Algeria and Northern Ireland: Does History Repeat Itself or Does it Merely Rhyme?

A few months ago, I was asked to review Rewriting the Troubles: War and Propaganda Ireland and Algeria by Patrick Anderson for another website. The book is well researched and certainly worth a read. It concentrates on how the conflicts in Algeria and Northern Ireland were reported on, primarily by the British press, but also made a wider comparison. Superficially, there are many similarities between the Algerian War of Independence fought against France 1954-62 and the IRA struggle against Britain 1969-97. In both cases, the territory concerned had been colonised by an overseas power whose descendants remained largely separate from the indigenous population and steadfastly loyal to their mother country. Unlike most colonies, both, despite being overseas, were regarded as integral parts of the homeland, but the Algerian War convulsed France in a way that Northern Ireland never did with Britain; it sparked mutinies, coups, and almost caused civil war, In that sense, it was perhaps closer to the Irish crisis of 1912-22 than our recent ‘Troubles’.

Unlike Ireland whose fraught relationship with Britain goes back nearly a millennia, the French presence in Algeria was a comparatively short one. A French invasion force landed in 1830, and was as often the case with such imperial adventures, the French sold the invasion as a ‘civilising mission’. The infamous Barbary Pirates that once kidnapped the entire population of Baltimore, Co Cork, were based in Algiers and stopping the White slave trade was part of the justification of bringing the area into the French empire.

While a distinct Irish identity had existed for centuries, it took a long time for Algerian nationalism to develop and like most African states it did so within artificial frontiers drawn by Europeans. The wedges between the indigenous population and the European colonists who arrived after 1830 were religious, cultural and racial. Conservative Arab Muslims and Catholic Europeans, mostly French, Spanish and Italian, did not mix easily and at its zenith those of European descent made up no more than 10% of the population. Of course, this tiny minority, known as the Pieds Noirs (literally ‘black feet’ from their sun-kissed lifestyle) was politically and economically dominant. While Algeria sent deputies and senators to Paris, the Muslims originally were denied the franchise and when it was eventually granted, gerrymandering through electoral colleges ensured the Pied Noir vote was equal to the Muslim one.[1] In fact Muslims were regarded as subjects rather than citizens, they were permitted to be subject to Islamic law but becoming French in this part of France was a difficult process; any Muslim looking to become a French citizen had to renounce their right to Islamic law virtually committing apostasy in the process. In the first 75 years of French administration only 2,500 Muslims had become French citizens.[2]

In 1945 while Europeans celebrated VE Day, Muslims slaughtered and mutilated 102 Europeans at Sétif, near Constantine. The French responded by bombarding villages and shooting hundreds of Muslims. The best estimate for the reprisals is a round 8,000 dead, a body count more than double the death toll for the entire Troubles.[3] The clampdown settled things for a while but Algeria was like a long dormant volcano, ready to erupt. The catalyst was war. The French defeat in Vietnam in 1954 demonstrated that a colonised people could defeat their European overlords and the lesson was not lost on Algerians.

On 1 November 1954 a small group of conspirators calling themselves the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) staged an uprising. The rebellion was a small affair involving around a few hundred fighters and had little initial impact but Algeria was a vast country, over four times the size of France,[4] and there were plenty of places in the Atlas mountains in which to hide and few French soldiers to look for them, with only a single helicopter at their disposal.[5] The failure to strangle the rebellion at birth allowed it to grow and spread and the next few years were marked by ambushes, massacres, assassinations of police and indiscriminate bombings of civilians.

Unlike Indo-China,[6] the French sent conscripts to Algeria, although it was the Foreign Legion which was 47% German and doubtless containing numerous combat veterans from the Second World War,[7] and the tough and experienced Paratroopers, widely known as Paras, that saw the bulk of heavy combat. In time, France deployed 600,000 service personnel,[8] a vast undertaking; Britain, with a similar population, briefly deployed 30,000 troops in Northern Ireland during July 1972,[9] and the United States with over four times France’s population never had more than 550,000 troops in Vietnam.[10]

The war was appalling in its savagery. The FLN liquidated Muslims who sympathised with the French or who showed an inclination to compromise with them, often cutting the throats of their captives while the Pieds Noirs responded to FLN bombings by rampaging through Muslim areas hacking people to death. The French tortured captives, and bombed and massacred villages. This most dreadful of wars dragged on for eight interminable years because the FLN would not compromise on its core demand of complete independence and the Pied Noirs and the French political establishment would not budge on Algeria being part of France. The military, having been humiliated in 1940 and again in 1954 in Vietnam, were determined not to lose again.

