave the region a name, transformed it economically and established it politically. Despite defeat in three major wars, it never abandoned the territory. Algeria was the keystone of the French Empire (or the French Union, as it became known in 1946). For France to have one day to abdicate its imperial role there seemed to many a prospect worse than the defeats of 1870-71 and June 1940.

Not that everyone saw the country solely in terms of French power. A selection of articles published in the Revue des Deux Mondes over the last 140 years also reveals the more sentimental and romantic attitudes of some French visitors to North Africa. The picturesque appearance of Algiers itself; the sense of an ancient Mediterranean civilisation; the appeal of the South and of the ‘immensité saharienne’: travellers long immersed themselves in these alien pleasures. But they looked, too, for signs of the French past, for the names of streets in Algiers such as the rue des Pyramides, or the rue Hannibal, or most conclusively, the rue des Trois Couleurs. And, tucked away in the Jardin Marengo, the small space dedicated to Amélie, Louis-Philippe’s Queen at the time of the conquest. Then, clearer evidence of French power, there were the spahis, soldiers recruited from the local population, wearing their red and white burnouses. All in all, for many years, this colonisation was simply taken for granted, even by French intellectuals.

All this came to a stop in the Fifties, in a tragic conflict that was both a classic colonial war, with an occupying army fighting against a nation seeking its independence, and a civil war in which a European population and an assimilated indigenous population were fighting other Algerians. It began officially on 1 November 1954 (‘le Toussaint rouge’) and lasted seven and a half years. According to the official figures, 15,583 French, French Muslim and Foreign Legion soldiers were killed; one estimate puts Algerian losses at around a quarter of a million, but much higher figures have been claimed. The war created violent divisions within metropolitan France, and, as terrorism and demonstrations which got out of hand led to many deaths, a civil war in France itself seemed possible. After 1962, when the war was brought to an end, almost the entire French population of Algeria who, in 1954, had numbered more than a million, left what had been for most of them the country of their birth.

As with the defeat of 1940, it has taken a long time for the full history of this war to be written. For more than thirty years after the Evian Agreements, people said that memories were too selective, the sense of humiliation too persistent, and controversy too widespread, for objective research to be undertaken, especially by French historians. In the early Eighties, when Benjamin Stora began a doctoral thesis on the life of Messali Hadj, the father of Algerian nationalism, he was the only historian in the University of Nanterre to be working on a North African subject. In 1997, the same Stora published a bibliography in which he listed no fewer than 2130 books written about the war in Algeria, and was able to argue that it was not for any want of information that the subject continued to be avoided by those studying and teaching contemporary history in France.

Yet certain aspects of the war are still not properly understood. One concerns its beginning: how did the French Army allow a crisis to develop into a major war, and how did it view its early stages? Another concerns the conclusion of the war: was it inevitable that it would end in independence (supposedly de Gaulle’s own belief)? To answer these questions we need access to contemporary documents, and the Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre (created by Louvois in 1668), which had already published a collection covering the years from 1943 to 1946, has now brought out a long-delayed second volume. It begins with a document concerning the first insurrection, in Sétif on 8 May 1945, and ends with the start of the war proper. The trouble in Sétif occurred when a procession led by Muslim boy-scouts, followed by women carrying placards demanding independence, clashed with some twenty gendarmes. In the ensuing violence, 27 Europeans were killed. On the same day, similar acts of violence took place in Petite-Kabylie and in the département of Constantine. More isolated incidents occurred throughout the following week, when a total of 109 Europeans were killed in their farms and villages. The repression was rapid and ferocious. Many thousands of nationalist suspects were killed. Cairo radio, the voice of Algerian nationalism, spoke of 45,000 deaths; the French Government admitted to 2000.

This was unorganised, sporadic violence on the part of a population many of whom resented the fact that they had not benefited from the French victory in 1945 and that food supplies were scarce. May 8th was the day on which that victory was celebrated, in Sétif as elsewhere. After 1945, however, the nationalists began to organise for a revolution – that anyway is the interpretation which Jean-Charles Jauffret has put on the documents he edited. These reveal in detail how the French military failed, on numerous occasions, to understand what was happening and how the various intelligence organisations were often ignorant of one another’s activities. The most effective was the Service des Liaisons Nord-Africaines, whose card index contained some 8000 names – but this, it seems, has disappeared. Jauffret comments on the lack of documents for certain years, particularly 1949 and 1950, but remarks that these were years when non-written communication was becoming easier.

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