France ruled Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as part of their Maghreb, the Arabic name for North-West Africa and which means Land of the Setting Sun. But while Algerian territories (déparetments) were seen as a part of France, so that the northern territories of Algeria – Algiers, Constantine, and Oran – had equal standing with any city in mainland France, Tunisia and Morocco were instead governed as protectorates and were obliged by signed International treaties to actually act on behalf of indigenous rulers. So while the French Caucasian population of Tunisia and Morocco were just as vociferous as their Algerian counterparts they could not by law hold any real political power as the Algerian colons or, as they were also known, pieds noirs.
While France was proud of its Algerian colony and considered it a part of France the truth was that after 120 years of French occupation it was only a third of the population – the white pieds noirs class – who held all the power. They had a total grip on politics, agriculture, and employment and relegated the Muslim underclass, who made up a majority of the country, to extreme poverty. Of 864 senior administrative posts in the country only 8 were held by Muslims.
After World War 2 and during a grueling war in Indo-China with Vietnam the French government was unstable and prone to constant change between warring factions. No one wanted to risk alienating the support of the powerful Algerian colons and so little was done to bring political reform to Algeria. The polls were rigged constantly and for those seats that Muslims were allowed to win the colons made sure that the winners were always sympathetic to their causes.
The gulf between local indigenes and the pieds noirs was very large with the locals living in tin-can shantytowns called bidonvilles. The colons considered the local populace to be an inferior race and were extremely concerned at the way they grew in numbers with souring birth rates so that the population had nearly doubled in 50 years. There was mass unemployment and even those Algerians who could make it to France herself found that there were very little opportunities, and there they were mostly employed as unskilled labour.
With no economic and political power available to them the ground soon became ripe for political revolution:
Ahmed Ben Bella was a 29-year-old former warrant officer in the French army, and had received various awards for bravery in WW 2. He became a founding member of the militarist FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), and was dedicated to armed struggle.
In 1949 he would target the post office in a raid that would net his organisation up to 3 million Francs. But security within the FLN was lax and very soon the secret police infiltrated and tore them apart.
Ben Bella himself was captured and sentenced to 8 years in prison, but in 1952 he escaped by sawing off the prison bars on his window with a file that had been smuggled in a loaf of bread. He then escaped to Cairo under the protection of Nasser of Egypt.
Now free, he led the reorganization of the FLN. They formed a committee of 9 leaders, known as chefs historiques – 6 of these leaders were based in Algeria and 3, including Ben Bella, were based in Cairo.
Despite all the rhetoric coming out of Cairo radio about Nasser being a force for Arab struggle Nasser did very little before the war in arming the Algerians. They thus found themselves very ill-equipped in 1954 on All Saints day when they organised several raids on important government structures.
The raids were badly planned and very little damage was done, leaving the authorities to conclude the separate events were unrelated and not part of one big terrorist plot.
However, France’s reply was swift – troops were deployed from France and very soon the Muslim population was subjected to recriminations with Muslims being arrested indiscriminately.
Within a few weeks the FLN network had been broken up and many fled to a last stronghold in the mountains. With winter coming things soon cooled down and the colons went back to business as usual.
In the spring of 1955 the FLN renewed its offensive against the Algerian government, attacking what it called soft targets: Muslim collaborators. Hundreds were killed, tortured or mutilated, and again the French government sent in reinforcements so that the numbers of French soldiers swelled to 100,000, double their size at the start of the rebellion. The raids on Muslim areas became even more brutal.
In response the FLN announced a new rule of engagement – prior to the brutal recriminations in the bidonvilles (called ratissages) the FLN had opted not to hurt the white pieds noirs, electing instead to attack structures: buildings, installations, infrastructure – but now they would also attack the white populace.
Violence was now being carried out against whites: they were snatched from their motorcycles and slashed to death; in another incident grenades were thrown into a pieds noirs café; and in another FLN groups went from house to house killing everyone including women and children.
The pieds noirs themselves formed their own vigilante groups and went out killing Muslims. Official reports said over a thousand were killed by these groups though FLN figures give an even larger number: 12,000.
The middle ground was fast shrinking and even former moderates like Ferhat Abbas, known for advocating for peace and even married to a Frenchwoman, soon cast their lot with the FLN, believing that the French government was not listening to the plight of the average Algerian.
The unrest in Algeria forced the French to rethink their policy in the rest of the Maghreb – that is Tunisia and Morocco. Next time we’ll take a look at both countries and consider their fights for independence.
- The State of Africa, Martin Meredith
- The Story of African Independence – Ghana
- The Story of African Independence – Egypt