THE old saying that there is nothing new under the sun applies with particular force to the turbulent land of Algeria. For the abortive insurrection of January 24 was the repetition of an almost classic phenomenon, which, each time it has recurred, has exhibited the same general symptoms: a bitter feeling that the French government in Paris does not understand or care about the plight of its trans-Mediterranean citizens, combined with a quixotic desire to reform the motherland through a crusade launched from Algiers.

As early as 1848, the French settlers in Algeria raised the standard of revolt against the ill-starred monarchy of Louis Philippe, because its great proconsul, Marshal Bugeaud, had set up Arab bureaux — Arab-speaking army officers, or officers with Arab interpreters — whose function it was to protect the Muslim natives against the settlers.

In 1870 the inhabitants of Algiers likewise revolted against the crumbling empire of Napoleon III because he had earlier dared to speak of his “Arab Empire.” The Winter Palace was stormed, the houses of many officers and functionaries were sacked, and the interim governor, General WalsinEsterhazy, barely escaped to a waiting frigate.

In 1898, at a time when all France was split in two by the Dreyfus case, another revolt broke out, sparked by a disastrous drop in the sales of wine. Effigies of Émile Zola were burned in the streets, and a twenty-five-year-old demagogue named Maximiliano Regis, whose golden hair was enough to make women swoon, got himself elected mayor of Algiers on a platform dedicated to the regeneration of France and to the immediate expulsion of all its Jews, whose vampire grip was supposedly throttling the country.

Surface alliance

It is well to remember these historical precedents, because they help to bring out the underlying reasons for the failure of the uprising of January 24. In every one of the Algerian insurrections, the local settlers and the military and civilian authorities appointed by Paris to administer them have been working basically at crosspurposes. This was true even of the revolt of May 13, 1958. But because for once the army and the settlers had joined forces in a successful attempt to overthrow the republic, they gave the appearance of having formed a solid alliance.

In fact, the alliance was purely temporary, and each partner was pursuing a different objective. The settlers were fighting for the regeneration of the motherland in order to maintain the traditional privileged position of a million Europeans in a country of nine million Muslims; the army was fighting for the regeneration of the motherland in order to be allowed to go on creating a new Algeria in which one day Muslims and Europeans would enjoy equal rights, a kind of ideal commonwealth in which the officers of the army would continue to preside omnisciently over the fate of the Franco-Muslim community.

A generation ago, this would not have been a utopian ideal. Today, in the face of a rising tide of Arab nationalism, it can be imposed only by force, and in the process the fight to establish a harmonious Franco-Muslim commonwealth too often degenerates into a policy of protecting established European interests. Appalled by the savage brutality of the mutilations practiced by Arab rebels on their victims, French soldiers and officers who come to Algeria without colonialist prejudices usually succumb to the subtle contagion of local influences and become convinced that the French cause is a worthy one.

Yet, even while sympathizing with the plight of isolated French farmers in the hinterland, French officers retain a feeling of scorn for the local settlers, particularly those in the cities, whose exaggerated privileges and intransigent hostility toward the Arabs they rightly regard as having been largely responsible for the revolt in 1954. A dramatic example of this underlying conflict was afforded last January by what happened at Mostaganem, a seaport situated about two hundred miles west of Algiers. On January 26 the local vigilante committee, composed of activists and territorials, decided that the strike which had been called to demonstrate Mostaganem’s sympathy for the Algiers uprising should be extended to the Arab kasbah. Several heavily armed commandos thereupon crossed over to the Arab quarter, on the other side of an intervening ravine, and tried to force the inhabitants of the crowded streets to close their shops. Reluctant merchants were slapped and thrown around, old men and women were roughly treated, and several Arab cars were pushed into the river. In a few minutes, a year of patient, painstaking work by the Arab-speaking army officers of the Urban Administrative Section, which had been set up to administer the kasbah, was dashed to pieces.

Next morning the entire kasbah was seething like a caldron, and the harassed French officers were finally unable to prevent the Arabs, armed with sticks and stones, from marching out in a huge column from their crowded streets and into the European quarter. In the main square, French army units hastily erected a barricade to keep this ill-armed Muslim horde from coming to blows with the European settlers, who had gathered together in front of the town hall with revolvers and Tommy guns.

