SHORTLY after the end of World War the now weakened French and British empires struggled to retain their former colonial possessions. In northern Africa, more than one million French settlers (“colons”) constituted a powerful French presence in Algeria. This made it difficult for the metropolitan authorities in Paris to simply declare the independence of Algeria and a complete and swift pullout of all French military personnel. France had held Algeria from almost 150 years. Adding to the problem was the sensitivity of the French army—humiliated by the Germans—to what could be perceived as another defeat, this time inflicted by what the colonialists regarded as an irregular ragtag army or simply little more than armed bandits. The video below presents some real images of that enormously painful struggle. Then in the 1960s Gillo Pontecorvo, a distinguished leftist documentarian and his colleague and socialist comrade, Franco Salinas (serving as scriptwriter), got involved in a production to represent the battle of the Algerian people for freedom. The resulting film was The Battle of Algiers (1966), one of the great classics of modern cinema, and perhaps one of the most politically important films for would-be revolutionists (and counter-revolutionaries) ever made.
The war was one of the 20th Century’s bloodiest colonial struggles, and it continues to be the object of intense controversy – especially in France.
Between 1954, when the Algerian uprising against French colonial rule broke out, and 1962, when Algeria became an independent republic, some two million French soldiers crossed the Mediterranean to fight against the FLN’s (National Liberation Front) guerrillas in an operation that marked a generation. Most of these soldiers were conscripts. In Paris, the developing war in Algeria led to the fall of six prime ministers, the collapse of the IVth republic, the return of General de Gaulle to power at the head of the Vth republic — a vehicle of his own creation — and near civil war following an attempted right-wing coup in Algiers.
During the war, atrocities were committed on both sides, and after it, with the general amnesty declared at Evian as part of its negotiated settlement, many of these were officially forgotten. France turned to interior self-modernization, while Algeria began a process of nation-building under the tutelage of the victorious FLN.
Algeria touched many raw nerves in France. The French conquest, which began in 1827, was conceived in terms of a confrontation between Islamic and European civilisation – and a demonstration of the latter’s superiority. Algeria was declared an “integral part of France” – and the best land reserved for European settlers.
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