The Algerian war against French colonialism lasted from 1954 to 1962, when Algeria gained its independence. In 1954 armed attacks occurred at 70 different points scattered throughout the nation. Having just suffered a humiliating defeat by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, the French army was determined to win in Algeria. The French colons (colonists) in Algeria were also determined to keep “Algérie Française.” The tactics adopted by the Algerians and Vietnamese and the French and the Americans were remarkably similar and brought similar results as well.
The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was an outgrowth of earlier nationalist movements. Ahmad Ben Bella (1916?– ), in addition to Belkacem Krim, Muhammad Khidr, and Hussein Ait Ahmad, led the movement. Under the FLN Algeria was divided into six wilayas, or districts, each with an FLN organization and leader acting within a cell system. The top echelon of FLN leaders met periodically to coordinate strategy. The wilayas and the cell system provided flexibility and some degree of security in a war where the French enjoyed military superiority. As with other revolutions in developing countries the FLN adopted guerrilla warfare tactics, avoided direct confrontation with French troops, and attacked civilian targets as well as French military sites. With few advanced weapons, the FLN used the so-called bombs-in-baskets approach to inflict maximum damage on the French army and colons. Algerian women were also active in the movement, serving as lookouts, distributing food and arms to fighters, and sometimes participating in the fighting as well.
In 1954 the French had 50,000 soldiers in Algeria, by the war’s end they had over half a million soldiers in Algeria and they were still not winning. The French had clear-cut superiority in armaments, including planes and advanced firepower, but the Algerians knew the terrain, had popular support, and were determined to fight in spite of high costs until they achieved the goal of independence.
The French used air strikes, napalm, pacification projects of rounding up civilians in rural areas and imprisoning them in internment camps, and burning villages. These tactics only increased local support for the FLN. The French army also tortured FLN captives. When word of the torture reached mainland France many turned against the war. In an attempt to focus their power in Algeria, the French granted Morocco and Tunisia independence in 1956, but when FLN fighters took refuge in these neighboring countries, the French attacked them. The war expanded much as the fighting in Vietnam spread into Laos and Cambodia. In 1956 French agents skyjacked the Moroccan plane carrying Ben Bella to a meeting of FLN leaders in Tunis and imprisoned him. One of the first skyjackings, the tactic was condemned by the international community but became more commonplace in subsequent decades. French forces defeated the FLN in Algiers but the FLN merely moved its operations elsewhere in the country, forcing French troops to move. Then the FLN slow- ly reconstituted itself in Algiers and the French were forced to return to fighting in the same city where they had previously declared victory.
In 1958 General Charles de Gaulle came to power in France with the support of the army and the colons, who believed he would win the war in Algeria. De Gaulle traveled to Algeria, where he pointedly did not speak about “Algérie Française.” De Gaulle realized that short of a full-scale, long-term war the French could not win in Algeria. Although he hoped for some sort of alliance between the two nations and access to the petroleum and mineral reserves in the Sahara, by 1960 de Gaulle was speaking of an Algerian Algeria. He opted for negotiations with the FLN at Evian in 1961. The negotiations dragged on and the war escalated as both sides attempted to improve their positions at the negotiating table by gaining victories on the battlefield. Furious with what they believed to be de Gaulle’s betrayal, dissident army officers led an abortive coup in 1961. The colons organized into the extremist Secret Army Organization (OAS) and attempted to bring the war home to France by trying to assassinate de Gaulle in 1961. The OAS even attempted to bomb the Eiffel Tower, a move that was thwarted by French intelligence services.
The war polarized French society between those who opposed the war—including intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, students, and labor unions—and those, especially in the army, who supported the war effort.
In 1962 Algeria became formally independent, and Ben Bella returned as the first premier and later as president. The economy of Algeria was in ruins. As many as a million Algerians had perished in the war and another million had been made homeless. Refusing to live in independent Algeria, the colons left en masse, many moving to Spain rather than to France under de Gaulle.
Immediately following independence a form of spontaneous socialism, or autogestion, had evolved as homeless and unemployed Algerians took over abandoned farms and businesses and began to run them and share the profits. Initially Ben Bella supported the autogestion movement, but gradually the FLN-led government took over farms and factories along the Soviet state capitalism model. Ben Bella and his minister of defense, Houari Boumedienne (1925?–1978), championed the formal army rather than the more loosely organized guerrilla fighters and they outmaneuvered or eliminated potential rivals within the FLN leadership. Algeria adopted a neutral position in the cold war and sometimes, as in the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, served as a mediator in disputes, as it was respected by both sides. Some of the Algerian infrastructure was rebuilt using petroleum revenues but the economy failed to keep pace with the population growth.
In 1965 Boumedienne ousted Ben Bella, who then spent number of years in Algerian prisons; he was not released until after Boumedienne’s death, when Chadli Benjedid became president. His regime was marked by economic stagnation and privatization. As unemployment rose—particularly among the youth born after independence—many young Algerians opposed the authoritarian FLN regime and turned increasingly toward Islamist movements. When the Islamists seemed poised to win in the open and fair 1991 elections the FLN, with the support of France and the United States, cancelled the elections, thereby setting off a bloody civil war that lasted through the 1990s.