Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, by Martin Evans, Oxford University Press, RRP£20, 457 pages
By Sword and Plow: France and the Conquest of Algeria, by Jennifer E Sessions, Cornell University Press, RRP$49.95, 365 pages
Albert Camus: In Words and Pictures, by Catherine Camus and Marcelle Mahasela, Edition Olms (February), RRP£45, 224 pages
In the year of the Arab spring, social unrest, political revolution and civil war have swept across one country after another in north Africa and the Middle East. But the ancien régime in Algeria remains defiantly in place. Riots and protests erupted early this year, prompting the authorities to lift a 19-year state of emergency. But in contrast to Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia, Algeria’s armed forces and security services – the institutions that wield hard power behind the façade of a civilian presidency – have neither caved in nor come under much pressure from the international community to do so.
Why should this be? One reason is that Algerians retain painful memories of the fighting that erupted between the regime and its Islamist opponents in the 1990s, a vicious conflict that caused the deaths of at least 200,000 people and witnessed indiscriminate human rights abuses on all sides. Another reason is that Algeria’s authoritarian rulers, backed by extensive oil revenues, have displayed an unremitting determination for 50 years never to loosen their grip. A third reason is that the outside world – especially France, the former colonial master – has stayed mostly on the sidelines.
All three explanations have their roots in the 132 years of French rule of Algeria that culminated in the 1954-1962 war of independence, an event that more than any other came to symbolise Europe’s turbulent withdrawal from its overseas empires. As Martin Evans writes: “Algeria was one of the longest and most difficult episodes in the whole decolonisation process. It was emblematic of the formal ending of European empires, a pivotal event in the shaping of the 20th century which was intimately connected to other key processes, namely the impact of the two world wars, the cold war, pan-Arabism, the wider anti-colonial movement and the movement towards western European unity.”
The war left enduring scars on French politics and society, too. It triggered the flight to mainland France of 1.1m embittered settlers, many of whom later embraced the anti-immigrant, extreme-right populism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose daughter Marine is contesting next year’s French presidential election for the National Front. Large numbers of Algerian Muslims left for France during and after the war, acquiring French citizenship and raising families that have not found it simple to integrate into French society but are nonetheless reshaping the national identity. The 2005 riots in run-down immigrant neighbourhoods revealed how an “Algerian syndrome” still pervades important parts of French life.
Three new books capture admirably the spirit of early French colonialism in north Africa, the antipathy between rulers and ruled that gave birth to a fierce, uncompromising Algerian nationalism, and the process by which French visions of a prosperous, harmonious society in which European settlers and native Muslims might live side by side were ultimately to collapse in total ruin.
Such hopes were central to the humane political outlook of Albert Camus, the Algerian-born French novelist, playwright and essayist, who set some of his finest works, such as La Peste (The Plague) and L’Etranger (The Outsider), in Algeria.
Albert Camus: In Words and Pictures, a warm tribute to the author’s life by his daughter Catherine, assembles hundreds of photographs and other mementos of Camus at work and in the company of his family. It intersperses them with excerpts of his writings, some of which remind us how passionately he deplored the bloodshed of the final years of France’s presence in Algeria. “I have never written anything that was not, in one way or another, connected with the land in which I was born. It is therefore to this land, and to its sufferings, that my thoughts are directed,” he said upon accepting the Nobel literature prize in 1957.
Yet, even 10 years before the war broke out in 1954, it was an ever diminishing prospect that Algeria might overcome the hatreds that divided the native inhabitants from their French rulers and, more particularly, from the colons: European settlers, largely French in origin but including people of Spanish, Greek, Italian and Maltese descent, whose families had arrived in Algeria after the original French invasion of 1830. In Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Evans describes the violent demonstrations in eastern Algeria of May 1945, just after the second world war ended in Europe, in which more than 100 colons were killed. “Much of it was crude face-to-face violence, followed up by ritualistic dismemberment where genitals were cut off and placed in the mouths of corpses, breasts slashed, throats slit and bellies disembowelled.”
The French retaliation was no less brutal, resulting in the slaughter of thousands of Algerians and the deliberate destruction of villages. “Nothing could be the same again. Rural Algeria had confronted European Algeria, producing a society more polarized than ever,” observes Evans.
A professor of contemporary history at the UK’s University of Portsmouth and a prolific writer on Algerian history, Evans has written easily the best account of the war of independence available in English. This honour rested for many years with Alistair Horne’s 1977 A Savage War of Peace, a powerful narrative that is deservedly still in print today. But the passage of time has enabled Evans to draw on previously classified archival sources and fresh oral testimonies to produce a history that sets new standards in weaving together the metropolitan French and north African threads of the story.
An appreciation of how wrenching the war was for France’s political leaders and population must start from the recognition that, from a French point of view, Algeria was no mere colony but an integral part of the nation. From the 1880s its administrative structures were the same as those on the mainland, consisting of departments, prefectures and communes. That Algeria might be lopped off was close to unthinkable, akin to losing a limb.
