Algeria: France Versus France

A noted French sociologist, GERMAINE TILLION is instructor of ethnology at the École des Hautes Études in Paris. For six years she lived in the mountainous Aurès region of Algeria, where she mastered the local Berber dialects. The following analysis was made after her most recent visit to Algeria.


IT IS impossible to imagine two communities more completely dependent on each other than France and Algeria. The Algerians are in France’s power and we are in theirs, for we have the means of depriving them of everything they wish for, while they can hinder all our schemes for the future.

At present, there are from 350,000 to 400,000 Algerian workers in France, and they support, directly or indirectly, one third of the Muslim population in the country districts of Algeria. In Algeria itself, French investments provide a livelihood for more than 100,000 workers. Even supposing that this capital were not withdrawn, an additional 1500 billion francs (or $3.5 billion) would have to be invested to provide the Algerians at present in France with an equivalent source of income, if they were sent back to Algeria. At the same time France has to protect, on Algerian soil, almost a million and a half people who hold, or claim, French nationality.

We are thus obliged to admit that there is, between France and Algeria, a two-way current of dependence, an objective interdependence which is absent from France’s relations with Morocco and Tunisia. This is what gives the present war its desperate ferocity.

What have the Algerians to lose if they lose the friendship of France? Almost everything, but first and foremost their wages — that is to say, their daily bread, their lives, their children’s future, and even perhaps eventually the freedom for which they have paid so high a price.

And what have we French lost in sacrificing the confidence they had in us? Our economic independence (closely bound up with the possibilities of development in the Sahara), the security of our fellow countrymen living in Algeria, and all our hopes connected with Africa; in short, everything we were aiming at.


Certain disaster will follow for either side if it wrests victory from the other. And such a deadly victory is easier to achieve than a reasonable peace which could still save the situation.

Although unlikely on the military level, a French capitulation is a possibility from the financial point of view. It would, in theory, mean an incredible victory for the Algerian rebels, but in fact none of their hopes would survive, because no foreign aid would be adequate to allow them to solve overnight the problem of feeding the third of their population which is supported at the moment by wages from France. And, if french public opinion were convinced that France had suffered a defeat in Algeria, there could be no question of North African workers continuing to earn their living on French soil.

Admittedly, the repatriation of these workers would leave French employers with a serious problem to face, but solutions could be found. There are Italians, Spaniards, Yugoslavs, Hungarians, and Poles, not to mention the thousands of unemployed in Tunisia and Morocco, who would like nothing better than to be allowed into France with labor permits. On the other hand, the repatriation of these Algerians would raise insoluble problems in Algeria itself: famine would become inevitable; there would be massacres on both sides; the European population would leave the country in panic, and so indeed would those Muslims rich enough and educated enough to get away. Such an exodus would inevitably be accompanied by a flight of capital. And those Algerians who could not escape would face economic, social, cultural, and physical disaster. This would mean political collapse, too, and the failure of independent status too dearly bought. Military victory, which is, apparently, France’s immediate aim, is just as much a possibility, because our army is rapidly becoming adapted to the situation, while the Muslim population in the rural areas is growing very weary of the fighting. Nevertheless, a military victory would be a calamity for us and for our allies, now and in the future, both inside and outside Algeria.


During the century or so that Algeria had been in French hands before the beginning of the present trouble, the French evolved and set up certain administrative institutions on Algerian soil (mixed communes, caïds, ouakkafs). I witnessed their total collapse within a period of six months. Yet they had been set up by people well acquainted with the country, in a favorable psychological atmosphere, and — to put it mildly — at a leisurely pace. As early as 1955, these institutions were replaced by hastily improvised substitutes which the military authorities, unfamiliar with the country, are still busy trying to adapt, in a climate of tension and with such hopes of success as can be well imagined.

The old native social pattern survived longer, but it too is beginning to crumble. Tribal clannishness, the authority of the elders, the structure of the family, the status of women had all been affected already to some extent, but there had been no changes comparable to the absolute upheaval that we can see taking place today. I am personally acquainted with Muslim families of the austere, traditional kind, in which the young daughter of the household has gone straight from the veil to blue jeans, from the harem to the maquis, while the old papa wavers between consternation and patriotic pride. Can anyone imagine a reverse process: the betrousered heroine agreeing to go back to the white lhaf of Algiers or the black haïk of Constantine and accepting the making of sweet pastry as the sole means of expressing her personality?

The administrative framework having collapsed and the social and family pattern having been destroyed, what is left? The nationalist underground organizations and the French army of occupation. They alone remain, side by side in a strange kind of intimacy.

