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A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne, ISBN 978-1-447-23343-5

This is an account of the Algerian War of Independence.

It covers the background quickly: French colonization in the 19th century (an attempt to shore up the Bourbon monarchy, which did not really work), the establishment of the Pieds Noirs (i.e. European-origin colonists, not all French by any means), and early hints of trouble (at least some of it recognized, but never meaningfully acted upon).

Having set the scene it really gets going in 1945 with the Sétif massacre, with around 100 Europeans killed and shortly afterwards many thousands of Muslims being killed in official and unofficial retaliation. As well as being an appalling crime this was a serious mistake, being the event that radicalized many of the future leaders of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the key resistance organization.

The FLN’s initial strikes were not particularly effective, but got the attention of the French state and even generated some recognition at high levels that reform and negotiation were required - but (in fact despite several attempts) significant reform was never actually delivered, not least due to persistent Pied Noir obduracy. For a long time nor was negotiation, partly for the same reason (i.e. the political impossibility of being seen to negotiate) but also due to the difficulty of identify a negotiating counterparty. The latter seems to have been partly a result of the colonial strategy of disrupting rather than co-opting the local elite.

Instead the response was to send in the troops. The FLN’s rapid and effective adoption of asymmetric warfare (maquis tactics in the countryside and bombings in the cities) saved them from complete destruction but the military part of the story is, ultimately, one of gradually increasing French success, and brutal tactics on both sides (with the French military tactics often acting as recruiting adverts for the FLN - “The stupid bastards are winning the war for us”). The FLN managed to find a degree of sanctuary in recently independent Tunisia (whose initially good relations with France were repeatedly degraded by ill-considered French military action) but weren’t able to exploit it other than tying down a lot of French troops in the form of a highly effective border force.

The result was a disastrous situation for France. The army felt they were doing the politicians’ dirty work, but that the politicians did not have their backs; a problem compounded by France record of repeated military humiliation (in WWII, in Indo-China, at Suez) - the army wanted to win something and thought (quite possibly correctly, in narrowly military terms) that they could do it in Algeria. In Paris meanwhile politics fell deeper and deeper into crisis, with independence politically impossible but no other realistic political solutions on offer and no government able to stay in power for long in any case. Moreover the combination of these two factors had led to the armed forces developing a politically unchallenged habit of independent action.

The result in May 1958 was a military revolt, with General Jacques Massu and others seizing power in Algeria, capturing Corsica, and preparing to take Paris. Their condition was that Charles de Gaulle must return to power, and in this sense, they got what they wanted.

Having taken the reins, however, de Gaulle was faced with much the same difficulties as his predecessors: the military campaign would probably work on its own terms but will not actually solve anything - it would be a permanent occupation, at considerable financial and moral cost.  However, despite the hastily papered-over irregularity of his accession, he was equipped with a considerably stronger mandate to do something about it. In this sense, Massu and his allies did not get what they wanted, but exactly the opposite. By 1961 this had lead to a second military revolt, but this one failed dismally, and subsequently the remains of the war party resorted to the same terrorist methods under the name Organisation de l'Armée Secrète (OAS), in both Algeria and France, that their FLN opponents had long practiced. Nor did it stop there: the Gaullist paramilitaries of the Mouvement pour la Communauté (MPC) were in the habit of blowing up cafés frequented by members of the OAS. (The Day Of The Jackal is fiction, but the OAS really did try to kill de Gaulle).

Ultimately de Gaulle conceded enough about the future disposition of Algeria for negotiations to start making real progress, leading to the Évian Accords concluding the war in 1962. In principle he had been attempting to secure some kind of life for the Pieds Noirs in Algeria after independence; what happened in practice was that hundreds of thousands of them emigrated. He also failed to secure any practical protection for the Harkis, natives who had fought for the French and were subsequently treated exceptionally badly by the country’s new rulers.

History has not treated independent Algeria well. Its first independent government was quickly replaced by military dictatorship. It spend much of the 1990s in civil war.

Why was the conflict so intractable for so long? Many among the French governing elite understood that the game was up, but the persistent weakness and instability of French governments prior to 1958 meant they were unable to act on this. The Pieds Noirs and their military and nationalist allies, as well as being the immediate cause of that instability, were convinced they could and should win, although rarely within any kind of coherent idea of what the outcome should look like - the most clear-headed saw South Africa as their model, but others imagined even into the 1960s that they could reach some kind of accommodation with the Muslim population, which over the course of the previous decade had gone from optimism to fantasy. Finally, the FLN also thought they could and should win, but were actually right: they knew how to use their enemy’s strength against them, by provoking them into ever more brutal measures. Essentially they discovered how to make victory - or even a frozen conflict - too painful for France, and then they just had to wait until France broke, at which point they achieved their goal of total independence.

The reason I really bought this book, though, was to learn more about the May 1958 crisis.

de Gaulle does not (at least in Horne’s account) seem to have been involved with the planning and initiation of the coup. Rather he seems to have been ‘waiting for the call’ - but there is no clear indication that he was expecting to come from the army rather than, say, popular demand or a political party. However, he made himself complicit with Massu’s revolt both by announcing once it was underway that he was ready to assume power, and (in response to the last gap of parliamentary resistance) remarking “I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops”.

In particular, after reading books by Javier Cercas and Serhii Plokhy, I wanted to know how the coup compared with the failed coups in Spain and the USSR in the second half of the twentieth century.

In Spain, the golpistas perceived a country in serious trouble, just as France was in 1958, and General Armada planned to follow in de Gaulle’s footsteps by using military pressure to ensure he won a vote. But unlike the French example, where President Coty and the National Assembly conceded, Armada was unable to constitutionalize the coup, due to the failure to successfully co-opt the Spanish monarchy; whether he could have won a vote in the Cortes is unknown. And while 1980s Spain did have some serious problems, the country was in an ongoing process of reform; in contrast France in 1958 was demonstrably not coping and there did not seem to be any reason to think matters would improve - there was no light at the end of the tunnel and no realistic alternative to de Gaulle to rally opposition.

In the Soviet Union the country was also in a bad way - it had run out of money, had already lost territory and key regional elites were agitating for independence. Indeed the worst fears of the coup plotters were ultimately realized: the USSR destroyed itself from within not long after they had been defeated. While their actions no doubt contributed to this, the internal destructive processes were already well underway and I don’t think it’s controversial to say the outcome would have been essentially the same.
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May 2017


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