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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Colonial Warfare pt. 27

Fighting for Algeria

Chapter 2, The Open War (August 1955-December 1956)

The Uprising of August 20,1955

On August 20, 1955, thousands of Algerian peasants revolted and rushed to attack cities in North Constantinois within the quadrilateral formed by Collo, Philippeville, Constantine, and Guelma. The initiative behind that large-scale action fell to Zighoud Youcef, Didouche Mourad's successor at the head of the FLN's North Constantinois zone, and on his assistant, Lakhdar Ben Tobbal. On that day, the FLN leaders intended to mark the second anniversary of the deposing of Sidi Mohammed Ben Youcef, sultan of Morocco, by the French. The war assumed its true face in Constantinois, where the coexistence of communities had always been tenser than in the rest of Algeria. Ten years after the "events" of Setif and Guelma in May 1945, an identical outburst of violence recurred, followed by an excessive and indiscriminate repression. At about noon several thousand fellahs (peas- ants, agricultural workers) moved into about thirty cities and villages. They were weakly organized by a few uniformed soldiers of the Annee de Liberation Nationale, or ALN (National Liberation Army, the armed branch of the FLN), and they attacked police stations, the gendannerie, and various public buildings. These peasants were agitated: a rumor of an Egyptian landing in Collo circulated. Many French people, but also Muslims, were murdered with axes, billhooks, picks, or knives. Political figures were attacked, including SaId Cherif, UDMA delegate to the Algerian assembly, and Abbas Alaoua, Ferhat Abbas's nephew, who was murdered in his pharmacy in Constantine. The death toll of the riots came to 123, including 71 in the European population.

The repression was terrible. The army set to work and, as in May 1945, private militias were formed. The official death toll was fixed at 1,273. After an investigation, the FLN put forward the figure of 12,000 victims, which has never been disproved. On August 20, 1955, the myth of "peacekeeping operations" in Algeria came to an end. France was going to war, and it recalled sixty thousand reservists. Jacques Soustelle, governor-general of Algeria, overwhelmed by the spectacle of mutilated European cadavers in Philippeville, now gave the army carte blanche. The time for reforms was past. On September 30, 1955, the "Algerian question" was on the UN's agenda. The pro-independence Algerians, via the August 20 uprising, succeeded in attracting worldwide attention to Algeria. The conflict entered its phase of internationalization.

In face of the developing nationalist insurrection in Algeria, the French government hastened to settle matters for the two French protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco. It negotiated with the nationalist leaders Habib Bourguiba and Mohamed \7; whom its predecessors had exiled and imprisoned; it granted internal sovereignty to Tunisia (independence would become effective in March 1956) and outright independence to Morocco in November 1955.

The Soldiers' Movement

After August 20, 1955, the repression in Algeria openly took on the look and dimensions of a true war. The battalions of security police, gendarmes, legionnaires, and paratroopers who were already in Algeria were supplemented by more conscripts. On August 24, 1955, 60,000 young soldiers who had recently been liberated were "recalled" to service, and on August 30 the government decreed that 180,000 "dischargeable" soldiers would re- main in the military.
Very quickly, those who were called back tried to oppose these measures, sometimes with the support of their families and the general population. On September I, at the Gare de l'Est in Paris, two thousand young people re- fused to board the trains, shouting "Civilian life!" "No war in Algeria!" and "Morocco for the Moroccans!" On September 2, six hundred of the "re- called" in the air force demonstrated at the Gare de Lyons. Similar events were repeated in Brives, Perpignan, and Bordeaux. The contingent demonstrated to shouts of "The civilians are on our side!" But, in fact, that soldiers' movement, which did not find support among the masses of "civilians," quickly ran out of steam because of individual lassitude and also a lack of political prospects. The organizations and major parties proved to be more preoccupied with the tumult of political life within France. On November 29, by a margin of318 to 218, the Assembly passed a vote of no-confidence directed at Edgar Faure's government, thus setting in motion its dissolution. Legislative elections were set for January 2, 1956.

