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Algerian Independence

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2013. All rights reserved)
Go to the syllabus or the reading on French imperialism in West Africa or the World War II time line..

This article serves two purposes. At this point in the semester, we are learning about the process of decolonization in Africa. There were many different ways in which this occurred, but they can be grouped by colony according to the amount of violence that was involved and the extent to which Europeans living in the colony influenced the process. This article describes the process of decolonization in Algeria, a French colony that not only had a large European population, but one that was considered for a long time to be an integral part of its colonial power rather than just a colony.

In addition, this article provides the historical background to the novel and movie Bab el Oued by Merzak Allouache. Allouache is an Algerian filmmaker and his book is an adaptation of the screenplay for his film, which covers an episode in Algerian history in the late 1980s. By that time, armed resistance had begun against the successors to the government "won" independence. This article explains the most important concepts and symbols that were important to Algerian revolutionaries in the 1980s.

Algeria is located in northern Africa along the Mediterranean coast between Morocco and Tunisia. The Atlas Mountains divide it into two major regions: the coastal plain in the north, which covers about one tenth of the country, and the Sahara Desert in the south which covers the other nine tenths.

All of the major towns are located along the coast including, from west to east, Oran, Algiers (the capital), Constantine and Annaba. South of the mountains, the largest towns are all oases like Ghardaia, El Meniaa (formerly called El Golea) and Tamanrasset. There are also some substantial towns in the oil-producing region like Hassi Messaoud.

Nearly all of the country's agriculture takes place in the coastal plain, although there is some agriculture in the Saharan oases. Algeria has extensive deposits of oil and natural gas along its eastern border and there are exploitable deposits of iron near Tindouf and coal along the Moroccan border near Oujda.

map of Algeria

Algeria's coast provides easily-defended harbors that served as the basis for port cities since the time of the Phoenicians in the first millennium BCE. Since then, Romans, Vandals, Ummayyids, Abbassids, and Fatimids all controlled the coast at different periods, and by the 1500s, the ports were brought under the nominal control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman government was represented by officials in Oran and Algiers who received protection from Ottoman military garrisons.

By the 19th century, Morocco became independent of Ottoman rule under its own sultan. The rest of the North African port cities were ruled by Ottoman deys who faced fairly constant opposition from Berber chiefs who controlled the inland regions. During the Napoleonic Wars, Algiers and the other cities of what the Europeans referred to as the "Barbary Coast" sheltered pirates who launched attacks against European ships. One of the minor results of the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 was an agreement between the major European powers to punish the Barbary cities in an effort to stop piracy. The piracy stopped, but relations remained very tense.

After 1815, France maintained a consul in Algiers to negotiate trade agreements and insure that piracy did not resume (against French ships, at least). In 1830, the French king used a minor incident to justify an invasion of Algiers on July 5 which quickly captured the city but did nothing to reduce resistance by Berbers from the interior. France fought two wars against forces led by the Berber leader Abd al-Kader of Mascara (southeast of Oran) in 1832-4 and 1835-1837 without either side prevailing. During a third war with Abd al-Kader in 1840-1841, the French resorted to terror tactics, filling in desert wells and destroying farms. The Moroccan sultan allowed al-Kader to hide in Morocco, so the French invaded Morocco in 1844 where they captured al-Kader. The Moroccan sultan, as the leader of an independent country, was angered by the invasion and other European powers supported his demands for compensation. In the end, the French signed the Treaty of Tangier on September 10, 1844 and recognized Moroccan independence. Six months later, the Convention of Lalla Maghnia (March 18, 1845) established a river called the Oued Kiss as the border between Morocco and Algeria along the Mediterranean Coast. The border was left undefined further inland, laying the basis for many further border disputes.

Although Kader was defeated, Berber uprisings continued in central Algeria to the 1870s until the French occupied the oasis of El Golea (modern name: El Meniaa) in 1873. Resistance continued deeper in the desert, and resulted in the complete destruction of a railroad surveying mission (the Flatters Expedition) in 1880-1881. The last resistance ended in the desert in 1932, in the region of Mali north of Timbuktu. One byproduct was the creation of a system of fortified French posts in the interior, staffed by soldiers of the Foreign Legion, with their headquarters at Colomb Bechar (located west of Ghardaia).

In the colonial period, government policy focused on encouraging French settlement in the Algerian coastal plain and, to a lesser extent, modernizing the Muslim population. French immigration was successful and by 1956, the French settlers represented roughly nine percent of Algeria's population. The rest was divided between Arabs (50%), Berbers (25-30%) and other groups (Khabylie, M'zab, etc: 10%). As late as 1960, the goal of French policy was to integrate Algeria into the French nation as a province just like Brittany, Corsica, Savoy, or Alsace.

