The Barbary coast: 16th – 20th century AD
With the decline of the local Berber dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries, the valuable coastal strip of north Africa (known because of the Berbers as the Barbary coast) attracts the attention of the two most powerful Mediterranean states of the time – Spain in the west, Turkey in the east.
The Spanish-Turkish rivalry lasts for much of the 16th century, but it is gradually won – in a somewhat unorthodox manner – by the Turks. Their successful device is to allow Turkish pirates, or corsairs, to establish themselves along the coast. The territories seized by the corsairs are then given a formal status as protectorates of the Ottoman empire.
The first such pirate establishes himself on the coast of Algeria in 1512. Two others are firmly based in Libya by 1551. Tunisia is briefly taken in 1534 by the most famous corsair of them all, Khair ed-Din (known to the Europeans as Barbarossa). Recovered for Spain in 1535, Tunisia is finally brought under Ottoman control in 1574.
Piracy remains the chief purpose and main source of income of all these Turkish settlements along the Barbary coast. And the depredations of piracy, after three centuries, at last prompt French intervention in Algeria. This, at any rate, is stated by the French at the time to be the cause of their intervention. The reality is somewhat less glorious.
The dey and the fly whisk: AD 1827
In 1827 the French consul in Algiers has an audience with the dey, the Turkish governor of the province. The subject under discussion is the bill for a consignment of wheat, payment for which is now overdue by some thirty years. An invoice was first submitted to the French government by two Algerian citizens in the 1790s. The dey threatens to withdraw certain French concessions in Algeria. The consul becomes heated in response, whereupon the dey flicks him with his fly whisk.
Charles X, the French king, takes this as an insult to French national pride and orders a naval blockade of the Algerian coast. When this has little effect, a military expedition is prepared.
The French in Algeria: AD 1830-1936
A French army, landing in June 1830, easily overpowers the forces of the dey. But this success brings France only a small region round Algiers, for the dey himself has long lost control of his subordinates in the provinces.
The city of Constantine, in the east, holds out against the French for seven years. Meanwhile the invading force is also under threat in the west from the powerful amir of Mascara, Abd-el-Kader. In 1839 Abd-el-Kader proclaims a jihad, or holy war, against the Christian intruders. Not until 1847 does he finally surrender. He is promised a safe conduct to a Muslim country. Instead he spends the next five years in French gaols.
With Algeria now under a reasonable degree of control (though outbreaks of rebellion continue until the 1880s), the French government sets in place the process of colonization. European settlement is actively encouraged. By the 1880s the European population of Algeria is more than 350,000. Half a century later this figure has doubled.
In the same period, from 1830 to the mid-20th century, the Muslim population also increases greatly, from 3 million to about 9 million. As in any such situation, the settlers ensure that economic and political power is exclusively theirs. And as elsewhere, the underprivileged majority begins to make itself heard during the 20th century.
The early leaders of Algerian nationalism see a solution in integration rather than separation. Muslim Algerians, they argue, should enjoy equal status with the settlers as French citizens. Ferhat Abbas (a future president of an independent Algerian parliament) writes in 1931: ‘Algeria is French soil and we are French Muslims.’
In 1936 the French socialist government of Léon Blum sees the force of this argument. The so-called Blum-Violette plan proposes that 21,000 Muslims should immediately have the vote on the same terms as European settlers. But this provokes an outcry from the settlers in Algeria. The proposal is dropped. The problems of the future, though postponed by World War II, are prefigured in this clash.
Nationalism and reaction in Algeria: AD 1945-1958
The demands of Algerian nationalism become unmistakable immediately after the end of the war in Europe. In May 1945 demonstrators carrying Algerian Nationalist flags appear at victory celebrations in the town of Sétif.
Scuffles with the police spark an impromptu uprising in which eighty-eight French settlers are killed. Subsequent French reprisals result in at least 1500 Muslim deaths (the official French figure), though other estimates place the death toll as high as 10,000.
In the aftermath of this crisis the National Assembly in Paris passes, in 1947, a Statute of Algeria. This makes provision for an Algerian assembly, with Muslims forming part of the electorate. The assembly is duly elected, and there is much talk of wide-ranging reforms in the administration of the colony.
Several years later the delegates have delivered little in the way of effective legislation, when Algerian life is suddenly transformed by a wholly unexpected uprising. During the night of 31 October 1954 several coordinated terrorist attacks are carried out on French police and military establishments.
A manifesto issued on November 1 declares them to be the work of the recently formed FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), stating also that the political aim of the FLN is a fully independent Algeria. Every resident in the country is promised citizenship of the proposed new republic, with full rights, if willing to adopt Algerian nationality.
Terrorist violence and French reprisals now become an established pattern in Algeria. There is a vast build up of French troops, and the army forcibly resettles some two million villagers to try and deprive the FLN of rural support.
Meanwhile the FLN, joined by nearly all the other Algerian nationalist groups, establishes an extremely sophisticated government in exile, first in Cairo then in Tunis. Diplomatic representation is maintained at the UN and in friendly capitals around the world. From September 1958 this body is known as the GPRA (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne), with the veteran nationalist Ferhat Abbas serving as prime minister.
A few months earlier the Algerian crisis has caused a major political upheaval within France itself – as a result of direct action by the settlers (known as the pieds-noirs, black feet).
In May 1958 angry French Algerians become alarmed that the government in Paris may come to terms with the FLN. They seize government buildings in Algiers and establish a Committee of Public Safety to ensure that Algeria remains French. Senior officers of the French army in Algeria side with the insurgents, while right-wing groups in Paris become equally agitated. With the danger of nation-wide disturbances, or even perhaps civil war, there is clearly need for a change of government.
A French general in Algeria expresses the mood of the moment, and the apparent best hope for the pieds-noirs, when he declares: ‘We appeal to General de Gaulle to take the leadership of a Government of Public Safety.’
De Gaulle’s moment: AD 1958
Charles de Gaulle, the war hero, waiting in retirement for his country’s call, drives a hard bargain when the moment comes. He will resume the leadership of the nation only if he is given unrestricted powers for a period of six months and the authority to draft a new constitution for a fifth French republic. On 2 June 1958 the national assembly accepts his terms.
De Gaulle turns his attention first to the crisis which has caused his return to power. On June 4 he visits Algiers, to be received by an ecstatic crowd of settlers who greet him as their saviour. But as they listen to his speech, from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.
Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims. He praises the Algerian nationalists as courageous fighters, and holds out the prospect of an amnesty. ‘To these men I, de Gaulle, open the door of reconciliation.’
But the immediate next step is the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of a referendum to win the approval of French citizens around the world. When the details are announced, the constitution gives a much greater executive role to the president than under the previous republic. He may even assume emergency powers in a crisis.
The referendum is ready for the voters in September 1958. In addition to seeking approval for the proposed constitution, it asks voters in overseas territories whether they want to sever all links with France or to be part of the French Community (known as La Communauté). All the territories except Guinea vote to remain within La Communauté, and the constitution of the Fifth Republic is approved by a large majority of 78% of the votes cast.
The most pressing task facing the new president remains Algeria. In the short term the situation there becomes worse rather than better. But within four years it is solved, with the precisely opposite result from the settlers’ hopes of de Gaulle. The expected defender of French Algeria presides over Algerian independence.