‘Colonists’ Exact Stakes and the Untold Story of Algeria’s Independence

Albert Camus (1913-1960), a Nobel Laureate for literature, was born and raised in colonial Algeria. He is largely considered in independent Algeria as the spokesperson of white settlers, perhaps even the pride of a social class better known as Les pieds noirs. The latter underlines the descendants of white settlers or colonists (French but also other Europeans) who joined the colony after the conquest of Algeria in 1830. Almost all of them acquired the most fertile land at a fraction of the cost following the decimation of Arab tribes and the ruinous policies that led to the dispossession of the remaining inhabitants from their communal lands. In the literature about the period, the first colonists are branded as pioneers. They worked the land and rendered it extremely productive.

It was rumoured during the 1930s that if America was proud of California, then France was proud of Orléansville, today’s the governorate of Chelf and the region around, spreading from Oran in the West to Médéa in the East. True, these colonists were industrious, but they too exploited the dispossessed native population. Russian convicts, who lived through the reign of the last Tsar and were serving prison terms around the 1910s in Bône (today’s Annaba), were shocked to find that the colonists treated Algerians worse than sheep.[1] With the end of military rule in the 1880s, colonists (not Metropolitan France) were responsible—through exclusionary practices—for literally sending Algerians behind the sun. Understandably, by the time the Algerian revolution broke out in November 1954, everything the colonists fought and stood for became at stake. Most of them, at that point, had been four generations in the colony.

To give non-Algerian and non-French readers a foretaste of la déchirure or the disheartening misfortune of these colonists brought about by Algeria’s independence in 1962, consider this analogy. In South Africa, Nelson Mandella was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace simply because he did not repeat the Algerian tragedy. Mandella kept intact the economic privileges white colonists enjoyed during the apartheid. He did not start a policy or propagate a process leading to their eventual eviction or dispossession. White liberals and their media adore Mandella for not doing what the FLN is thought to have done with white colonists three decades earlier.

Here enters Camus’s conciliatory discourse during Algeria’s war of independence. He is notoriously famous/infamous for adopting his mother’s point of view at the expense of justice.[2] Because I hailed from the very people sent behind the sun by Camus’ ancestors, I find any engagement with that ‘justice versus mother’ discussion’ a dead horse. How so? The terrorism Camus refers to in the quote was not terrorism; these were some people’s deliberate actions of emancipation to re-enter history after more than a century of denial. Hence, the euphoric reactions captured through Algerian songs and other cultural artefacts such as: “يا محمد مبروك عليك الجزائر رجعت ليك”[3] While a student during the 1990s at Algiers University, I grew up having a part in several discussions regarding whether or not Camus was a misunderstood universalist or bloody racist. I can say now that lyricism does not even begin to approach, let alone solve historical necessities. Reading Camus may make one more sensible and more sensitive to certain complexities, but at the end of the day, poetic formulations of his and his like (Mouloud Feraoun, for one) do not advance the cause of emancipation a single centimetre. Lyrics and poeticism are what the French brilliantly capture through the expression: des masturbations a l’infini.

That explains why there exist perhaps a few solid reasons why the world will want to read one more book about Camus. Advancing this position, I am aware, comes at the risk of effecting a major offence to liberal sensibilities since Camus has been the darling of this class. It is worth knowing that Camus did not hail from these classes, but he had been accultured—appropriated, if you will, not without his tacit approval, though, and as such, he becomes an idol for anyone who wants to change their social skin. With class as a matrix for meaningful analysis, the methodological line is drawn for what comes below.

Similarly, it is worth recalling that with the conclusion of the Evian Agreements (Accords d’Évian), colonists became personas non grata, undesired in a country they called theirs. Many of them knew no other country to call theirs except Algeria. Most Algerians perfectly understand and even sympathise with their misfortune. Strangely, the Evian Agreements guaranteed the colonists’ right to stay. But it is they who sealed their fate in calling for and acting to keep Algeria French. Long story short, had they stayed, I and my kind (practically sons of peasants with living standards barely different from feudal times) would never have had the chance to make it beyond primary school. Like our forefathers, we would have been condemned to remain subservient to colonists, the lowest class on the social ladder. My father was coerced to leave school at the age of 10, and that is what France was able to offer him and his generation.

Meanwhile, it is no exaggeration that by literally enslaving Algerians, not a small number of colonists used to live like royalty. Hence the nostalgia and the rumination over a French Algeria in contemporary France has been more of a re-memory than a memory, properly speaking. Knowing that originally these colonists hailed from peasant and working-class backgrounds, it is understandable what they have gained and lost. Camus is an icon for everything they aspire to, the self-made entrepreneurial model.

Now, concerning how independent Algeria has fared without colonists, that is less significant to colonists and more appealing to capitalists. Volumes can be written about dysfunctionalities, imagined or real corruption, and money laundering. But for the sake of fairness, every Algerian is entitled to free education, health insurance, dignified lodgings, etc…… Only those blinded with unsurmountable hatred can deny these relative material gains. Still, the class struggle remains the perfect arbitration for any measure of success or failure.

