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.

The French Government’s prime concern at the outset was to set the Algerian question in an international context, and maintain its commitment to its European allies against the potential enemy in the East. This principle was first enunciated in October 1950, but was subsequently modified as a result of events in Indochina. It is not clear whether or not the Comité de Défense Nationale met in the course of 1954, because after the ‘affaire des fuites’, when details of its meetings fell into the hands of the French Communist Party, the Prime Minister, Pierre Mendès-France, ordered that its minutes should not be distributed. Thus, no records of its meetings exist in the archives of the Service Historique.

At the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, an advisory body, it was suggested that the number of troops in Algeria should be limited to 130,000 – an increase of 40,000 on the number already there – to be made up of troops sent from Indochina, who would only require between a fortnight and a month to adapt to the new conditions. Some members of the Conseil regretted that so many French troops would thus be outside Europe, but the Armed Forces Minister, Jacques Chevallier, who was also Mayor of Algiers, insisted that they would be needed in North Africa. General Duval, the future Commander in Morocco, while commenting that the French troops whom he had recently visited were of poorer quality than those of 1939, was apparently the only person present to speak directly about the existing situation. French North Africa, he stated, was at war.

The documents refer to the news of French defeats in Indochina and to Algerian dockers refusing to load ships destined for South-East Asia. They refer also to Algerian soldiers serving in Indochina who were illiterate and had to make use of ‘écrivains publics’ when they wrote home. In some cases these writers – presumably Indochinese – filled their letters with anti-French propaganda, which thus circulated in local communities in Algeria.

The Algerian nationalists were reported to have been encouraged by the British granting of independence to India, and, even more, by British policy in Libya, which was thought to be decidedly anti-French, under the influence of Sir Edward Spears, who had been seen as an enemy of France ever since his wartime activities in Syria and Lebanon. Soviet agents meanwhile were said to be seeking to convert Algerian students and the Americans, always anti-colonialist, were accused of wishing to make concessions to the nationalists in the hope that this would check the spread of Communism. A report of 23 November 1953 claimed that the Spanish Government was at the centre of anti-French activities, and was giving encouragement to nationalists in Morocco and Algeria and to the Arab League in Cairo. The High Commissioner in Spanish Morocco, General Valino, had never forgiven the French for their pro-Republican stance during the Civil War, and at one point expressed his readiness to provide refuge for any escaping Algerian terrorists.

This preoccupation with the international aspects of the situation sometimes led the French authorities to misinterpret events. The derailment of the Colomb-Bechar to Oran train, in November 1953, for example, was first seen as the work of Algerian terrorists, but a report published in January 1954 pointed out that the incident took place near the Spanish Moroccan frontier and had clearly originated in that country. (The one sentence de Gaulle devotes to the events in Sétif in his Mémoires de guerre suggests that they were timed to coincide with riots in Syria.)

Evidence of the weakness of the French Administration is to be found in a great many of the documents – an old story. A document of September 1951, reporting on the situation in the Aurès mountains, draws attention to a certain Ben Boulaid, who ran a transport service and had recently been accused of illegally possessing a revolver and of insulting a French gendarme. For the latter offence he had been fined 1000 francs by the court in Batna, although a similar offence, committed in Bône by a man who was drunk at the time, had led to a fine of 10,000 francs. As to the revolver, Ben Boulaid had simply said that he knew nothing about it, had not even known it was on his bus. This was accepted by the tribunal. The document goes on to say that Boulaid was known to be a gun-runner and a leading member of the Parti du Peuple Algérien (the party founded by Messali in 1936). But his lawyer was the son of the Mayor of Batna, who was also a member of the Algerian Assembly, and it was clear that the Administration felt it could do nothing against this powerful family. Years later, Ben Boulaid commanded the military region of the Aurès mountains and organised attacks against Army patrols and European farms.

The document also shows the weakness of the gendarmerie in the Aurès mountains. They were short of transport, their living conditions were unsatisfactory, they were constantly spied on – whenever they went out on a mission news of their movements preceded them. The locals used to ask themselves how long they would stay there. Countless reports, both then and later, stressed the inadequacies of the French presence: there were eight times more gendarmes working in Paris than in the whole of Algeria. Jauffret speaks of ‘sous-administration chronique’ in the countryside.

The Deuxième Bureau, reporting to the Ministry of the Interior in Paris and to the military command in Algiers, was similarly ineffective because similarly short of personnel. Even the Service des Liaisons Nord-Africaines, attached to the office of the Governor-General, had to rely on local chieftains and their staff for information about rural areas. Its head never took any leave, because there was no one to replace him. A statement made in Paris in July 1945 by an Algerian deputy addressing the Assemblée Nationale, sums it up: ‘Au fond, le tort de la France en Algérie, c’est d’en être absent.’

The difficulties they had in gaining information led the French Army to apply particularly violent methods. We learn from the Jauffret volume that successive Governors-General issued instructions to prefects that the security forces were not to use or tolerate unjustifiable violence in interrogating nationalist suspects. In a circular of 21 October 1949, the Governor-General, Marcel-Edmond Naegelen uses the word ‘torture’, and in March 1952, his successor speaks of ‘actions plus énergiques’ and of ‘actes de vengeance’, whether individual or collective. These methods, which were to contribute to the Battle of Algiers, had an important effect on opinion in France.