French administrations tried to find a political solution, proposing various forms of devolved government which brought cries of treason and sell-out from the Pied Noirs and military. Paris was also cool on torture, the use of napalm, indiscriminate bombing and mass reprisals, leading to a feeling in the military that the politicians would cut and run as they done from Vietnam. The war was also marked by the lack of control Paris had over its military. So much so that on May 8th 1958 the army served notice on the government that it would be impossible to forecast ‘its reaction of despair’ if the government abandoned its loyal Algerian citizens.[11] It was thinly veiled threat of coup. Five days later a mob of Pieds Noirs seized control of the Government-General Building in Algiers and the army joined them in setting up a committee of public safety to govern Algeria. Army plotters then prepared to launch Operation Resurrection, a plan to fly paratroopers into metropolitan France and seize control of the government. There was little secrecy about the plot and it initiated frantic political scrambling to prevent a coup and civil war. The answer lay in inviting the former prime minister and national hero, General Charles de Gaulle to come out of retirement and lead the nation for a second time. De Gaulle had enormous prestige and although the move was not universally popular, for a time he managed the rare feat of being simultaneously hailed by the Pieds Noirs, army and a sizable portion of Algeria’s Muslims.

Once in power however, he concluded France had to withdraw from Algeria, even though its strategic importance increased after the discovery of large oil deposits in the Sahara and its use as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. The French people too were becoming disenfranchised of the idea of France in North Africa. The war eroded the country’s idea of itself as a beacon of civilised values and inclusivity. Intellectuals like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre were vocal critics and the drip feed of torture and atrocities eroded public support. De Gaulle sought negotiations and he infuriated the Pied Noirs and army when he invited the FLN to conclude a ‘peace of the brave’.[12] It was easier said than done. The war had polarised opinion in Algeria and there was little moderation or middle ground to work with. Despite that, the war was eventually brought to a formal end by the Treaty of Évian-les-Bains in March 1962. But there are few happy ending in history and so it proved with Algeria.

The treaty was supposed to guarantee the rights of the Pieds Noirs who quickly followed the French army on ships to Marseilles. The Muslin slogan of la valise ou le cercueil (the suitcase or the coffin) was very real to them.[13] Muslims who had served in the French armed forces were abandoned to their fate and were butchered, sometimes along with their families, and subjected to the most inhuman torture in the process. Estimates place their number from 30,000 – 150,000. The war cost France around 18,000 military dead, over 10,000 Pieds Noirs were killed, while Muslim dead from all violent causes was estimated at 300,000. It is worth noting that subsequent Algerian governments put the number of dead at one million.[14]

Nor did the Pieds Noirs quietly settle into new lives in France. The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète), a Pied Noir terrorist organisation, tried to assassinate de Gaulle on nearly two dozen occasions for his supposed treachery.[15] The most serious attempt occurred in August 1962 when De Gaulle’s government car was shot up in the village of Le Petit Clamart, peppering it with fourteen bullets. He and his wife were lucky to survive and with typical sang froid, De Gaulle went about the day’s business as if nothing had happened while Madame de Gaulle seemed more worried about chicken, she had left in the boot of the car.[16]

The Pieds Noirs settled mostly in the south of France and they brought their resentments and bitterness across the Mediterranean with them. It is no accident Provence and Marseilles are strongholds of the Rassemblement Nationale, formerly known as the Front Nationale. It is also an area popular with North African immigrants. France’s difficult relationship with the Muslim world now continues within France itself. Algeria won its independence but has suffered decades of military rule, rigged elections, civil war and repression. With a very young population, the days when Algeria was French are a vague and distant memory.

If anyone is interested in finding out more about Algeria or General de Gaulle, the author is presenting a course on de Gaulle as part of Queen’s University Belfast’s Open Learning programme, beginning January 2024.

De Gaulle was an unlikely saviour to salvage his country’s pride after its greatest humiliation. He was born during the zenith of the Third Republic when France commanded a global empire second only to Great Britain’s. He fought in the Great War and unsuccessfully called for the reform of France’s army between the wars. He carried the flame of resistance after defeat in 1940 and led his country to join the victorious allies of 1945 to stand once again among the ranks of first-class powers. He began the Franco-German alliance which has been the driving force of the EU project and extricated France from Algeria, ushering in the Fifth Republic which endures to this day. A must for Francophiles and those interested in modern European history. 

  1. Horne, A. (2012), L.509, A Savage War of Peace. Algeria 1954-26
  2. Horne, A. L.560
  3. Fenby, J. p.89 The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved
  4. https://www.worlddata.info/country-comparison.php?country1=DZA&country2=FRA
  5. Horne, L.1851
  6. Goscha, C. (2002) p.418, The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam
  7. Horne, L3276
  8. Horne, A. L.10270
  9. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/ni/security/ni-sec-03-army-personnel.htm The figure includes locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment
  10. https://www.vva310.org/vietnam-war-statistics
  11. Crowley, A. (2018) p.317, de Gaulle
  12. Crowley, p.346
  13. Anderson, (2022), p.236, Rewriting the Troubles: war and Propaganda Ireland and Algeria
  14. Horne, A. l.10950
  15. Fenby, J. p.1
  16. Fenby, J. p.494

 


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