This incident illustrates, as dramatically as what happened in Algiers, the cleavage between the local settlers and the army which finally undermined the revolt. In Algiers the insurrectionists entertained the wild hope that they could, with the help of the Muslim deputy, Mourad Kaouah, get the Arabs to march out of the kasbah shouting, “Long live Massu!” The French officers of the kasbah’s Urban Administrative Section quickly put them straight; if the Arabs came out at all, no power on earth could prevent them from shouting, “Vive De Gaulle!”

The army and French Algeria

The ill-concealed sympathy which French officers and soldiers, particularly in the parachute units, displayed in the early days toward the barricaded rebels in Algiers was due to the mounting suspicion they have had since last September that General de Gaulle was about to negotiate with the Arab rebels and thus nip in the bud their efforts to establish a new Algeria of ten million Frenchmen. This suspicion had been latent almost from the day the general took office and proceeded to install a government which bore too close a resemblance to the governments of the discredited Fourth Republic. The suspicion was kept alive by De Gaulle’s stubborn refusal to endorse the cabalistic formula of a French Algeria — except in one speech — during his first trips to Algeria in the summer of 1958.

The suspicion, however, never became virulent, for while the general displayed reserve in his public addresses, he allowed the Algerians to take part in the referendum of September, 1958; he adopted the army’s policy of raising the standard of living of the Muslims in his Constantine speech of October 4; and he went on to decree that some seventy Algerian deputies, two thirds of them Muslims, should be elected to the National Assembly in November.

All of these actions tended to advance the cause of a French Algeria. Because of this, the army could forgive De Gaulle for his press conference of October 23, 1958, in which he first publicly invited the F.L.N. to send representatives to Paris to negotiate with him, the understanding being that any such negotiations would be limited to arranging a cease-fire, without interfering with France’s “civilizing mission” in Algeria. None of De Gaulle’s subsequent declarations on Algeria in the first half of 1959 affected this interpretation of his policy.

Victory in Paris

The shock of disenchantment was administered last August when the general made a special trip to Algeria to explain to units in the field that a new clarification of his policy was due and followed it up with his televised speech of September 16, in which he pinned the future of Algeria to a referendum which would offer its inhabitants the choice between secession from, association with, or integration into France. For the first time, the French army in Algeria was confronted with the clear prospect that its “pacifying and civilizing” mission might be purely tentative and that it might not be allowed the one or two decades which many of its officers felt necessary for the creation of a French Algeria. It took Paul Delouvrier, the delegate general, and General Maurice Challe, the Algerian commander in chief, several strenuous weeks of persuasion to sell this new policy to doubtful officers.

From Paris, Michel Debré, the Prime Minister, and Pierre Guillaumat, the Minister of War, sent messages reassuring the army that elections, if they were ever held, would be under the supervision of the French army. General Massu, whose political intuition has never been his strong point, contributed his own interpretation: that De Gaulle’s referendum offer was simply a diplomatic smoke screen to ward off a vote of condemnation in the United Nations.

These joint efforts at persuasion were insufficient, however, to quiet the effervescence generated among the Algiers settlers by the mere mention of a free referendum. By early October the conspiratorial fever had been transformed into a maneuver to overthrow the government of Michel Debré, the all-too-willing servant of General de Gaulle, and to install a new government headed by Georges Bidault, whose adamant advocacy of French sovereignty in Algeria has made him one of the few Paris politicians still popular with army officers in Algeria.

The maneuver failed, partly because the F.L.N.’s rather evasive reply to De Gaulle’s referendum offer did not allow the necessary polemical steam to be built up; partly because the leaders of the “May Thirteenth Group” — the flamboyant Jean-Baptiste Biaggi, the indefatigable Léon Delbecque, and that fiery son of the Pyrenees, Colonel Thomazo — were unable to swing the official government party, the Union pour la Nouvelle République (U.N.R.) behind them; but most of all because De Gaulle’s new policy received a massive endorsement from the Assembly by a vote of 441 to 23.

New terror in Algiers

While this settled the issue in Paris, it did little to quiet the agitations in Algiers. The settlers’ apprehensions were momentarily relieved on November 21, when the F.L.N. leadership in Tunis replied to De Gaulle’s second referendum offer of November 10 by delegating Mohammed Ben Bella and his four coprisoners in French jails to be their representatives in opening negotiations with the general — a countermove which no French government could possibly have accepted.

