What’s the Deal With a French Gesture in Algiers?

Hello All!

totally conquered html for its coding resources

Who wouldn’t colonize html-land for its coding resources?

Welcome to another edition of What’s the Deal?”, the blog that rarely makes conciliatory remarks to its former colonies.

In this week’s post, we’ll discuss a trip to Algeria by the French President Francois Hollande and what it means in the context of the French-Algerian relationship.

The Current

On December 20th, French President Francois Hollande (don’t say “Francoy”) made a speech in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, that very nearly included an apology.

Its disappointing that we colonized the heck out of you, but I can't say I'm sorry

Its disappointing that we colonized the heck out of you, but I can’t say I’m sorry

Now, why would the President of France make such a speech to a North African Islamic country, you ask?

Hollande was acknowledging the destructive French legacy in Algeria, its former North African colony, and the brutal way in which the French army attempted to quell the uprising by Algerian nationalists in the 1940s and the ensuing war for independence between 1954 – 1962.   Hollande remarked on the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence,  “I recognize here the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people.”  Hollande also referenced the killings of unarmed Algerian protesters by French soldiers in 1945, saying the killings, “remained rooted in the minds of the Algerians and the French.”

Political Salt should be consumed sparingly

Political Salt should be consumed sparingly

This somber, more realistic tone was a different sort of speech by Hollande than previous French Presidents who have tread carefully on the French-Algerian relationship, and chosen not to pronounce the French colonial impact on Algeria as directly.  His speech infuriated many hard-line conservatives in France who saw this as a soft gesture.  Hollande’s speech, though intent on improving diplomatic relations, should be taken with a grain of political salt.

Some Algerian commentators said the speech was motivated by the lackluster economic position of France, and the desire to boost trade relations between Paris and Algiers.  Algeria is the most populated French speaking nation (other than France) and is oil rich (12 billion barrels of reserves), yet trade with France only reaches 10 billion euros.  Hollande and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika agreed on reviving economic and cultural relations hoping to build on the announcement that the French car maker Renault is building an assembly plant near the Algerian city of Oran.

Francois and Abdelaziz: Tackling the economic downturn hand in hand

Francois and Abdelaziz: Tackling the economic downturn hand in hand

Other critics said the speech was purely a call for a pledge of military assistance in another former French African colony, Mali, where that country has suffered its second coup this year and is controlled in the North by the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Dine.  Hollande would like Algeria to assist an already-sanctioned force (AFISMA) from the UN Security Council, a role that the French are taking a lead in.

But similar to his predecessors, Hollande took the familiar French stance of not apologizing to Algeria for colonization or the atrocities of war saying he had not come, “to apologize or repent.”  The apology, not just recognition of the war and the negative effects of colonization, is what Algeria continues to push for.  The point of the speech for Hollande was a mixture of several different initiatives; he obviously needs to jumpstart the French economy, so improved trade with Algiers is a start, and to help improve economic ties, Hollande felt it necessary to improve overall diplomatic relations, hence the conciliatory speech as a gesture.

The French colonization of Algeria in 1830 and the war for Algerian independence continue to shape French-Algerian affairs to the present.  The cultural strife that exists between France’s Islamic immigrant population (many from Algeria) and indigenous Frenchmen remains a major issue that has erupted in recent years, such as the riots of 2005.  So as Hollande and French politicians look at immigration policies and improving ties with Algeria, they need to continue to keep in mind their long and tumultuous relationship.

C’est La Vie? Not After an Insult From Algiers

A stone’s throw* across the Mediterranean from France, Algeria was a French colony for 132 years (1830-1962), but, it should be remembered, had a long prosperous history and ancient cultural heritage preceding the colonial era including influence from the Roman Empire, several Imams of the Islamic expansion, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Almohads led the charge during the Islamic expansion across N. Africa

The Almohads led the charge during the Islamic expansion across N. Africa

It would be a fascinating and deserving tale to discuss the rich history of solely the Algerians, but the context of this blog calls for a particular focus on the French-Algerian relationship and how this history influences the present.  So, as much as I would like to talk about the influence of Carthage and the conquest of Algiers by the Almohads, a more thorough look into Algeria’s history requires a separate venture.

*~468 miles

The French conquest of Algeria has a rather strange beginning; one that would, from a present perspective, seem perplexing.  After striking the French consul in the face with a fan during a meeting over debts, the Algerian Dey, or regent of the country, had mistakenly started what would become a 130 year colonial rule for Algeria and much of North Africa!

