Colonialists to the Barricades
By one of those transformations common in our society, a group who were the heroes of yesterday have become the traitors of today. The French settlers in Algeria and their sympathisers in the French Army, who played a leading role in De Gaulle's return to power in May, 1958, have become today's dupes of “liars and conspirators"; working against the “Glory and Honour .of France." Revolutionary or rebellious groups who push their efforts too far are always likely to find themselves at the wrong end of a “whiff of grapeshot." Messrs. Biaggi, Ortiz, and Lagaillarde and General Massu must now be bitterly regretting their assumption that they could challenge De Gaulle. A study of the careers of the Napoleons would have enlightened them on the methods and ethics of the struggle for power. Monsieur Lagaillarde, a French Parliamentary deputy for Algiers, will probably have ample opportunity for studying the situation at leisure, for he is likely to be imprisoned for his part in the rising.
Positions have been curiously reversed in the past few weeks; many Moslems are supporting De Gaulle, and the French settlers are now against him. French rebels have shown less political astuteness than the Algerian Nationalists; the F.L.N., the Algerian Nationalist Army, have been careful not to take any action during the conflict between Algiers and Paris, although it would have been excellent militant strategy. The French colonists' hopes of dominating Algerian policy have taken a heavy blow, and it seems they must now take a back seat in French political and economic life.
The Algerian war has for over five years been a serious drain on France’s resources. Algeria is a vast, mainly arid country with desert, mountain ranges and few areas of cultivation except in the coastal fringes. Many of its people are adept at living and even fighting on what most Europeans consider a starvation diet. Through the refusal of France to give the Algerians some measure of freedom and independence politically and economically, many among the population have become rootless, having neither soil to till nor trade to work at. They have little prospects other than to work for the colonists at low wages. They have little to lose in joining the F.L.N., and they have the opportunity of hitting back at their oppressors. With the Europeans forming only a tenth part of the population, military operations arc terribly difficult and costly—for France. For hit-and-run raids, for sniping, for sabotage, for acts of terrorism, the nature of the country is ideal. Guerrilla warfare, with a stream of recruits to be drawn from landless, embittered Algerians, is a venture promising great future profit for a Nationalist movement.
The F.L.N. has adopted a cold-blooded policy of harassing the Colonists and the Army in every possible way. It is a ruthless war, with no Geneva conventions or consideration for prisoners of war on either side. This appears a hideous situation to us, but it is still a war on the classic Capitalist model with two opposing groups getting workers and peasants to fight for them. The F.L.N. has fought with the methods open to them, and the methods include the slaughter of French civilians (including women and children), and of any Moslems willing to co-operate with the French. The F.L.N. is a “ political” army—the voluntary, enthusiastic fighting expression of Algerian Nationalism. Their activities can be modified to suit the political needs of the moment, as during the colonists' rebellion. The F.L.N. has repaid brutality with brutality, but the process has become too expensive for France. Every strong-point must be guarded, every road watched, every village picketed. And the F.L.N. are probing, probing everywhere, looking for the flaw in discipline, the weak spot, the broken-down truck, the flicker of a match that betrays the careless soldier.
The Colonists have shown attitudes and methods on the face of it repugnant to other nations. The frigid moral disapproval of other bourgeois groups can be taken with a pinch of salt, for any bourgeois group will display a disregard of its own political and ethical “principles" when its back is to the wall. Such mental and moral regression can be found among Kenya settlers, white South Africans, and among followers of the Nazi movement in Germany.
The regression is complete, entering into the very nature of their thinking. This failure of whole groups (or “ herds" to use Trotter's more scathing word) to assimilate changed situations and ideas takes on the character almost of mental disorder, as compared with the “norms" prevailing in more secure sectors of Capitalist enterprise. As in white South Africa, the Colonists continue to use senseless, brutal methods in spite of the triumphs of African nationalism all around them. Underneath the moral and ethical armour of all Capitalist groups there lurks the terrible brutality of “Mine, mine, mine!" a brutality that turns normally sane, reasonable people into torturers and murderers; a brutality that when it comes into the open makes a mockery of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity "; and at the first threat of insecurity turns Liberty into Dictatorship, Equality into the Police State, and Fraternity into the terrible comradeship of the Army uniform.
There are several reasons for France to retain a hold in Algeria; and uppermost till now have been the interests of the Colonists. They dominate the fertile coastal strip, they hold much of the trade, and are the rulers in administration and local Government. There are other French interests in Algeria that are becoming more important than the Colonists' dates, wine and raisins. These other interests have always been a powerful, but somewhat hidden factor in French Government policy; with the opening of the oil pipeline, however, these interests are now in the open, and overriding. Oil-production is estimated this year at 1,500,000 tons, and by 1965 it is hoped will be 50,000,000 tons annually. There arc certain economic difficulties in marketing this oil, but the French Government and ruling class are hoping that there will be a sufficient increase in world demand to absorb Saharan production. The reserves have been estimated as being of Persian-Gulf standards. There are also enormous reserves of natural gas that could be of great use to French industry and also in developing industry in Algeria. But these outsize oysters are-likely to remain shut unless the war can be brought to an end.