The Election and "The Day of Tomatoes"

Despite the dissolution of the Chamber, Jacques Soustelle continued the state of emergency. The government decided to postpone the elections in Algeria. The elected officials in Ferhat Abbas's Union Democratique du Manifeste Algerien decided to resign from the Algerian assembly, in the footsteps of the sixty-one Muslim elected officials who, on September 26, 1955, had opposed the integration policy championed by Soustelle. On December 20, 1955, L 'Express reproduced photographs taken in August depicting the execution of an Algerian "rebel" by an auxiliary gendarme. The electoral campaign proceeded against the background of the Algerian tragedy, and the left called for "peace in Algeria." The Socialists and Radicals formed a Front Republicain, which won the election on January 2, 1956. The major event of these legislative elections was the making of inroads by Pierre Poujade's movement, which won 52 of the 623 seats, including one for Jean- Marie Le Pen. Pierre Poujade's movement, the Union de Defense des Commercants et Artisans, or UDCA (Defense Union of Tradespeople and Artisans), campaigned against the "crooks" in the government and against the tax system. The Communists won 50 seats.

On February 1, the National Assembly invested the new government. Guy Mollet became premier, and General Georges Catroux, minister resident in Algeria. Jacques Soustelle, who had received such a poor welcome upon his arrival in Algiers, left a city in frenzy on February 2, 1956. More than 100,000 people, most of them Europeans, noisily demon- strated their affection, and stood in the path of the armored car that was trying to make its way to the port: "Don't go! Mendes in the Aures! Catroux in the sea!" Old general Catroux, a liberal, would never reach the Summer Palace in Algiers. On February 6, a demonstration of "ultras," proponents of French Algeria, shouted down the government's policy; various projectiles hit Guy Mollet. This event would become known to posterity under the name of "the day of tomatoes." The premier, still neutral, abandoned his policy, seeking peace in Algeria: the Republic had capitulated in the face of a few projectiles thrown onto this Glieres plateau of Algiers, which had become the cauldron of Algerian rage. Pierre Mendes-France resigned his post as state minister. The Socialist government was about to plunge into war.

The "Special Powers"

The extremist pieds noirs and the army demanded an increase in the number of soldiers, already 190,000 strong in February 1956, and the addition of helicopters to support the partitioning of the "bled." Robert Lacoste, former Resistance fighter and member of the SFIO, named minister resident in Algeria by Guy Mollet on February 9, 1956, introduced a legislative bill in the National Assembly, "authorizing the government to set in place a program of economic expansion, social progress, and administrative reform in Algeria, and enabling it to take all exceptional measures in view of reestablishing order, protecting persons and property, and safe- guarding the territory."

Via the decrees of March and April 1956, which would allow increased military action and the recall of reservists, Algeria was divided into three zones (a zone of operation, a pacification zone, and a forbidden zone), in which three specific army corps would move. In the zone of operation, the objective would be to "crush the rebels." In the pacification zones, the "protection" of European and Muslim populations was foreseen, with the army struggling against the deficiencies of the administration. The forbidden zones were to be evacuated, and the population assembled in "settlement camps" and placed under the control of the army.

On March 12, the Parliament (by a margin of 455 to 76) overwhelmingly passed that law on special powers which, among other things, suspended most of the guarantees of individual liberties in Algeria. The PCF voted for the law. The "special powers" constituted the real turning point in a war that France had decided to wage totally.

On April11, the recall of the reservists was decreed. Tens of thousands of soldiers crossed the Mediterranean. Prior to that application of the law, the directors of the journal Les Temps Modernes realized where it would lead and said so. "The left. for once unanimous, has voted for 'special powers,' powers perfectly useless for negotiation but indispensable for the continuation and escalation of the war. This vote is scandalous and runs the risk of being irreparable." It would in fact be so.