In early January, however, the settlers’ fears were rekindled by a sudden outbreak of terrorism in the Algiers area. On top of this came an announcement that General de Gaulle was convening an important conference on the Algerian question on January 22. These two developments were enough to reactivate all the conspiratorial groups, which in recent years have never stopped their subterranean plotting in this highly emotional city.

It is still not clear whether the January 24 uprising was deliberately or accidentally set off by the removal of General Massu from his Algiers command. The German journalist who interviewed him in mid-January, Hans Ulrich Kempski of Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, had arrived in Algiers armed with a letter of introduction from Francois Seydoux, the French ambassador in Bonn. The French delegate general in Algiers, Paul Delouvrier, sent him on to General Ghalle, who in turn sent him with an officer interpreter to see Massu. Massu had not given an interview to a newspaperman in months, but he agreed to receive Kempski and bluntly gave expression to all the fears which he and many fellow officers in Algeria felt about De Gaulle’s new policy.

Whether this was deliberately done, as a warning to Paris and to arouse the activists in Algiers, is not certain. It seems unlikely, since Massu made a shamefaced attempt to deny his own statements shortly after the interview was published.

A more plausible hypothesis is that the interview was arranged to trap Massu into making some damaging statements, in order to trigger prematurely any local revolt that might be brewing. De Gaulle, it appears, had twice been warned by his Minister of the Interior that something unpleasant was destined to explode in Algiers during his visit to the United States in April. Characteristically enough, the general had shrugged off the warning.

The insurrection collapsed for a variety of reasons. The hotheads who started it — the militant café owner, Joseph Ortiz, and the bearded ex-paratrooper and deputy, Pierre Lagaillarde — seem to have been under the delusion that it would be enough for them to erect a couple of barricades to get De Gaulle to capitulate to what Raymond Aron has aptly called another “coup d’état by persuasion” along the lines of the successful revolt of May, 1958. They also mistakenly thought that they could carry the army in Algiers with them — a miscalculation which revealed a grotesque ignorance of the feelings of the French conscripts, and even of many French professional officers, who, much as they may sympathize with the plight of the French settlers, are not anxious to plunge France into civil war.

Military pacification

De Gaulle’s quelling of the rebellion and his subsequent stern measures against its prime movers momentarily strengthened his position. The insurrection indirectly served the useful purpose of once again demonstrating his unique prestige with the Muslims, who are bound to be a vital factor no matter what solution is finally found for Algeria. But the general’s victory may turn out in the long run to have been more a Pyrrhic victory than anything else. For, in the speech he made on January 29, he was forced to provide a solemn assurance that if and when an eventual referendum was held, it would be done under the auspices of the French army. Since the rebel leaders have consistently made it clear that they would never take part in elections run by the French army, this meant that De Gaulle was effectively closing the door he had generously opened in his declarations of September 16 and November 10.

Whether this was simply a tactical retreat in a moment of crisis remains to be seen. But the tough tone the general adopted in his subsequent tour of French army posts in Algeria in early March would seem to indicate that, if it was a retreat, it may last for quite a while. The general has bitterly resented, it seems, the rather offhand way in which the F.L.N. responded to his autumn offers.

Political stalemate

For the moment, therefore, the gap remains virtually as wide as it was when De Gaulle took over power two years ago. In those two years, France has demonstrated conclusively that it can maintain the war almost indefinitely, as far as the campaign of pacification is concerned. The war’s main effect is to provide a slight inflationary pressure on the economy and to retard investments in the construction of new schoolrooms and laboratories. The campaign of pacification has brought the number of rebel aggressions down from about seventy a day in 1957 to around thirty-five at present, and with 190,000 Algerian Muslims now enlisted alongside the French army, the French hope they can reduce the number of aggressions further.

The fundamental problem, however, is not economic or related to manpower; it is political. For the longer the war goes on, the greater will grow the pressure of the army on French politics and the weaker will be De Gaulle’s control over events. As it is, the erosion of his prestige has already begun, both with the French people and with the Algerian Arabs, for whom he was, above all, the man of peace.