De Gaulle's return to power can only be understood against the background of colonial and economic trouble. De Gaulle was ostensibly returned because of rebellion in the Army and among the Colonists. "Committees of Public Safety,'' consisting frequently of right-wing organisations and individuals, sprang up everywhere in France and Algeria. But De Gaulle came to power not merely because of the Army's dissatisfaction with the corruption and ineptitude of successive French Governments, nor because of the scheming of reactionary politicians like Soustelle, but because French political parties were prepared to surrender an already tattered democracy in the interests of “National Unity.’' De Gaulle was the only political leader with sufficient prestige to command enough support to guarantee a period of stable Government. The issue was not “Algeria for the settlers,” but “National unity in order to place France once again among the front rank of European nations."
The Colonists have become the dupes of the Soustelles, Biaggis, and Lagaillardes. These incipient demagogues hoped to achieve a right-wing solution in Algeria; the suppression of Algerian Nationalism and the complete and forcible integration of Algiers with France. In the process they no doubt hoped to find themselves in power, not merely in Algeria, but in France. The recent rising has shown the true position; De Gaulle wants a settlement of the Algerian war—even at the expense of the Colonists. He would like to see Algeria firmly united to France, but he can also see the political realities. He appreciates that the F.L.N. is something of a brickwall, a brickwall that it is ruining France merely to chip. A successful, even if temporary, settlement would mean the end of ruinous war, the possibility of peaceful exploitation of Saharan oil— with French capital and technical assistance, and a secure testing-site for France’s atomic bomb.
The first indications of actual rebellion among the Colonists to reach outside observers were first the interview given by General Massu to a German correspondent; and secondly the meeting of the Mayors of the Algiers department. General Massu, whose tactlessness can only be interpreted as an attempt to sound the trumpet for a second, and much more drastic, May, 1958, expressed his dissatisfaction with De Gaulle's policy in Algeria—and said it in similar terms to those used by the Mayors. These gentry demanded the execution of Algerian Nationalists, and clearly stated the view, put into practice a few days later, that Algeria must remain French even if Paris decreed otherwise. M. Lagaillarde said, "Only one policy succeeds in Algeria, that of rebellion. We are ready to defend ourselves in arms.” (Quoted in The Guardian, 20/1/60.) General Massu was being in his reactionary way the starry-eyed dreamer. The conditions of May, 1958 no longer obtained. Even the Army, with a professional interest in the War, have shown themselves willing to obey De Gaulle. The Mayors were of course clinging tightly to their vineyards. Their premature rebellion has severely damaged their political prestige. Next time—if there is one—there will be much less confidence and enthusiasm. The cry of defiance may in the near future be replaced by the whine of the special pleader: open defiance for the more subtle and probably futile intrigue of the lobbyist. Still, the Colonists remain an important, but declining, factor not so much for themselves as for the use that may be made of them by demagogues like Soustelle.
De Gaulle's Intentions
Many interpretations have been made about De Gaulle's intentions, and his own statements contain contradictions, so that it is difficult to foresee precisely the course of events in Algeria. De Gaulle is trying to gain sufficient support among the Algerian leaders to make a settlement possible. He could offer, in return for co-operation, withdrawal of the Army to certain base areas and an increase of Algerian participation in economic and political life. He is seeking to achieve a settlement that will leave France with a limited, but important, hold in Algeria. A settlement would "pay” much better than the continuance of the war, which involves the possibility that the F.L.N. will be able to hold a position long enough to blow up the buried pipe-line. For the present, the war will drag on, with Dc Gaulle hoping that the deadlock with the F.L.N. can be broken. His policy can be summed up as “Profit for both sides." He has already achieved some “success”: the latest casualties among Moslems were reported to be among those demonstrating in favour of De Gaulle. The F.L.N. are hoping for a De Gaulle victory over the Colonists, and their lack of activity during the Colonists' rising points to a willingness to accommodate De Gaulle. The rank-and-file do not have very much to gain from either French Colonists or Algerian Nationalism. If an agreement was reached, however, and economic development went forward, they could hope for some improvement of their living standards. At least there might be the possibility of trade union action, which scarcely exists at the moment. The fate of any Algerians pushing their revolt too far would be the traditional “ whiff," this time administered by a legal Algerian Army backed up with French guns. The old cry of “Communist” will be heard and another section of the world's workers will discover the error of taking their leaders too seriously. The Algerians will find that they have but exchanged one set of oppressors for another.
F. R. Ivimey