For the French consul, it wasn't his dey

It wasn’t the French consul’s Dey

The act itself was insulting enough to the French as it was considered a direct insult to the French King Charles X, but the insulting process was a two-way street.  The reason the two were actually meeting was to actually discuss why France was unable to repay debts owed to Algeria (from the revolution and Napoleonic era).  The dey of Algeria, Husayn, found it insulting himself that the French had little response to the debts they owed Algeria, and thus the fan normally used for temporarily cooling thus served to inflame tempers.

Immediately, France attempted a naval blockade of Algiers, but this three-year long effort was ineffective against Algeria’s many privateers and led the French to launch a military expedition in 1830 that by 1848, had ceded control of most of Northern Algeria to the French.  In addition, France set out to control further territory in North Africa and by the 1870s had significant control in Tunisia (helped by the Congress of Berlin) and gained a foothold in Morocco by the early 20th Century (collectively called the Maghreb Territory).

The new French government of the 2nd Republic in 1848 under Napoleon III, instituted a system of civilian government in Algeria administered under three departements (or local administrations).  This civilian government was dominated by and elite group of French colonists, who were popularly known as pied noirs (Black Feet) and controlled the colony’s wealth while restraining any attempts towards democratic reform.

A revolt against French colonial administration in 1870 by a Sufi-Islamic family led by Al-Muqrani attempted to take advantage of the French defeat as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, but the revolt was crushed by the French army, and the native Algerians were marginalized further as land was opened up further to European development.

Algerians were not on the fence when it came to militarily supporting France

Algerians were not on the fence when it came to militarily supporting France

After supporting the French during WWI (both militarily and administratively), winds of nationalism began fervently among Muslim strongholds, but the French did not relinquish their political power in the colony.

The Manifesto of the Algerian People of 1943 demanded an Algerian constitution that guaranteed political participation and legal freedoms for native Algerians.  Instead of losing their political power in the colony, France only extended French citizenship (and therefore political rights) to a small population of Algerians.  Another Algerian protest movement following the end of WWII in Europe was brutally suppressed, killing many thousands of unarmed Muslims (this is the killing that Hollande mentioned in his speech).

Further diplomatic measures to slowly move towards granting political power to Algerians continued to be suppressed by the pied noir such as rejection of the Organic Statute of Algeria, which called for an Congressional Assembly made up of both Algerians and French colonists.  Through both political and military muscle, Algerians were kept as second class citizens.

So, the French controlled Algeria through

  • an elite group of French colonists, not Algerians
  • Marginalization of Muslims and religious politics
  • strong-arm tactics against any opposition

Independence: A Brutal Fight 1954-1962

The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN- Front de Liberation Nationale) began as a guerilla fighting force, but soon evolved into an elite fighting force and political body.  The war itself was peppered with massacres and counter-massacres on both sides- from the Algerian Nationalists and the French Army and their pied noir gangs.  For example, in 1955, after a massacre of civilians by the FLN, a retaliatory effort resulted in the bloodletting of 12,000 Muslims killed.  While the violent repression from the French through colonialism continued in their effort to put down the revolution, its important to know that the FLN took part in the violence as well – it was certainly not a peaceful protest movement.

the French Algerian war still burns deep

the French Algerian war still burns deep

The “War” as it really was, was not officially labeled as such by the French government until 1999;  officially from the French government, it was a “pacification” against Algeria’s nationalists.

Facing international pressure (from the self-determination and anti-colonial movements after WWII) and after facing an internal coup from armed forces influenced by the colonists in Algeria, President Charles DeGaulle in 1961 decided to abandon the pied noir support (something previous French leaders had been loath to do) and reopened talks with the FLN to negotiate a peace, through the Evian Accords.  Meanwhile, police in Paris fired on Algerian independence protesters in the capital, killing scores.

The following year in 1962, out of a possible 6.5 million voters, 6 million Algerians voted for an independence referendum, creating the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria.

Quenching the thirst of Algerian political freedom advocates

Quenching the thirst of Algerian political freedom advocates

But though the Algerian’s had their own republic, their relationship as a people remained intertwined with France.  Many difficulties awaited new governance and the economy as most of the pied noir left in a mass exodus following the Evian Accords – which only allowed former colonists to remain as French citizens for 3 years before becoming full fledged Algerians – newly minted minorities.  This exodus left much of the administration, land, and power positions up for grabs – not to mention the physical destruction left by the war.