For, in the dark night of the insurrection, all the administrative agencies of a modern state have suddenly begun to spring up all over Algeria. And just as the French military authorities — unwittingly— Arabized Kabylia and the Aurès during the last hundred years simply by building roads and making them safe for traffic, the fellagha have unintentionally done more to Frenchify their country in the last three years than we had succeeded in doing in the previous century. Of course, they are using French ideas against the French: liberty, democracy, secularization, social equality, the right of the oppressed to revolt. They also copy our civil and military institutions and use them against France. Therefore what we are at this moment destroying in Algeria is an image of ourselves— a truth which only adds to the horror of the murder we are committing.


By the end of 1956, after two years of fighting, almost the whole of the Muslim population was controlled, firmly and efficiently, by the underground authorities. Clandestine magistrates, acting secretly in the settlement of private disputes, caused a drop in the number of cases judged by the official tribunals (30 per cent in Algiers, 100 per cent in Great Kabylia); officials, unknown to the French civil service, started registering births and deaths; tax collectors collected fines, taxes, and duties, but they also paid out pensions and family allowances. Usury was forbidden, as well as prostitution, thefts, and brawls; sumptuary laws ruled out celebrations, extravagant expenditure, and excessive dowries; and during the rigorous food blockade of Kabylia, which is still in force, I never found signs of a black market.

It might be thought that a secret and powerful organization for making war had been in preparation for a long time, but this is probably not the case. The insurrection seems to me to have evolved in roughly this way.

In the first phase, young men twenty-five to thirty-five years old, of resolutely modern orientation. men who had had a considerable experience of underground activity (often eight to ten years for the higher echelons), political training, strict discipline, and a perfect knowledge of the environment, touched off the insurrection and formed its administrative hierarchy, a hierarchy which for the first fifteen months was purely military. During this initial period the Muslim masses followed events with indulgence, curiosity, anxiety, but somewhat as outsiders. Had they then been accorded massive concessions, granted in good faith, they might still have been dissociated from the insurrection.

In the second phase, starting in December, 1955, the masses let themselves be taken over by nationalist networks; and from February, 1956, on, the movement spread everywhere with amazing speed. By the end of that year the work was accomplished.

During this second phase, the men who took over the movement and led it were no longer revolutionary cadres, isolated from the masses by the necessary secrecy of their actions; on the contrary, they represented the vast majority of the notables of the Algerian population. From then on it was sheer fancy to think that France could wean this population away from the influence of these men. When the French repression was launched, it was thus directly and bluntly aimed at a homogeneous society which it was impossible to destroy and which it has been impossible to spare.

Those responsible for French policy failed to understand the irreversible nature of the movement which was developing in the silent depths of a people who no longer had newspapers or representatives. Nor did they have an accurate idea of the scope and depth of the operation which they were responsible for launching. Around September, 1956, the French army was instructed to wipe out the politico-military cadres of the insurrection “by every possible means.”The politico-military cadres meant, in practice, all the notables of the villages, the elite of the cities, the entire educated youth. At this point we entered the third phase of the war.

The French army in Algeria is a most impressive army — combative, efficient, well disciplined, ill fed but well armed, very badly paid but trained and battle-hardened as no other. It does what it is told without having the right to choose its objectives. For the past year and a half it has applied itself, in accordance with its orders, to destroying the original administrative and social structure of a country for whose fate we bear so great a responsibility. It has applied itself to this task with considerable results and “by every possible means.” But if it attains its goal, and it may do so, with what are we to replace that which we have destroyed?

Our officers and noncommissioned officers overseas have been acting as municipal councilors, schoolmasters, agricultural advisers, and even midwives, without detriment to their military and police functions. Are they going to give up forever the hope of returning to their own homes in order to play these preposterous roles on the other side of the Mediterranean? Alas! we may well end up destroying the entire vital architecture of Algeria, but it is certain that we shall not be able to replace it, and equally certain that the anarchy thus created will not be confined to the frontiers of Algeria, and that we shall one day have to pay for the mess we are in the process of making.


So far, we have considered only Algerian Algeria, if one may call it so. But there is another Algeria, French Algeria, which is no less vigorous, dangerous, and vulnerable. To wipe out the first for the benefit of the second would be inhuman and impossible; to wipe out the second for the benefit of the first would be just as cruel and just as unfeasible. Is there no middle course? Yes, wipe them both out by bringing back to France a minority population which is better provided with technicians and money: uproot the French of Algeria and abandon the other Algerians to a crushing poverty. This solution is not, however, the worst that could be found. It is also certainly not the most probable.

