Home News Facing up to history: France and Algeria’s bloody past

Facing up to history: France and Algeria’s bloody past

Published on March 03, 2021

As Emmanuel Macron admits that France covered up its torture and killing of a top Algerian lawyer in 1957, we look at the North African country’s bloody struggle against French rule.

The war of independence left half a million dead — say the French — or 1.5 million according to the Algerians, and very nearly tore France apart.

Soul searching over the torture and killings carried out by French troops — as well as the tens of thousands of Algerians who fought for the French but were abandoned to their fate — is still going on 60 years later.

Bitter at being forced into exile in France, Algerian-born French “pieds noirs” (black feet) became the bedrock of the country’s anti-Muslim far right.

– French colonisation –

In 1830 France invades Algeria, using a diplomatic incident as a pretext. It was then part of the vast but tottering Ottoman Empire.

The country becomes a part of France in 1848 after the hero of its long resistance, Emir Abdelkader, surrenders.

Large numbers of European settlers pour in from France, Spain, Italy and Malta.

An 1870 decree grants French citizenship to Algerian Jews but excludes Muslims. They remain second class citizens until 1958.

Hundreds of thousands of Algerians fight and die for France in both world wars. But rising Arab nationalism, and France’s dismissal of native demands, lead to bloody riots in eastern Algeria on the day World War II ends in Europe in 1945.

The May 5 violence ends with French forces massacring between 6,000 and 30,000 people.

French Algeria is never the same again.

– War of independence –

In October 1954 the newly created Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) starts a war for independence.

On the night of November 1, known as “Toussaint Rouge” (Red All Saints Day), explosions rock government buildings across the country, leaving 10 dead.

Blood really begins to flow after an FLN attack on the city of Skikda (then Philippeville) and on mining villages near Constantine on August 20, 1955.

While fighters butcher European women and children, the vengeance wreaked on the Muslim population by the French is even worse.

The carnage continues with FLN bomb attacks shifting to the capital Algiers in late 1956, with French paratroopers using torture and summary executions to brutally hit back in what came known as the “Battle of Algiers”.

Lawyer Ali Boumendjel is killed during this period, with the authorities saying he had committed suicide.

– Enter De Gaulle –

Charles de Gaulle, France’s World War II hero, returns to power in 1958.

Support for the war is waning, and many of France’s allies were also turning against her.

De Gaulle calls a referendum on January 8, 1961 and three-quarters of mainland voters agree to grant Algeria self-determination.

By this stage, the fighting has spilled over into France.

The far-right nationalist Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS) vows to keep Algeria French and begins a series of bombings and assassinations on both sides of the Mediterranean.

On the night of April 21-22, elements of the French military revolt, but their coup fails.

That October in Paris up to 200 pro-Algerian independence demonstrators drown after being thrown into the Seine River by the police.

– Peace accord –

De Gaulle began talks with the FLN and a peace agreement is finally signed on March 18, 1962.

A ceasefire is meant to end the eight years of fighting, but violence continues.

The French vote nine to one in favour of the deal in an April 9 referendum with 99.7 percent of Algerians approving it on July 1.

Two days later De Gaulle declares Algeria independent.

– Bloody aftermath –

Around one million “pieds-noirs” flee to France where they live alongside Algerian immigrants they blame for their misfortune.

Some 55,000 Algerians who fought on the French side, known as “Harkis”, are massacred by the FLN. Another 60,000 end up in miserable camps in France.

The FLN’s Ahmed Ben Bella becomes Algeria’s first president, but is ousted in a military coup in 1965.

– ‘Crime against humanity’ –

France has long agonised over its colonial past.

But it is only in 2012 that Socialist president Francois Hollande acknowledges the “unjust and brutal… suffering inflicted on the Algerian people.”

President Emmanuel Macron — the first born after the conflict — goes even further in recognising the scale of abuses by French troops.

He declares Algeria’s colonisation a “crime against humanity” before being elected and on Tuesday admits that French soldiers murdered Boumendjel in 1957 and then covered up his death.