The authorities’ constant preoccupation was to find out what was happening among the various political parties fighting for some form of independence. Many reports are extremely detailed, but in March 1954 and for some time afterwards they seemed to suggest that all the parties were in disarray. The Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques and the Parti du Peuple Algérien were in serious disagreement because of a conflict between Messali and Hocine Lahouel. A third force was emerging: the Parti Communiste Algérien, which wanted an alignment between a ‘democratic’ France and a ‘democratic’ Algeria rather than independence. Ferhat Abbas was in difficulty with the militants in his own party, the Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien, and had to assure them he was in favour of independence, but believed in revolution by legal, peaceful means, and was opposed to co-operation with the other Algerian parties. There were signs, too, of disagreement between Algerians in Paris and in Algeria, as well as talk of a Berber separatist movement in Kabylie.

General Calliès, the French C-in-C in Algeria, found cause for optimism in these disputes. But Paul Schoen, head of the Service des Liaisons Nord-Africaines, refers to paramilitary groups preparing for terrorist action in March 1954 and, the following month, to a Comité Révolutionnaire pour l’Unité et l’Action and to its publication, Le Patriote algérien. Schoen’s information does not seem to have been taken seriously by the military authorities in Algiers. Jauffret suggests that the Deuxième Bureau knew of the CRUA’s existence, though they had not contacted Schoen and seemingly hoped to penetrate the organisation through an informer. By October, Schoen is reporting on an increasing likelihood of violence, but still without giving precise details. It was not until 18 November that the CRUA is reported to have issued a proclamation in the name of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) – the Army that will now fight for independence.

The concluding document in this volume is a long complaint about the French Army in Algeria and how meagrely it has been treated. It lacks stability, the author (a general) writes; needs officers who actually want to serve in French North Africa; and deserves to be properly housed. Many of the men have recently returned from Indochina and hardly had time to see their homes and families before being posted to Algeria. They want to know how long they are going to be away this time. Criticism of the Government in Paris is implied rather than spelled out, with comparisons between the exhausting and potentially dangerous life of a soldier in Algeria and his pay and conditions, and those of the special police force (the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité) with its unionised eight-hour day. The conclusion is that ‘le morale est fragile,’ a far from confident note on which to go into a war.

The documents contain only two references to de Gaulle’s activities. In October 1947, he inaugurated a monument to the Armée d’Afrique in Boufarik; in May 1951, in a speech in Oran, he criticised French governments and political parties and said that the nation’s prestige could not be restored without the creation of a strong army and a union of all French people, ‘sans distinctions’. As a gesture towards national reconciliation he suggested that the man whom he described as the last Marshal of France – Pétain – should be freed. This last remark received much applause, especially from ex-combatants and Muslims.

Jean Morin, at the time the Prefect in Toulouse, was summoned to see the General on 18 November 1960, a fortnight after a televised speech in which de Gaulle had spoken of a future Algeria that would no longer be governed by France: an ‘Algérie algérienne’. This ‘auto-determination’, as he called it, could be carried out either with or against France. Of the leaders of the rebels – who had been based outside Algeria for six years and were likely to remain there for many more – he declared: ‘they say they are the government of the Algerian Republic that will come into existence one day but has never existed yet.’

The speech greatly upset many people in the General’s entourage, the last words about the ‘Algerian Republic’ especially. The Prime Minister, Michel Debré, told Morin that when he had read the text of the speech before it was recorded, the phrase about the ‘Algerian Republic’ had not been there. Debré protested and the General apologised, saying that he had been carried away, that the words had come out in spite of himself. In his new memoir, Morin confesses that, like Debré, he had been disturbed by the words but this had not prevented him from accepting the position of Délégué-Général in Algeria, vacant because his predecessor had been sufficiently disturbed both by de Gaulle’s phrase and the reaction of the French population in Algeria to resign.

Morin confesses to having had reservations about de Gaulle. He thought the General had always made too much of his own role in World War Two, at the expense of the Resistance. With regard to the Algerian question, Morin believed that de Gaulle had been deceived into making his famous ‘je vous ai compris’ speech in Algiers in June 1958 by the sight of Europeans and Muslims cheering together. He had not realised that the Muslims had been forcibly brought there. In a conversation with Morin in February 1959, de Gaulle claimed that his ‘Vive l’Algérie française!’ outburst during the same visit was a deliberate concession to the Europeans in Oran – he would not have used the same phrase in Constantine. Morin is perhaps being a bit cynical here. After all, the Algerian peasantry had been very severely treated by the Army and saw in de Gaulle a man of peace. There may well have been genuine applause and, in response, a spontaneous ‘Vive l’Algérie française!’

Morin describes the instructions he received for reforming the Algerian Administration. He was to bring the maximum number of qualified Muslims into posts of responsibility. A referendum, asking the French and Algerian populations to approve the policy of self-determination, was fixed for 8 January 1961. This was to be followed by the creation of an Algerian executive council and of other bodies to advise on a whole series of important issues. A ceasefire would be announced at the same time and would be matched – so they hoped – by an FLN ceasefire, both lasting three to four weeks. Further constitutional and administrative changes would make a clear distinction between matters that concerned the Algerian administration alone and those that also concerned the French Government.

