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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 13:35 GMT
Analysis: France's Algerian wounds
By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst

Algeria has been marking the 50th anniversary of the start of its war of independence against France, with firework displays and ceremonies.

The war was one of the 20th Century's bloodiest colonial struggles, and it continues to be the object of intense controversy - especially in France.

But in a sign that relations are improving at last, the French and Algerian presidents last year agreed to establish a "special partnership" between their countries.


On 1 November 1954, some 60 explosions and attacks occurred across Algeria - leaving a dozen people dead.

French troops and Algerian fighters in Algeria, 1954
The war was a bitter colonial struggle

By the time the French conceded Algerian independence eight years later, an estimated 500,000 people had died - and some two million had been uprooted from their homes.

The war had been a brutal one - with terrible atrocities committed by both sides.

It had also sparked a major political crisis in France itself, and a mutiny by French army units opposed to Algerian independence.


Algeria touches many raw nerves in France.

The French conquest, which began in 1827, was conceived in terms of a confrontation between Islamic and European civilisation - and a demonstration of the latter's superiority.

Algeria was declared an "integral part of France" - and the best land reserved for European settlers.

In many ways, French behaviour mirrored the Russian conquest of another largely Muslim territory - Chechnya and the Caucasus - which occurred at about the same time.

Algerian ceremony to mark the start of its war of independence against France
Algeria's ceremony included grim symbols of colonialism
In theory, native Algerians could acquire French citizenship - but only by renouncing Islamic law.

In 1947, Algerians acquired the right to return two MPs to the French parliament. One was chosen by the Muslims, the other by the 11% of settlers and so-called "evolved natives".

When the Algerian war of independence began, the French were already psychologically on the defensive.

Humiliated by their defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940, they now saw their colonial empire falling apart - in Africa, the Middle East and in South-East Asia.

Here, finally, in Algeria, they would make a stand.

War of attrition

It was a policy which polarised French society and drained French resources which, in retrospect, might have been better spent at home.

More than half a million French troops were committed to the suppression of the Algerian "rebellion".

Although the more densely populated coastal areas were secured, they failed to re-establish firm control of the mountainous and desert interior.

With the army left more or less to its own devices, torture and other atrocities became widespread.

French troops in Algeria
Around half a million people died during the eight-year conflict
The Algerian insurgents reciprocated by killing and raping collaborators, rivals and settlers.

Personal reminiscences, published in recent years in the French press, leave little to the imagination.

One retired French general lost his Legion d'Honneur after openly admitting torturing and killing prisoners - actions he described as "useful and necessary".

Changing relationship

In the years following the pullout from Algeria, France found a new role as a European power - and as the guiding political force behind the new European Economic Community, later renamed the European Union.

It also attained an historically unprecedented level of wealth and political stability.

Algeria, by contrast, remained mired in large-scale poverty, oscillating between state socialism, Islamist radicalism and military rule.

It is only now emerging from a protracted civil war of its own, which has cost around 150,000 lives.

Next year France and Algeria plan to sign a friendship treaty covering several areas, including military co-operation.

French cultural influence in Algeria remains strong - often acting as a catalyst for Islamist opposition.

There are some two million Algerian immigrants in France - contributing to Western Europe's largest Muslim population.

Many are poor and ghettoised - and are a standing challenge to France's traditional image of itself and its cultural identity.

France wants Algerian debt swap
07 Jun 04 |  Business
Timeline: France
23 May 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Algeria
13 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

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