Question: Can you think of a similar situation in U.S. history? COMMENT

After WWI, large numbers of Algerians (although still a small minority of the total population) received French citizenship for their service during the war. During the late 1920s and into the Depression, Algeria remained calm and the main thing that brought it to world attention was a series of successful trips across the Sahara Desert by automobile. Internally, an Algerian nationalist movement developed under the leadership of Amir Khaled al-Kader, a descendant of Abdul al-Kader, but other leaders like Sheikh Ben Badis believed that Algerians had to accept French "guardianship" for the time being. Meanwhile, a significant population of Algerians migrated to France to find work. They became organized under the leadership of Messali Hadj, who founded L'Étoile Nord Africaine in 1926 to demand higher wages and support other worker interests. The French banned Hadj's group in 1937, but it reorganized as the Algerian People's Party (Parti du Peuple Algerien, PPA).

During World War II, the French Third Republic was overthrown and its replacement, the Vichy government, proved very unpopular among Algerians, since it increased taxes to pay for the war effort and supported racial policies that favored people of French ancestry. In Algeria, local hopes were raised by the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942-1943, but dashed again when the Allies kept the existing Vichy military commanders in positions of authority. Meanwhile, the gradual expansion of French-owned farms in the coastal plain created grievances among Algerians who found themselves with less and less land, or in some cases forced to become hired workers for European land owners.

Just like in Senegal (the shootings at Thiaroye -- view timeline) there was a violent incident at the end of World War II which helped to create a widespread sense of grievance among Algerians. On May 8, 1945, the last day of the war in Europe, Algeria's population held public celebrations all over the country, but when a procession of Arabs and Berbers displayed the green-and-white flag of Abd al-Kader's 1840 uprising in the town of In Setif, French police tried to stop the march. Violence broke out and by the time it ended, over 100 Europeans had been killed in the surrounding region. The violence spread to other regions, notably the coastal towns of Guelma and Bone, where two Algerians died, 50 were wounded and 66 settlers hospitalized. The French arrested thousands and summarily executed some at Guelma. The French claimed that a total of between 1,000 and 1,300 people were killed, while Algerian estimates were closer to 45,000.


The war for independence began as a rural uprising in the Aures Mountains (part of the Atlas range) southeast of Algiers in 1954. Shortly thereafter, a separate urban uprising began in Algiers. The revolts remained separate until August 20, 1956 when leaders met secretly near the Soummam River to form the Comittee National pour la Révolution Algeriènne.

Although the French granted independence to Morococo and Tunisia in 1956, they treated the Algerian demands in much the same way that Abraham Lincoln reacted to the attack on Fort Sumter. Believing that Algeria was not just a colony, but a region of France, the French government viewed the uprisings as acts of treason and responded with massive force to crush the rebellion.

Question: What other reasons did the French have to quash the Algerian rebellion? COMMENT

Since Algeria was an enormous territory and the French could not identify the revolutionaries among the local popilation, they tried to seal off the country in order to block arms shipments to the rebels from Tunisia and Morocco. The French army created a fortified "Morice Line" along each border and established martial law in Algiers. The main consequence of these tactics was to create a division within the rebel movement between the fighters within Algeria, called the ALN (for Armée de la Libèration Nationale), and the external representatives of the FLN (Front pour la Libèration Nationale) who maintained an office in Tunisia and established political alliances with other countries like Egypt.

Question: In a struggle of this type, which faction, interior or exterior, would suffer the most casualties? Which would have the most power to influence the outcome? COMMENT

The French tactics ended the revolt by 1958, but they earned international condemnation for the use of torture and other violent acts, like the reprisal bombing of the village of Sakhiet in February 1958. Fear of international opinion plus pressure from oil companies convinced the French government to agree to peace negotiations. But there was still powerful support within France for retaining Algeria, and in particular, officers of the French army accused the civilian government (the Fourth Republic, founded after World War II in 1946) of abandoning Algeria. French settlers also accused the civilian government of weakness, while domestic and world critics condemned the government efforts as too repressive. As France public opinion became polarized, the government became paralyzed. Meanwhile, the Algerian rebels focused their attacks on moderate Algerians who offered to negotiate with the French. Eventually, there were no moderates left in either France or Algeria.

In May 1958, soldiers of the FLN executed three French prisoners in retaliation for the French execution of three Algerians. The resulting outcry in France led members of the National Assembly to pass a vote of "no confidence" in the government. When the leaders of the various political parties were unable to form a coalition to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, members of the National Assembly invited General Charles De Gaulle -- the hero of the French resistance during World War II -- to come out of retirement and form a new government. He agreed, but only after receiving a promise that the National Assembly would adopt a new constitution that increased the power of the French president. The new constitution became the basis for the Fifth Republic created in May 1958.