The speed with which de Gaulle set about organising this process of decentralisation surprised Morin. What he did not know was that de Gaulle had in mind direct negotiations with the FLN – which had established itself in September 1958 as the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne, based in Geneva – and that a race was being run between two very different policies. The initiative for direct negotiations had come from the FLN, via a Swiss diplomat, after de Gaulle’s ‘auto-determination’ speech. According to Morin, it was the Algerians who insisted that the French negotiator should be Georges Pompidou, because Ferhat Abbas believed that through Pompidou he would be able to make direct contact with de Gaulle, which had long been his ambition. The negotiations began at Lucerne in February 1961. De Gaulle told Pompidou that his mission was simply to collect information.

Morin says that he knew nothing of this until ‘the end of February or the beginning of March’, when de Gaulle told him what was happening. De Gaulle claimed that France was not frightened of Algeria becoming independent, since independence was meaningless. The President of Congo Brazzaville, Fulbert Youlou, was ‘independent’, but it was he, de Gaulle, who provided his income. If Algeria did not want to be associated with the French, then France would respond by concentrating its forces in Algiers, Oran, Mers-el-Kebir and other ‘points sensibles’. If Algeria did want to be associated with France, then a convention would have to be signed setting out contractual guarantees for the European population.

Morin hints that he was not the only senior official to be kept in the dark about the General’s intentions. De Gaulle was anxious to postpone the issue of the Sahara, for example, since it was an issue on which he and his Prime Minister didn’t agree. Morin was told that if the negotiations succeeded Debré was immediately to set up a Muslim government. Morin passed the message on to Debré: it was the first Debré had heard of it. Once again it seems clear that, independence or no independence, de Gaulle assumed that France would still be in a position to form the first Algerian government.

The negotiations were then interrupted, according to Morin, by three events. On 30 March 1961, Louis Joxe, the Minister of State for Algerian Affairs, speaking in Oran, announced that negotiations would not be limited to the FLN, but would also include other nationalist movements, notably that of Messali. This was de Gaulle’s wish. The next day, the GPRA suspended negotiations. The second interruption followed a remark de Gaulle made at the Elysée Palace. Algeria, he said, costs us more than she brings in, which is why France can envisage, with the greatest sangfroid, a solution in which Algeria is no longer included within the French domain. The third event was the revolt, the so-called putsch, of the generals (de Gaulle called it a ‘pronunciamento’), who attempted unsuccessfully to seize power in Algeria (22-25 April 1961).

With de Gaulle now even more anxious for a speedy conclusion, the disagreements among the GPRA became even more acute; Boumedienne, leader of the Armée de Libération Nationale, in particular, was convinced that his army should seize power immediately after an independent government was agreed in Algiers. Morin was not present at Evian and cannot give an account of negotiations there but he quotes the American General Vernon Walters, who reports that de Gaulle told Eisenhower in 1959 that he intended to leave Algeria and would then have to find something for an army of 500,000 discontented soldiers to do, otherwise it would mean the end of French democracy.

He shows that de Gaulle often surprised his entourage by the boldness of his statements. He also alarmed them by deliberately concealing important new developments from ministers or officials. But for a long time he was consistent in his view that France should play an important role in the affairs of the region, even if Algeria became independent. The Sahara, he said, should be considered a North African issue, not a specifically Algerian one; it was even possible that Algeria would have to be partitioned. Whatever happened, France had to keep its bases in the Sahara and at Mers-el-Kebir. The legal provision for Europeans living in Algeria should preferably give them dual nationality. The French Army, too, required a particular statute, for as long as it remained in Algeria.

On all these matters de Gaulle gave way. He specifically instructed his negotiators not to delay by insisting that all these details were resolved to their satisfaction. During the negotiations that took place in February 1962, the French, who had originally wanted to keep their base at Mers-el-Kebir for 99 years, accepted 15 years (in the event they evacuated it on 1 February 1968). It is true that two days after the Evian Agreements had been signed special provision was made for the future of the many Muslim soldiers who had been recruited by the French. It was also agreed that there would be no reprisals against any individual or group that had been serving France.

But within days of the Agreement, the nationalist forces were organising attacks on the harkis, who had been disarmed by the French military authorities. The French Army could not, officially, protect them, and estimates of the number of harkis killed vary from 25,000 to at least 100,000.

De Gaulle insisted that, after independence, France would not be responsible for maintaining order in Algeria. With regard to the harkis he made it clear that he did not think of them as French, and he explained that they could not be ‘repatriated’ since they were not returning to the land of their fathers. He realised that independence would be a terrible experience for the Algerians and rejoiced that France was no longer involved. His attitude was simple enough, he explained to Alain Peyrefitte on 4 May 1962. ‘Napoléon disait qu’en amour, la seule victoire, c’est la fuite. En matière de décolonisation aussi, la seule victoire, c’est de s’en aller.’