1960s >> 1962 >> no-692-april-1962

Algeria: Who has won?

The cease fire in Algeria is likely to bring neither peace nor relief to that unhappy country. Those who oppose a treaty with the Algerian nationalists — the settlers and the soldiers — are numerous and powerful enough to keep Algeria under the dark cloud of fear which has hung over the country for so long. The O.A.S. seem to be everywhere that matters. If one of them is singled out for arrest by the French Authorities, as like as not the men who have to fetch him in are O.A.S. sympathisers and can easily be persuaded to let him go. If the O.A.S. don’t like what foreign journalists write about them, they can force the newspapermen to go home. They can virtually take over the centre of an important town like Oran. And all this is done by fear; fear of the plastic bomb, of death by a multitude of stab wounds or by the bullet from a passing car.


It is as well to remember here that the O.A.S. came into existence only after some years of guerrilla activities by the Algerian nationalists, which the French government had seemed powerless to stamp out. During those years, French policy seemed settled upon staying in Algeria. There was little organised retaliation from the Europeans, who put a rather shaky trust in their government. The O.A.S. burst to the surface when it seemed that de Gaulle was about to abandon the policy of a French Algeria. What the F.L.N. had won by their terrorism, the colons would try to regain by theirs.


Now, the O.A.S. outstrip the Moslem guerrillas in ruthlessness and brutality. On a typical day in Algeria, between twenty and thirty people are killed by them. Sometimes they kill indiscriminately, as when they drove two cars into the packed Moslem shopping area of Oran and left them with time bombs ticking inside. Sometimes they are diabolically selective; they recently tried to provoke a postal strike by killing several harmless Moslem postmen. President de Gaulle is reported as saying that the O.A.S. is a minor problem. which he will deal with when the cease fire is out of the way. This seems to be rather optimistic—the problem is surely much more complex and delicate.


The French came to Algeria in 1830, after a fleet under General Clausel had bombarded Algeria into surrender. This was the last of the expeditions which the maritime powers — England, Holland, Spain, America and France — had sent out to deal with the Corsair pirates, who from their base in Algiers were causing such disruption to the trade routes of the Mediterranean. Before the French conquest the country had been under, among others, the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Turks. The French established their word as law in Algeria and their colonisers settled along the coast, planting vineyards and developing, the cities. There was none of the incentive to penetrate the interior which other parts of Africa offered their European conquerors. The Congo, for example, had its rubber but for the colons the Algerian hinterland had only the Atlas mountains and then the pitiless Sahara. For over a century the great desert withheld the secret of its wealth from the French. And if eventually the Sahara’s oil and gas have caused more suffering than joy—well, that is typical of capitalism’s discoveries.


The Nationalists
The first rumblings of Algerian nationalism were heard in the ‘twenties, when the Étoile Nord-Africaine plotted to overthrow French rule. This organisation’s membership was mainly of Algerians living in France. After the Axis powers had been pushed out of North Africa an active nationalist movement was revived in Algeria. But it was one of bits and pieces, of sects who hated each other as much as they did the French and who often took time off from their war against the French to cut each others’ throats. By late 1954 there were only two Algerian movements of any consequence and of these the National Liberation Front (FLN) was the more powerful and the better equipped to wage the long war for national independence.


The war against the F.L.N. has been a serious drain on French resources. One government after another tackled the problem without success. None of them could beat the F.L.N. and none felt able to bow before the storm of Algerian nationalism. The political instability for which France before de Gaulle was noted saw eight such governments off. In Algeria the Europeans were under a fearful strain and they grew impatient with their government’s inability to stop the terrorism without surrendering the country. Once, they showed their exasperation by pelting a French prime minister — Guy Mollet —with tomatoes. His government promptly fell. It was this exasperation, pushed to the brink by the withdrawal from Tunisia and the apparent intention of the short-lived Pflimlin government to do the same in Algeria, that led to the 1958 revolt which put de Gaulle into power and ended the sorry tale of the Fourth Republic.


If there was one thing which de Gaulle was expected to do, it was to stamp out the Algerian rebels. In the event his policy has never been so bull headed. True, he has made some statements which contradict themselves. In his television broadcast during the uprising in January, 1960, he said:


  Frenchmen of Algeria, how can you listen lo the liars and conspirators who tell you that, in granting their free choice to the Algerians, France and de Gaulle want to abandon you, to withdraw from Algeria, and to surrender it to the rebellion?


