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History, War of Independence

Algerian independence, mass evacuation, French Algeria, relocation centers, vacillation

In March 1954 Algerian nationalists formed the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action, out of which developed the National Liberation Front (Front de Liberation Nationale, FLN). On October 31 and November 1 the FLN launched its bid for Algerian independence with coordinated attacks on public buildings, military and police posts, and communications installations.

A steady rise in guerrilla action over the next two years forced the French to bring in reinforcements; eventually, 400,000 French troops were stationed in Algeria. The FLN’s National Liberation Army (Armee de Liberation Nationale, ALN) combined Abd al-Qadir’s guerrilla tactics with the deliberate use of terrorism. The guerrilla tactics effectively immobilized superior French forces, while killings and kidnappings of Europeans and Muslims who did not actively support the FLN created a climate of fear throughout the country. This in turn brought counterterrorism, as settlers and French army units raided villages and urban neighborhoods, killing Muslims. Certain villages suspected of aiding guerrillas were subjected to collective punishment in the form of massacres, bombings, or forced relocation of the population.

In 1956 the war spread to the cities. In Algiers, cafes, schools, and shops became targets, as the nationalists sought to weaken French morale and draw international attention to their cause. This so-called Battle of Algiers was ruthlessly put down, but it publicized the Algerian struggle to the world. Elsewhere, the French gradually gained the upper hand by using new tactics, such as using aircraft to bomb suspected ALN centers. The French also forced Algerians into relocation centers to prevent them from aiding the ALN. Electrified fences along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders effectively cut off ALN soldiers outside Algeria from units inside the country.

Despite their military superiority, the French were unable to find a political solution satisfactory to both the settlers and the FLN. International criticism of France increased in forums such as the United Nations (UN), and France’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) worried about the commitment of French forces to an unpopular war.

In May 1958 settlers and French army officers joined forces in Algiers to overthrow the French government, charging it with vacillation. A Committee of Public Safety demanded the return to office of General Charles de Gaulle, the wartime leader of the Free French, as the only one who could settle the war and preserve French Algeria. De Gaulle, however, was a realist, and once in power he recognized that the war was unwinnable. In 1959 he announced his intention of allowing Algerians a measure of self-determination.

The plan struck the settlers like a thunderbolt. Outraged, they staged an unsuccessful revolt against de Gaulle in early 1960, and in 1961 a group of army generals again tried to overthrow the government. Both times, however, the bulk of the army remained loyal to the government. Associated with the generals’ plot was a group of military and settler extremists, called the Secret Army Organization, which at the same time carried on a brutal campaign of counterterrorism against both the FLN and French authorities.

In March 1962 a cease-fire was finally arranged between government and FLN representatives at Evian, France. In the long-awaited referendum, held the following July, Algeria voted overwhelmingly for independence. The settlers began a mass evacuation; before the end of the year most of them had left the country.

The material and human costs of the war were staggering. Approximately 500,000 people perished in the conflict, the vast majority of them Algerians. The fighting was so chaotic—besides combat casualties, tens of thousands of pro-French Algerians were killed by other Algerians, numerous settlers were abducted and disappeared, and rival ALN units fought each other for power—that a precise number of casualties is impossible to calculate.

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