On March 16, 1956, four days after the vote on special powers, the first FLN attacks struck Algiers. Robert Lacoste imposed a curfew on the city, continuously crisscrossed by his patrols. In France, a few final spontaneous demonstrations took shape around train stations and barracks, against "the departure of the recalled reservists." Public opinion balked at the extension of military service to twenty-eight months. In Algeria, "the bled" continued to "rot, " and terrorism took root nearly everywhere. Oran was hit by FLN strikes in February, Algiers by similar strikes in May. The dissemination of the French troops and their mediocre training made them vulnerable to am- bushes: in Palestro, on May 19, twenty young recalled reservists from Paris fell during an attack by members of the "Ali Khodja" ALN commando, assisted by the general population. Five days later the sole survivor was rescued by paratroopers.

In July and September of 1956, discreet negotiations opened between the delegates of the FLN (M'Hamed Yazid and Abderrahmane Kiouane) and of the SFIO (pierre Commun) in Belgrade and Rome. The SFIO urged Guy Mollet to obtain a pause in the fighting through the intervention of the sultan of Morocco and of Habib Bourguiba, president of Tunisia, which had won its independence on March 20, 1956. Hocine Ait Ahmed, Mohamed Boudiaf, Ahmed Ben Bella, and Mohammed Khider discussed these prospects in Rabat on October 21, and flew off to Tunis the next day. But the Moroccan DC-3 carrying them was intercepted by the French air force and forced to land in Algiers. Robert Lacoste and the military, who did not miss that opportunity to "root out the rebellion," made it impossible for Guy Mollet to pursue the beginnings of a negotiation. The European population of Algiers, which had endured the nightmare of explosions in bars frequented by its young people, noisily demonstrated its confidence in Robert Lacoste, who was congratulated for his energy. But, in Algeria and the metropolis, attention was soon diverted from the fate of Ben Bella and his companions (they would remain incarcerated until the end of the war) by the Suez expedition on November 5 and 6, 1956.

Guy Mollet, haunted by the memory of the capitulation of Munich in 1938, and comparing Nasser to a "new Hitler," launched the foolhardy military expedition of Port Said. The Franco-British operation aimed to wrest the Suez Canal from the control of Egypt, which had nationalized the company in July. In the minds of the French general staff, the operation would serve to take down Nasser, who was considered the most active supporter of the Algerian insurrection. But the tactical success, acquired with the cooperation of the Israelis, who had attacked to the east, was transformed into a political rout: the Americans and the Russians made the troops depart again on November 15, and the UN put the Algerian question on its agenda.

The FLN took advantage of these events to make its presence known in the countryside and in the cities. In the late part of 1956, the Algerian War took a nasty turn. The army had increased in size from 54,000 to 350,000 men within two years. Several classes had to be recalled, and the length of military service was extended to nearly thirty months. The repression pushed thousands of young Algerians toward the guerrilla forces (students in particular, who organized a strike in March 1956). The French sector forces combed the territory with little zeal. The paratroopers and the Legion, constantly on call, suffered heavy losses. In late 1956, the ALN had tens of thousands of djounouds (warriors) in its ranks. Things were deterio- rating everywhere. Certain regions represented real sanctuaries for the FLN. Most of the Muslim elected officials, including Ferhat Abbas, joined the camp of Algerian nationalism.

Since autumn, Robert Lacoste had been calling for a new commander in chief. On November 15, 1956, Guy Mollet installed General Raoul Salan in place of General Henri Lorillot, who had been unable to respond to the guerrilla war, despite the reinforcements landing each month in Algeria. The arrival of Raoul Salan, a veteran of Indochina and a "strategist" of subversive war, opened a new chapter in the Algerian War, especially since the FLN had decided to change its field of operation: in January 1957, it took the war to the heart of Algiers, making repeated attacks and issuing the order for a general strike.

posted by Steve @ 2:49:00 PM

2:49:00 PM

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