The predominant nationalist discourse prevailing after independence only seeks to asphyxiate the class war. Through several slogans, Le hirak (peaceful uprising) of February 2019 articulated that class dimension. Still, the triumphant narrative tried and succeeded in portraying it as only an exasperation with Bouteflika and his cronies. Rather, le hirak expresses an incendiary insurrection against the entire setup of postcolonial order, not just about the Bouteflika episode. The muffled class war has its explanation, which is further elaborated below, but the class dimension after independence remains there for all to see.

This leaves subaltern Algerians with no hatred against France or at least they do not hate France, les français de souche. In this connection, it is worth recalling that no hatred or admiration exists outside space and time. Sales of French cars do not compare with Asian ones; Algerians cannot resist French brands. So is the case with French cheese, delicacies, language, etiquettes, and above all, the French love for life! For most Algerians practically leading their daily lives (not when some journalist pushed a microphone their way), what happened happened, and one cannot sit around crying over spilt milk or reinvent the wheels of time. Algerians trust in the Hegelian law of historical necessity (not they know Hegel), through which he means: that what happened could NOT happen. Still, for historical accuracy and fairness in judgment: the colonists kept Algerians outside time. This is not some nationalist ruminating over colonial atrocities to cover for his postcolonial shortcomings and even crimes!

Ever since the end of military rule toward the end of the 1880s, the colonists and their offspring dominated the colonial administration. They made everything in the book to block the scanty metropolitan policies that aimed to provide, care for, and ‘civilise’ the native (Algerian) populations regarding schooling and caring for the health of Les indigènes. Who stood against the progressive policies of the French state? None but the colonists. In 1962 these colonists got what they have historically always deserved. Outlining this does not make Algerians blind to the fact that several colonists served in FLN ranks and openly supported decolonisation. The violence during the revolution settled scores; that violence, as Frantz Fanon brilliantly puts it at the beginning of Les dames de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), has purifying effects. No one, no matter how Zen or humanist, could undo that violence and bloodshed.

To counteract the sweeping lyricism in Camus’ prose, I always refer for the benefit of students (most of whom are historically removed from the colonial context) to the first page in Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma. Reading Nedjma’s first page, one will see how Camus has been out of touch with reality. Camus’ lyricism perfectly fits a middle-class sensibility full of: ‘either and or’, indecision, and mental fogginess. The first page of Nedjma saves readers from that fogginess and makes them fully register the class struggle. One will realise how acute Algerians’ living conditions after 1945 were and how they were aware of the necessity of bloodshed and violence, not that they liked it, but because they were squeezed out of options. Kateb Yacine remains a master had he written only that first page in his career. For there, one captures Algerians’ logos, the reflective consciousness that looks at the abyss but is not afraid to tease it out and distil the sensible course of action. Perhaps, it is not an exaggeration to conclude that Camus does not even begin to compare with Yacine. If literature is but another means of changing the world, not just an instantiation of the bourgeois hunt for the beautiful, then it is Yacine who deserves recognition, not Camus.

Now, after 1962 and as outlined earlier, one does not need to be an apologist for the FLN and their misrule. But it is unquestionable that materially speaking, Algerians fared well under post-independence rule than during colonial times. Regarding present Franco-Algerian relations, they too cannot be stripped out of context. Not all the criticisms one reads in the French media are accurate or innocent or not propaganda. It is not news that there exists corruption in reporting corruption in Algeria. Many observers recall that the French media were the first people who brought public attention to overpricing the 1200 km highway in 2006. Why? French companies, like American, Japanese, and South Korean, made their bids. But the project was contracted by three large and state-owned Chinese construction companies and one Japanese. How so? Simply because Algerian bureaucrats did their job. They handed the project to the lowest bidder. Like everywhere in the world, the initial fund meant to cover the construction was not enough, and the contracted companies asked for what was legally theirs. The highway is not Germany’s Autobahn, but its cost is reasonable. And the delivered infrastructure is not bad, as is often reported. Likewise, the French media became furious when the authorities handed the contract for building the largest damn in the Maghreb, that of Beni Haroun, in 2001 to the Chinese. The contract was mouthwatering, and soon the usual media faultfinding started. Bouteflika’s reign has been no short of objections, but it remains a duty to be fair.

Big contracts for building key infrastructure such as the one outlined above are a handful of examples of why tensions have always governed the relationship between independent Algeria and France. The cultural explanation proposed by the Algerian establishment often aims to confuse, justify, and never explain. The tension has deep roots in material history and the meaning of primitive accumulation. The tendential fall in the rate of profits [as specified by Karl Marx in volume three of Capital] obliges French companies to compete against more vibrant American and other competitors from around the world for parts of Algerian markets that dictate the tension. The corruption in corruption-related discussion seeks to cover that public officials and their cronies’ swindling of assets, large or small, cannot significantly account for the contradictions in international trade. And that these contradictions in international trade cannot be resolved through globalisation (Global Market) since the latter precipitates an equal standard when contracting from among national capitals—a situation that remains full of odds and engenders tensions among competing capitalisms making international trade. To provide a taste of this contradiction, Algeria’s decision to nationalise its energy sector in February 1971 gave leverage to American companies at the expense of French ones.