But the notion that Algeria was essentially no different from Brittany or Languedoc was a fiction. The code de l’indigénat (native code) was a “uniquely repressive set of laws that applied only to Muslims”, writes Evans. “French Algeria was rigidly segregated. Exclusion was a defining principle. Political separation produced physical separation. Europeans, Jews and Muslims inhabited different spaces, co-existing but never truly intermingling. Marriages between these different groups were very rare indeed, and the result was a society that was deeply divided and deeply unequal, defined by hatred, conflict and tension.”
Why did the French settlers never go their own way, forming an independent state like Britain’s 13 American colonies in 1776? Demography supplies the answer. By 1954 the fast-growing Muslim population had risen to 9m, outnumbering the French by about nine to one. The settlers needed the protection of the metropolis, army and all, and they knew it.
It was not until 1999 that the National Assembly, France’s legislature, officially recognised the Algerian fight for independence as a war. Throughout the conflict the French state framed it in terms of “pacification” or the “maintenance of law and order”: hence the subtitle of Evans’s book – France’s Undeclared War. In reality it was a war – indeed, much more than a war. Until the dysfunctional parliamentary Fourth Republic gave way in 1958 to the quasi-monarchical presidency of Charles de Gaulle, it was a struggle whose outcome the authorities saw as pivotal to France’s standing as an international power in the post-1945 era.
Humiliated by defeat and occupation at Nazi hands in 1940-1944, France one decade later viewed control of Algeria as the basis for a reinvigorated Franco-African union stretching all the way from Paris to France’s possessions in west and central Africa. Victory would reap the twin benefits of strengthening France’s contribution to the anti-Soviet western alliance and, more subtly, of enabling France to compete better against the “Anglo-Saxon imperialisms” of Britain and the US.
What destroyed this vision was not only the undying commitment to independence of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian anti-colonial movement, but the atrocities committed by French military forces, especially during the 1957 Battle of Algiers. This was the war’s most notorious episode, immortalised in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film of the same name. The obscenities severely discredited French policy, not least in the eyes of moderate opinion in mainland France. Torture of Algerians was so widespread that one Foreign Legion corporal admitted: “If one day there was a new Nuremberg trial, we will all be guilty.”
The FLN had much blood on its hands, too. Regarding itself as the sole authentic representative of the Algerian people, the FLN suppressed its internal critics as well as rival nationalist movements in a murderous campaign that left thousands dead in France and Algeria itself. Evans hits the nail on the head when he describes the conflict as a multi-layered war that pitted not just French against Algerian but FLN against FLN, FLN against other Algerians and French against French.
Brutality had tainted French actions in Algeria from the 1830 conquest onwards. In her authoritative account of the first two decades of French rule, By Sword and Plough, Jennifer Sessions, a University of Iowa historian, describes the gruesome enfumades of the mid-1840s – the deliberate smoking to death of Algerian civilians by French forces who trapped them in caves and set bonfires at the entrances. Like Benjamin Brower’s 2009 book, A Desert Named Peace, which explored how the French practised horrific violence in the name of civilised values in the Sahara from 1844 to 1902, Sessions is in no doubt about the legacy of France’s expansion into Algeria.
“The military conquest took a devastating demographic toll on the indigenous people, and the French war belongs firmly within the bloody pantheon of ‘settler genocides’ to which it has been assigned [by modern historians].” To put numbers on it, Sessions calculates that by the mid-1850s Algeria’s population had shrunk to about 2.3m from its pre-colonial size of 4m.
The invasion of Algeria, an Ottoman regency in the early 19th century, was in many ways a by-product of domestic French political tensions. The ultra-conservative Bourbon monarchy, restored to power after Napoleon’s defeat, was teetering on the brink in 1830. “Faced with widespread popular opposition and a strong liberal majority in the elected Chamber of Deputies, King Charles X and his ultra-royalist prime minister, Jules de Polignac, engineered the expedition against Algiers in a last, desperate bid for public and electoral support,” Sessions writes.
The tragedy is that progressive French thinkers of this era, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, thought they were ahead of the times by promoting settler imperialism – like the British in Australia and Canada – rather than 18th-century-style colonialism, which had rested on slavery and economic monopolies. The colonisation of Algeria was also seen as a solution to French social problems such as uncontrolled population growth, urban overcrowding, crime, disease and political unrest.
Looking ahead to the 1954-1962 war, Sessions concludes that the settlement of Algeria had taken such deep roots that, when decolonisation arrived, it was almost certain to come with extreme violence. “The Algerian war gave birth to new regimes on both sides of the Mediterranean, and the trauma of that conflict now stands at the heart of political culture and historical debate in both post-colonial states,” she writes.
In the final analysis, France lost Algeria because the tide of world history was running so strongly against imperialism. The Algerian people wanted independence and won it. Whether they deserved the regime they got is another matter – as is the question of how long it will last.
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor