Algerian War of Independence: Freedom from the French

The years following the Second World War saw the collapse of the French Empire. Of particular importance was the Algerian War of Independence.

Jul 7, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
algerian war of independence

 

From 1954 to 1962, France was embroiled in a crisis which deepened with every passing day. Algeria wanted independence and was fighting tooth and nail to gain it from the French. From organized terror attacks to full scale-war, mass incarcerations, the fall of the Fourth Republic, and threats from the French within France by pro-imperial forces, the war was indeed complicated, violent, and difficult to resolve.

 

Whatever the outcome, France was set to lose. The Algerian War of Independence was a nail in the coffin for imperialism, the French Empire, and added to the long list of colonial uprisings against European rulers.

 

Background to the Algerian War of Independence

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Assaut de Zaatcha, 26 novembre 1849 by Jean-Adolphe Beauce, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The conquest of Algeria was a decades-long process that started in 1830 and lasted right up until the 20th century. It was a particularly brutal war which saw France adopt a scorched-earth policy in its bid to conquer the native Algerians. Massacres and mass rapes were common, and the death toll was enormous. By the end of the war, between 500,000 and a million Algerians had been killed, out of an estimated population of just three million before the war. French losses were also high; between 150,000 and 200,000 French soldiers lost their lives, with the vast majority of them dying in hospitals.

 

The legal status of Algeria was an issue that fed into the feelings of nationalism for the Algerian people. Unlike France’s other colonies, Algeria was considered to be part of France. It was legally classified as France, and not a colony. This stripped the Algerians of any independence, especially since if they wanted to become French citizens with equal rights, they had to renounce their status as Muslims. Although these laws on citizenship were changed in 1947 to accept Muslims as full citizens, the seeds of revolution had been sown long before.

 

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Soldiers of the FLN in 1958. Their flag is the national flag of Algeria today, from the Museum of African Art (Belgrade), via History Today

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Independence movements in Algeria were already decades old. Political factions ebbed and flowed over the years, being created, dissolved, and morphed into other factions, all fighting for some form of independence or autonomy. In the war that would follow, three factions would play an important role. The Front de libération nationale (FLN, National Liberation Front) would take center stage. The two other factions were Mouvement national algérien (MNA, Algerian National Movement), which was formed in 1954 as a breakaway of the FLN, and the Parti Communiste Algérien (PCA, Algerian Communist Party).

 

The War Begins

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FLN soldiers, from Photo12 / UIG / Getty Images, via Truthout

 

Hostilities opened on November 1, 1954 as the FLN maquisards (guerrillas) attacked targets throughout the populated areas of Algeria. This became known as Toussaint Rouge (Red All-Saints’ Day). The number of independence fighters was small, but French efforts to stamp them out would radicalize the Algerian population further and the FLN maquisards would enjoy huge increases in recruitment.

 

Nationalist Messali Hadj, angry about not being consulted about the beginning of hostilities, formed the left-wing MNA and operated in opposition to the FLN. Both factions formed units and cells in Algeria and France, and the factional fighting would become common in France. The Café Wars, as they were known, would end up claiming the lives of over 5,000 people as the two factions fought for dominance.

 

Back in Algeria, the FLN made huge efforts to gain support for the independence movement. They created organizations and infiltrated unions in order to mobilize sentiment toward a common cause. The influence campaign became widespread, and many French European farmers (Pieds-Noirs) who lived on lands taken from native Algerians recognized the danger and fled to France or to the urban areas of Algiers. Bombings and massacres started in cities and towns, and the Pieds-Noirs demanded that the French government intervene with countermeasures to stem the violence. Colonial French vigilante mobs began to spring up in response to the violence and led “rat-hunts” looking for suspected FLN members.

 

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An Algerian Harki, via International Business Times

 

In January 1955, the French Governor-General Jacques Soustelle attempted to restore order by implementing the “Soustelle Plan” to improve economic conditions among the Muslim population, but it would not be enough to stop the war that was to come.

 

The armed wing of the FLN was the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), led by Houari Boumédiène, under whom the military enterprises would achieve much success. They adopted similar tactics to those used by nationalists in Asia who had also fought the French for independence.

 

In August 1955, the Philippeville Massacre occurred. The FLN stormed the town of Philippeville and murdered 121 people, including women and children. Seventy-one of the victims were French. Jacques Soustelle was shocked by this development, and it sparked a wave of reprisals by the French. Protests rocked the urban centers, and soon it became apparent that an all-out war was inevitable. The French administration abandoned efforts at reform and prepared for military conflict.

 

The War Expands

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A scarecrow made from a French Foreign Legion uniform, Algeria, 1958, via Scrolldrop.com

 

After Jacques Soustelle was replaced by Robert Lacoste, the French began to mount a serious fight to restore order. Lacoste abolished the General Assembly in Algeria and ruled through decree.

 

In October 1956, the French managed to capture several high-ranking FLN political leaders who were then imprisoned for the rest of the war. Meanwhile, Algiers became the center of attention as FLN operatives sought to bring the fight to the center of French control in Algeria. Shootings and bombings were carried out while the populace was urged by the FLN into a general strike.

 

The French responded with a heavy-handed approach, using paratroopers to break the strike and attack FLN targets in Algiers. The methods used by the French included torture, movement control, and curfews. Back in France, many French people were appalled by their government’s treatment of the Muslim population in Algiers and began to question the moral implications of French control over Algeria.

 

Away from the cities, the FLN managed to wage a somewhat effective guerrilla war, operating from the mountains. The operations, however, were marred by a very loose command structure and factionalized fighting between groups of the FNL occurred, as officers even used their own troops to settle grudges.

 

The French, reluctant to admit that the war was anything more than a pacification operation, still sent hundreds of thousands of French troops to Algeria, and recruited Algerians en masse into the armed forces. Paratroopers and the French Foreign Legion, however, did most of the fighting against the FLN guerillas.

 

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French Foreign Legion troops in 1956, from AFP, via Swiss Info

 

A successful aspect of French counterinsurgency operations was the recruitment of Harkis – native Muslims. The French recruited 180,000, mostly in rural areas. The Harkis represented a local counter to the FLN’s guerilla army.

 

The French military also adopted a series of patrolled barriers. Electrified fencing and minefields prohibited movement, especially over the eastern border with Tunisia. From January to May 1958, the Battle of the Borders took place there, and the ALN failed to break through the French defenses. This result constricted the weapons-smuggling operations that supplied the FLN.

 

Among other tactics, the French also implemented forced relocation, moving remote populations into camps where they could not aid the FLN guerillas.

 

The Collapse of the Fourth Republic & Return of Charles De Gaulle

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Jacques Soustelle and President Charles de Gaulle in Algiers, 1958, from Jean Mounicq / Roger-Viollet, via Le Figaro

 

A major turning point in the Algerian War of Independence happened not in Algeria, but in France. The failure to successfully end the rebellion, and especially the violence in Algeria, led to feelings that the French government was to blame for poor policies and inaction. This led to a military coup in which President René Coty was ousted, and Charles de Gaulle effectively returned to power in May 1958 and was elected President in February 1959. France’s Fourth Republic ended with this action.

 

De Gaulle worked on drafting a new constitution for the Fifth Republic. Meanwhile, the French enjoyed military successes, and by 1959, they won complete control in a conventional sense. They could not, however, change the rising tide of anti-war sentiment in France, especially among the communists who supported Algerian independence.

 

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Pieds-Noirs flooding Algiers airport in 1962, from Getty Images, via Radio Canada

 

The other issue that worried many French people was that if Algeria remained part of France, it would mean mass immigration of Muslims into France.

 

As such, De Gaulle decided that self-determination was the best course of action for Algeria. This drew widespread condemnation from the Pieds-Noirs, who threw up barricades in Algiers and launched protests that eventually petered out as the army took control. The Pieds-Noirs, feeling betrayed, created the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), an armed right-wing organization aimed at continuing the war.

 

The War Ends

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Paris Match, June 2, 1962. The cover story “Does France still love us?” presents the Pieds-Noirs as victims of decolonization, via Refugee History

 

A referendum held both in France and Algeria resulted in 75% of voters supporting Algerian independence. In January 1961, Charles de Gaulle began negotiations with the FLN.

 

An attempted coup to topple De Gaulle failed to gain widespread support from the armed forces and was defeated. Meanwhile, the OAS and FLN fought each other in a campaign of terrorism. Bombings and assassinations continued throughout the negotiations.

 

In February 1962, a peace accord was reached, and although the OAS continued operations, the FLN showed restraint and did not retaliate. A second referendum in France showed 91% were now in support of the Evian Accords, which would give Algeria independence.

 

Then came the main referendum in Algeria: 99.7% voted in favor of independence. The Pieds-Noirs fled to France, and on July 3, 1962, Algeria was declared an independent country.

 

The Aftermath of the Algerian War of Independence 

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Algerian sentiment displayed on a wall, from Philip Jones Griffith, via Magnum Photos

 

Like all wars of independence, the Algerian War of Independence left deep scars on the population. Distrust of those who collaborated with the French, such as the Harkis, led to a mass exodus of people from Algeria. France was compelled to receive over a million refugees. Harkis who stayed were subject to post-war reprisals, and thousands lost their lives.

 

Like all wars too, there was a death toll. Estimates vary massively, but a general approximation is that the war led to the deaths of over a million people.

 

The war left its legacy on the social structure of both Algeria and France. Many books have been written and many films have been made about the conflict which continues to shape Algerian politics. The FLN is still a major political party in Algeria, and to date holds the biggest portion of seats in the Algerian parliament.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.