But in fact de Gaulle was contemplating doing just that. Earlier in the same broadcast he said:


  . . . I have taken in the name of France this decision: the Algerians shall have the free choice of their fate . . . it will be the Algerians who will say what they wish to be.


Yet beneath this apparent confusion, de Gaulle has been firmly if slowly pushing a policy of independence for Algeria. Up to now he has dealt skilfully with the opposition to his policy. All this has earned him the hatred of the very men who put him in power.


The opposition to de Gaulle is indeed formidable. There are the European settlers, who grow the grapes and who run the banking and commercial life of the country. Many of these are poor — a settler working class, in fact. But some of them are rich and there are about a dozen landowners who we can call very rich. The Moslem farmers outnumber their European counterparts by nearly thirty to one, but they own less than three times as much land. The big farms and the best land belong to the colons. Settler interests are always in the thick of the trouble when a colonial power plans to hand out independence. The Europeans in Algeria—some of them French, some Spaniards, Maltese, Italians and Jews—are a pressure group which any capitalist government would find it hard to deal with.


French Army
Then there is the French army, which has built the roads, the railways, and the hospitals in Algeria, has supplied the doctors, teachers and engineers, and has looked upon the country as a tiresome but helpless baby. Take away the French army and running Algeria as capitalism says it must be run —profitably—is going to be a difficult matter. It is typical of French governments that they should have given the army its head in Algeria. For they have never really come to grips with their military and taught them that their job is to protect the general interests of the French ruling class. Other capitalist powers have solved this problem. Lloyd George took on—and beat—not only the generals, but the king as well, in the First World War; we all know what happened to MacArthur when he tried to dictate policy to his bosses in Washington.


But this is a difficult time to start tugging the rein on the French army. They have had no real victory since 1918; they were crushed in 1940 and have since been humiliated in Indo-China. It is easy to imagine the generals’ mood when they learned that Algeria was to be added to their list of defeats. Here, it seems, is one war which the French army feel they cannot afford to lose.


To complicate matters still more, there is the mineral wealth in the Sahara. Perhaps the French would once have been willing to abandon Algeria, as they did Tunisia, if oil and natural gas had not been struck there. De Gaulle once said that when coal was the vital fuel, France had little of it and that when oil was vital she had no oil. The Sahara strike was looked on as something of a miracle find and it has bedevilled the situation ever since. It has also added to de Gaulle’s headaches by landing him with problems of distribution and international competition. The French have tried to attract capital to Algeria by offering tax concessions and other incentives, but there was not much hope of success for that policy while the situation remained so unstable.


So it all came back to the basic fact that somehow Algeria had to be settled. De Gaulle is only facing a fact of capitalist life when he recognises that a nationalist movement cannot be held down for ever. When he tries to hang on to the naval base at Mers El Kebir, the nuclear test area at Reggan and the interests in the mineral fields he is only trying, on behalf of the French ruling class, to make the best of a bad job. This sort of thing has happened many times since 1945, in Africa and in the Near and Far East.


De Gaulle has been warned, by the settlers and the army, of the possible consequences of his policy. There is a striking likeness between the French President’s difficulties and those of President Kennedy when he is trying to deal with segregationist towns in the American South. In both cases, the very people who are employed to carry out their government’s orders have simply ignored them. There is a clue here for those who are looking for the source of the power of the capitalist class. Ironically, the O.A.S. are showing us that capitalism’s coercion depends upon the acquiescence of its underdogs.


The Future
If history is worth anything, the O.A.S. cannot win in Algeria. However much fuss they manage to kick up when the country gets its independence, it seems certain that the army and the settlers will be put in their place. Algerian nationalists will rule the country and perhaps one by one the colons will be forced to leave. The oilfields and the gas may be nationalised so that the profits go to the Algerian ruling class instead of to the French. The Algerian peasant will blossom into a worker just like the Frenchman and the Briton. He will take on a mortgage, worry for his job, console himself with an H.P. telly. He will read of—and click his tongue over—colonial wars in other parts of the world. One day he may, like the South African, forget his past and himself support the brutal suppression of some racial group. The F.L.N. and the O.A.S. will fade into history. Capitalism’s grisly wheel will turn another full circle, lubricated by the blood and tears of countless ordinary, useful human beings.