La Vie Secrete de Grenouilles

May 8, 1945: Victory in Europe. Millions flooded the streets to celebrate the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and the formal end of World War II in the European Theater. In the northern Algerian market town of Setif, a victory parade of 5,000 Algerian Muslims ended in clashes between the marchers and the local French gendarmerie, when the latter tried to seize banners attacking colonial rule. Subsequent attacks on French settlers known as pied noirs in the Algerian countryside left 103 Europeans dead and another hundred wounded (including many reports of rape and mutilated corpses). The French restored order, and five days later in concert with colonial Senegalese troops enacted a series of reprisals and summary executions which left anywhere from 20,000 (the figure acknowledged by France) to 45,000 (the figure quoted by Radio Cairo at the time) Algerians dead.

Algeria in the 18th and early 19th centuries along with Tunisia comprised what was known as the Barbary States. Viewed as an outlaw nation by the United States and Europe, the coastline was both sanctuary and staging ground for the infamous ‘Barbary Pirates’. These pirates inspired conflict with Napoleon as well as two wars with the United States (1801-05 and 1815) and one with Holland and England (1816). The French conquest of Algeria began in earnest in 1830 during the last days of the Bourbon Restoration by Charles X as an attempt to increase his popularity amongst the French people, particularly in Paris, where many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars lived. By 1848 Algeria had been upgraded from colonial status to an integral part of France under the 1848 constitution of the Second French Republic. A century later the idea that Algeria was in full a part of cosmopolitan France was just that much more entrenched.

Though Algeria was viewed as ‘France’, the native population never did enjoy the same degree of influence nor voting rights as their European brethren. By the end of World War 1 a small but vocal Algerian Nationalist movement had started to take shape. When France was quickly defeated by Germany during WWII and the government replaced by the collaborationist Vichy, what had previously seemed to be a bearable situation by native Algerian population at large quickly became something quite different. The change in leadership not only increased the difficulties of the Muslims but also posed an ominous threat to the Jews in Algeria. The Algerian administration vigorously enforced the anti-Semitic laws imposed by Vichy, which stripped Algerian Jews of their French citizenship. Potential opposition leaders in both the European and the Muslim communities were arrested, and the European Algerians (known as colons) were generally very sympathetic to these new turn of events.

After the fall of the Vichy regime in Algeria, General Henri Giraud, Free French commander in chief in North Africa, slowly rescinded repressive Vichy laws despite opposition by colon extremists. He also called on the Muslim population to supply troops for the Allied war effort. Ferhat Abbas and twenty-four other Muslim leaders replied that Algerians were ready to fight with the Allies in freeing their homeland but demanded the right to call a conference of Muslim representatives to develop political, economic, and social institutions for the indigenous population "within an essentially French framework". Giraud, who succeeded in raising an army of 250,000 men to fight in the Italian campaign, refused to consider this proposal, explaining that "politics" must wait until the end of the war.

In March 1943, Abbas, who had abandoned assimilation as a viable alternative to self-determination, presented the French administration with the Manifesto of the Algerian People, signed by fifty-six Algerian nationalist and international leaders. Outlining the past evils of colonial rule and denouncing continued suppression, the manifesto demanded specifically an Algerian constitution that would guarantee immediate and effective political participation and legal equality for Muslims. It called for agrarian reform, recognition of Arabic as an official language on equal terms with French, recognition of a full range of civil liberties, and the liberation of political prisoners of all parties.

Social unrest grew in the winter of 1944–45, fueled in part by a poor wheat harvest, shortages of manufactured goods, and severe unemployment. Nationalist protests had occurred in 21 towns across the country the week before VE Day, but the explosions of violence on May 8 made the polarization complete.

The deaths of the French settlers sent a wave of panic through the loyalist (re: European) population. France responded by conducting a prolonged and systematic ratissage (literally, raking over) of suspected centers of dissidence. In addition, military airplanes and ships attacked Muslim population centers. The aftermath saw the outlaw of all nationalist and dissident organizations and an era of repression not previously seen, even during the Vichy era. Triggering a widespread radicalization of the Algerian population, these measures set the stage for the general uprising of 1954.

The conflict known as the French-Algerian War (1954-62) was one of the 2oth Century’s most vicious civil wars and a watershed moment during the end of the European colonial era. This was a no holds barred eight year bloodbath that encompassed urban warfare, unapologetic torture, terrorism and counter-insurgency that foreshadowed future engagements in Chechnya, Baghdad and the West Bank. The war caused such instability within France that the government collapsed, and Algeria is to this day still known as a place of anarchy and one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

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One Comment

  1. dansk
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    What a genius of a playlist – merci!

    I’ll give your article a go now…

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