Had the Muslim population been less numerous, Algeria would really have become part of France (and many Muslims wanted this to happen). If the non-Muslim population had been less coherent and compact, a solution of the Tunisian type would not have presented any major difficulty. Even though the Muslims outnumber the French by eight to one, the numerical relationship of the two groups is very deceptive, for although strength may lie in numbers, it is not in numbers alone. Investments, technical skill, and populous, wellorganized cities also figure in a nation’s potential. The French in Algeria are organized, armed, frightened, and aggressive, and where they are established (Algiers, Oran, and Bone), they certainly have the upper hand. We cannot allow them to be massacred, nor can we be sure that they themselves will not resort to massacre. In short, the most ghastly solution, but also the “easiest,” would be to have a long-drawn-out war, moving through a succession of catastrophes and wearied lulls over the face of Africa to a Mau Mau form of partition. At the same time, all Algerians would gradually be expelled from France. Through a lack of imagination, both sides are moving slowly but inexorably in this direction.

However, it is important to define precisely the people we are talking about. It is true that, contrary to what we have been told, there are not 1.3 million Frenchmen in Algeria. What is a Frenchman? A Frenchman is someone who considers himself as French.

Who, in Algeria, claims this distinction? The non-Muslims, of course (there are 1,042,409 of them, 49,979 of whom are not naturalized); perhaps the Mozarabs or dissident Muslims —we do not know exactly how many there are of them (about 60,000), and we know still less about their opinions. In official statistics, they are classed with the European minority, although some are members of the F.L.N. It is also certain that we must include in the minority a number of Muslims from the majority. How many? Nobody has any idea; we only know that some Muslims wish to remain French and would even risk their lives to do so. The excesses of pacification have considerably reduced their numbers, while the excesses on the rebel side have tended to increase them. There still remain a few, silent and sorrowful, stranded between the opposing tides of hatred. Who would deny them the right to be French, if they still want it, with the means of re-establishing themselves on French soil?

To distinguish between such a person — our undoubted compatriot — and the fellagha, who is as like him as his own brother, is admittedly a most difficult task and one which the French forces have been struggling in vain to accomplish during the last three years. Their failure is excusable because even Muslims themselves are not always sure where they stand and indeed become daily more confused.

Under the statutes of the framework law some 6500 Algerians have agreed to act as municipal representatives, and 239 others are category-A French civil servants. I have many friends in both groups and I know what a weight of bitterness they have to struggle against despite their loyalty. There may perhaps exist in these two select bodies a firm supporter of our policy who is not at the same time a victim of it, but if so, I have never met him.

At the other extreme, the best qualified of our opponents are at this moment crowded in camps and prisons, and I visit them there whenever I can. They are, moreover, the brothers or cousins of those I have just mentioned, and in both categories there are some with whom I have been personally acquainted for the last twenty years. It may even be that among our opponents is the fierce, fanatical, narrow-minded hater of France whom we so often hear about. For my part, I do not doubt his existence, but I have never come across him. Those I know are anxious, suffering men, torn between the most contradictory choices, distrustful of what does and does not come from us.

If we all want to win this war, we must find a formula to make cooperation possible. What should this formula be? It does not matter, provided we French can agree with our opponents. For if France were to accept Algeria’s independence, this independence would instantly lose most of its disadvantages. On the other hand, if the Algerian rebels were to accept the framework law, they would find it sufficiently flexible to provide quick satisfaction for all their demands. Between the granting of complete independence and the complete acceptance of the framework law there exists a whole series of intermediate solutions, which oblige us to make only those concessions we are perfectly prepared to make and which cannot be avoided in any case. Why, then, do we not take the trouble to study the possibility of achieving some such solution? Because to do so would be to admit the legal existence of our opponents. We would far rather carry on indefinitely with the war, bring our country to irreparable ruin, and sacrifice the safety of the French population in Algeria as well as our hopes for the Sahara.

The development of the Algerian people is not a metaphysical notion, it is a fact; and the almost incredible urge which for the last three years has been driving the nation into the future can be felt throughout the social life of the country and even in the current vocabulary of women still confined in the harem. In mountain villages, old men (the traditional guides of public opinion) now say to you: “We are old fools. The young are braver and wiser than we are.” The young, for their part, are obsessed with modern ideas: equality, democracy, and secularization. And, of course, with independence, the magic word which includes all the rest.

A call to the future has gone out from Algeria. The whole historical future of the continent will be determined by the response given to this call.