This situation prompted Premier Ahmed Ben Bella to nationalize industries and form a powerful triumvirate at the Algerian helm: the army, the nationalist party, and the government.  This effort was effective at modernizing Algeria through their oil revenues, but only as long as the global economy cooperated.  The need to consolidate industries became a struggle to limit government’s power and allow for political opposition in the 2 decades following independence.  For example, the first constitution approved in 1963 contained no executive limits of power for Ben Bella, and rebellions in 1965 and 1988 were put down with armed force.  Algeria’s subsequent constitutions and leaders failed to jumpstart a struggling economy, stemming from the global oil crisis of the 1970s -80s and Islamic activism that resulted.

Ciao Ben Bella!  Ahmed Ben Bella was eventually forced out of office through a non-violent coup

Ciao Ben Bella! Ahmed Ben Bella was eventually forced out of office through a non-violent coup

Political changes in 1989 led to a new constitution that strayed from the political ideals of the FLN by getting rid of nominal socialism and declaring significant freedoms of expression, meeting, and association (notably ousting previously declared rights for women).

The political changes were only on the surface, however, after the incumbent President since 1979, Colonel Chadli Benjadid, realized that the newly formed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party (previously blocked for being a political party related to a religious group) would win majorities in parliament and dissolved parliament.  The ruling FLN, the only political party to rule Algeria since independence, couldn’t allow its powers to be diminished; eerily similar to the pied noir before them.  Algeria once again became an emergency state curbing Islamic protesters and students who clamored for a return to the political process.  The civil conflict between the ruling Algerian military and Islamic opposition groups in the 1990s claimed as many as 150,000 lives.   Ironically, the FLN that used Islamism as a unifying force against the Christian French colonizers during the war for independence was now using the threat of Islamism to crack down on demonstrations for a fair political process.

When elections were finally held again  in 1999, parties affiliated with a religion were once again banned and Presidential powers were expanded.  In a largely flawed election, the current President, Abdelziz Bouteflika was elected with 70% of the vote.  To his credit, Bouteflika set out to pardon many Islamic rebels from the conflict; a proposition which was taken by up to 80% of the eligible recipients, stabilizing much of the country by reducing much (but not all) of the political violence.  Bouteflika was rewarded with reelection in 2004 after taking an effort that stabilized much of the country.

Islamist movements in Algeria to this day see the influence of religion as a necessary tool to remove corruption and lack of respect for human rights from the FLN run government.  So far, Bouteflika has continued to use the military to crack down on Islamist movements who wish to unseat his government.

Parisian suburbia

Parisian suburbia

Meanwhile, the scores of Algerian immigrants in France have endured discrimination, are largely segregated, and  are disproportionately poor.  This situation, along with anti-Islamic policies from French conservatives has caused violent upheavals such as the 2005 Paris riots.  A legacy of colonialism has left Algerians on both sides of the Mediterranean in repressive situations.


For over 130 years, Algerians only knew one way of ruling a country and that was with a strong ruling elite and a weak civil society.  The Algerian government under Bouteflika, is largely still a carbon copy of those French colonial predecessors:

  • The FLN continues its hold on the Presidency, with expanded executive powers, including the military as the right hand.
  • In effect, the one-party rule of the FLN since independence is an extension of the French colonial rule through the pied noir and military.
  •  France has an uneasy relationship with Muslim immigrants stemming from their colonial relationship over Algeria and the Maghreb.

So, we can see from the extent and brutality of the French colonial legacy in Algeria why President Hollande approached his speech in December so delicately.  Having lived himself in independent Algeria, Hollande saw first hand how repression reverberated from 1830 through the war for independence.

Hollande though certainly recognizes that no apology can make up for the horrors and brutal legacy of the French colonial rule in Algeria; but since Algeria has insisted on one, and Hollande would prefer a deeper economic connection, perhaps a deeper gesture than just a condolence would be appropriate.

Coming to grips with the colonial legacy

Coming to grips with the colonial legacy

Neither country can sweep what happened during the war under the rug, but at least the French aren’t pretending like it was merely a “pacification” anymore.  Better efforts to integrate and improve lives for Muslim Frenchmen would be a good start along with disallowing xenophobic French political groups with an intolerance for Islam.

Increased economic activity and trade would certainly benefit both the recession-prone French and the Hydro-carbon bound Algerians, but full scale relations will probably remain wary for some time.

50 years may have passed since the end of the war for independence, but 130 years of colonial rule still rings deep in an Algeria still searching for its own identity.

Until the next slap in the face leads to conquest,

Your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:










About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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