That explains that if one aims to address the subterranean forces that shape Franco-Algerian relations, then one has to read and consider the underlying thesis proposed by Gregory D. Cleva in JFK Algeria Speech (2022). It is not as if we only want to read the book, but we have to. The gist of it is how in the wake of that speech, a pattern was set for the relationship not only between the U.S. and Algeria or the U.S. and France but between Algerian and French establishments. (the two peoples here are outside the power equation) Leaving the ephemeral (that which French media deems newsworthy) and embracing the essential, the JFK Algeria Speech is the way to go. The intricate web of connections is barely highlighted, let alone sufficiently addressed neither by staunch Algerian nationalists nor by largely nostalgic French journalists and academics.

For a large sway of ordinary Algerians, the FLN eventually won because it forced de Gaulle to accept negotiations. Under the carpet, however, is how the FLN, by the time JFK made his speech, was militarily defeated. Remember, it was in the context soon after the battle of Algiers and when FLN masterminds were chased down, nearly all of them were decimated. French generals’ strategy to defeat the insurrection started bearing fruits. And still, the FLN, in the final analysis, got what it wanted! Strange. Some other forces were working against French policymakers of the time and in favour of the FLN, not necessarily in favour of the Algerian people or the revolutionaries. We read in Cleva’s account that American general consuls in Algiers serving from 1942 to the late 1950s each and all of them played key roles by accurately reporting the pitfalls of French colonial policies. As a member of the Senate’s committee for foreign policy and thus a likely candidate for the presidency, JFK formalised what the American establishment, up to that point, had always wanted and discreetly planned.

The U.S. did not emerge from WWII victorious just like that. The world still remembers how President Donald Trump, in November 2018, reacted to French President Emmanuel Macron’s allusion to the need to create an independent European army, a framework outside NATO. Trump angrily retorts: “Without the U.S. help in two world wars, today’s Parisians would be speaking German.”[4] It is no secret that between the two world wars, the French establishment was quickly ageing and bitterly divided. To further explore this topic, here is a 2006 study: Le choix de la défaite: Les élites françaises dans les années 1930 by an imminent scholar, Annie Lacroix-Riz. The point here is that while the French generals and army overwhelmingly succeeded in suppressing the insurrection in Algeria, French politicians could not capitalise on that success because Washington wanted otherwise. The latter embarked on a decolonisation policy, and not even Britain was immune. India, the jewel of the empire, won its independence! So, who could openly say no to Washington? Who could dare? Not even de Gaulle.

With his return to power in 1958, le generale tried his best to secure Algeria as French, but eventually, he knew his manoeuvres would amount to a little showmanship. In mounting a rebellion, the FLN’s gamble, for that is what it was, somehow ironically paid off. U.S. geostrategic interests wanted an end to colonisation, lest upheavals and insurrections in the colonies would break the capitalists’ new orders. Decolonisation as a policy was meant to contain the colonised, regardless of how on the surface, it gave them better terms (not the best) to negotiate their fate and future emancipations. For Indians, as much as for Algerians or Kenyans, the colonised’s national independence, besides the pains and sacrifices, has been largely decided elsewhere, although it is disrespectful to presume that battlefields did not matter.

This gives us an accurate picture of how the French establishment views Algeria today. Perhaps less so than how Britain views India, France sees Algeria as a bitch that got tired of sleeping with Paris and decided in a fit of anger to go to bed with Washington. All other approximations to those relations are meant to confuse, perhaps justify, never to explain what the French establishment to this day cannot overcome what it considers as the impossible loss! Now for Algerians, both the establishment and ordinary people, severance of ties with France spelt good riddance with an abusive and unjust colonial system. But it is precisely here where Algerians prefer to overlook the American role and attribute victory exclusively to their forefathers’ sacrifices. Worse than a taboo, the refusal to acknowledge the American role spells the bewilderment of Algerian elites since they are not even aware this pivotal role exists. Perhaps apart from a handful of core FLN negotiators all perished by now, a few—if any—realise the U.S. part in Algeria’s independence.

[1] Owen White, 2021. The Blood of the Colony: Wine and the Rise and Fall of French Algeria. Harvard University Press. Please refer to my review of the book. https://www.theleftberlin.com/review-owen-white-the-blood-of-the-colony-wine-and-the-rise-and-fall-of-french-algeria/

[2] “I have always denounced terrorism. I must also denounce a terrorism which is exercised blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and which someday could strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice.” Herbert R. Lottman, Camus, A Biography (1979)

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT29_wJJmvU or consider this largely forgotten one now “Fransa mellat” by Cheikh Bouregaa decrying how colonial France treated Algerians as sub-humans as well as the latter’s fight for their own self-respect during the revolutionary war 1954-1962: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gmvUlFr-Aw

[4] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/french-would-be-speaking-german-without-us-trump-tells-macron-cw668ssdw#:~:text=The%20US%20president%20told%20Mr,higher%20tariffs%20on%20French%20wine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s