De Gaulle's role in subsequent events was very controversial and many people felt misled. De Gaulle's prestige as both a WWII hero and the leader of the first post-war government meant that no one questioned him too closely before he took over. Most French citizens were simply relieved that the country did not split apart. Conservatives, including the settlers in Algeria, felt sure that an old soldier like De Gaulle would never yield control over Algerian territory.

The new constitution had to be ratified by a vote in each of the colonies, but since Algeria was considered a part of France, its votes were counted as part of those cast in France. The French supported the new constitution by a large margin, so dissenting votes cast by Algerians had no effect. One French colony did say no -- French Guinea -- and it became independent in 1958, setting the stage for the rest of France's African colonies to become independent in 1960.

Question: In what ways did Guinea's "no" vote strengthen the supporters of independence in other colonies? COMMENT

Once the constitution was approved, De Gaulle acted. He purged the army of disloyal commanders in fall 1958 and offered a peace plan to the Algerians based on 1956 legislation (the loi-cadre) which provided for the creation of local governments within the French Empire. The FLN refused to accept the peace plan, and instead formed a provisional government-in-exile in Cairo (September 1958). They also launched a terror campaign in France and began to target Muslim moderates in Algeria.

The interior and exterior rebels remained divided by the Morice Line. As supplies ran short within Algeria, regional commanders began to fight among themselves, accusing each other of negotiating with (i.e. selling out to) the French. The external rebel army based in Morocco and Tunisia became bigger than the internal army, and its generals became influential through their control over the National Council of the Algerian Revolution (CNRA), which directed the revolution from exile.


After negotiations failed, the French launched the Challe offensive of 1959, using new tactics that relied on helicopters to pursue the rebels into their mountain hideouts. At the same time, the French tried to provide social reforms and services to win the "hearts and minds" of the Muslim Algerians, much like the United States tried to do in Vietnam a decade later. Much goodwill was lost, however, when the French resumed the systematic use of torture during interrogations and forced more than a million Algerians to leave their homes behind in order to clear civilians out of the main combat zones.

The new offensive failed to defeat the rebellion, so in September 1959, De Gaulle gave in. He announced that France would accept a political solution to the war based on Algerian self-determination; i.e. Algerians could choose in a referendum whether or not to become independent. Since there were no longer any moderate Muslims in a position to negotiate, independence was certain, and French settlers became outraged at what they considered to be a betrayal. Significant elements within the French military were also outraged, including General Massu, the highest military official in Algeria. When he criticized De Gaulle publicly, he was relieved of his command and called back to France.

The French settlers started their own revolt in January 1960, before the peace plan went into effect. De Gaulle rallied French public opinion with a televised speech that accused the French settler-rebels of prolonging a "100 Years War" that hurt France's international reputation by continuing the stories of military atrocities. In response to De Gaulle's speech, 121 French celebrities signed a public statement that urged French soldiers to disobey their officers in Algeria and support independence. Meanwhile, during the next nine months more than a dozen French African colonies declared their independence.

Back in Algeria, the situation remained tense. Two of the generals who opposed De Gaulle's settlement, Salan and Jouhard, retired and returned to Algeria as private citizens, where they established contact with anti-Gaullist French settlers. The French rebels organized demonstrations which led to riots during De Gaulle's visit to Algeria on December 9, 1960. Algerian Muslims displayed FLN flags at their own demonstration on 11 December, until French settlers fired into the crowds.

A referendum on the future relationship between France and Algeria was held in January 1961 and immediate independence won by a vote of 5,993,754 to 16,478. Once the rebellious French settlers realized that De Gaulle intended to honor the referendum and yield control to the FLN, they formed the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS, Secret Armed Organization). Operating on the premise that "if we can't have it, no one can," they matched FLN terror with their own. They assassinated or drove into hiding all of the remaining moderate Muslims, took control of the cities of Oran and Algiers, and began detonating bombs in France itself. The OAS activities poisoned an already bad situation, and created bitterness that prevented France and Algeria from establishing normal diplomatic relations for years after independence.

The French finally withdrew in June 1962 and Algeria declared its independence on 5 July 1962. France and Algeria had no diplomatic relations until 1965, and it took ten more years before a French head-of-state, Valerie Giscard-d'Estaing, visited Algeria in 1975. Jacques Chirac became the second French president to visit Algeria, on March 2, 2003.

Go to the syllabus, the reading on French imperialism in West Africa or the World War II time line.