French colonisation of Algeria endured for 132 years from 1830 to 1962 and the country lost over 1.5 million people with some estimates ranging as high as 5 million.
The market city of Setif sits on an elevated dusty plateau 100 kilometres west of Constantine. This nondescript city, once described by Churchill’s Minister Resident in North Africa as a “town of no great interest,” would become home to the Setif Massacre of 45,000 Algerians.
Today is the day when Algerians mark their independence, but the massacre is what set the gears in motion for a protracted struggle of independence that many in Algeria argue is far from over.
On May 8 1945, the lacklustre town, known more for its proximity to nearby Roman ruins and Trajan’s arch, was celebrating victory. This marked the first day after Nazi capitulation the previous night.
Algeria, well under the heel of French colonial rule was at the brink of unrest. Algeria had suffered harshly from two years of crop failures, on top of severe wartime shortages.
Emergency rations were depleted by the Vichy French government for the benefit of Germany’s Festung Europa. While the black market thrived, it was beyond the means of most Algerians.
While it remains unclear how the massacre was triggered, multiple accounts corroborate that Algerians protested in a call for equality. For Algerians who fought and bled for France in the trenches of World War I and the battlefields of World War II, there was still a nurtured hope that freedoms would be given to them in concession. This was never to materialise.
One obscure account states that a policeman lost his nerve and shot a young man carrying a banner in his stomach, triggering a frenzy of violence.
French officials report 103 Europeans were murdered. At the scene of the protest itself, nearly 8,000 Algerians were killed.
Then began the repression. 400,000 French soldiers were called in, targeting Muslims and their villages to systematic rattisage (raking over), the usual word for subjugation operations at the time.
More than forty towns were bombed by dive bomber planes, while the French cruiser ship Duguay Trouin fired consecutive artillery barrages on unsuspecting villages.
General De Gaulle, head of the temporary government in France at the time, ordered summary executions for insurrectionists and a purge of surrounding villages and areas.
Sixteen days later, 45,000 Algerian men, women and children had been killed in Setif, Guelma, and Kherrata in retaliation for 103 alleged French deaths.
Nine years later, Algeria’s war for independence would begin, consuming the lives of 1.5 million Algerians until a bloody independence was won in 1962.
The popularised figure only constitutes a share of the total deaths in the region. Algerian authorities claim that deaths throughout the 132 years of French colonisation are in excess of five million. French authorities say little on the matter.
Blood, hunger and tears
When Albert Camus visited Algeria in the same year as the Setif Massacre, he described with horror the sight of children fighting dogs for scraps from a rubbish bin.
Structural inequality was endemic. In 1844, France instituted the Land Law, which gave itself the right to seize vacant land unless title deeds could prove ownership. In a sinister Catch-22, Algerians could not acquire legal documentation proving ownership of their land after the law was passed. They could, however, register their persons with the state which served a different French ambition.
Previously, Algeria was still largely dominated by tribal identity, which actively put up resistance to France’s dominion over Algeria. To break up the problematic tribes, registered Algerians were given varying fixed surnames, some offensive and derogatory, if they wished to carry out any legal procedure.
In a matter of generations the blood ties binding communities and regions quickly faded into memory, taking it with it the last vestiges of tribal resistance to colonial rule.
With land being appropriated in the name of productive use of wasted resources, starvation would quickly become the norm. In 1867, nearly three hundred thousand Algerians died of starvation, which the Pied-Noir land owners blamed on the French army.
Aliens in their land
The land grab would continue unabated. To the French, Algeria had a population problem. Germaine Tillion, a French Ethnologist wrote in 1954 that the country could only feed “two to three million,” while there were nine million Muslims alone.
Increasingly impoverished Algerians would come to rely more on low-paying menial positions that created a form of indentured slavery without legal bondage.
By 1954, 25 percent of land was owned by two percent of the agricultural population. At the same time, ninety percent of wealth was held by 10 percent, few of whom were Algerian.
Unemployment was also rampant. According to the Maspetiol Report of 1955, one million Algerians were unemployed, while another two million (20 percent of the total Arab population) worked no more than 65 days a year.
When an Algerian was able to find work, he would earn no more than 100 odd francs a day - around $0.06 in the present day. While an average Algerian income was about 16,000 Francs a year, the European was paid nearly 450,000.
Tax regimes were equally biased. Algerians paid nearly 12 per cent in taxes, while someone who made five times more could be expected to pay marginally less.
Illiteracy was widespread, and with it crippled social mobility. As far back as 1892, France allocated 2.5 million francs for schooling of French children, while dedicating only 450,000 francs to the schooling of the vastly more numerous Algerians.
For French colonial administrators, assimilation of the ‘Arab’ was near impossible. The solution was fragmentation, subjugation and a severing of any cultural or religious heritage Algerians held, if only to produce a servile disenfranchised peasant in service to French Algeria.
By 1954, one in five Algerians attended school, though in some areas the ratio could be as low as one in seventy. Illiteracy among Algerians reached a high of 94 percent among males, and 98 per cent among females.
On January 25, 2020 French President Emmanuel Macron stated: “The Algerian War is today absent from our political memory and the subject of a conflict of memories like the Holocaust was.”
He went on to compare the challenge of admitting to France’s bloody role in Algeria to that faced by former French President Jacques Chirac in admitting French culpability in the holocaust.
On July 3 2020, France returned the skulls of 24 Algerian resistance fighters to Algeria in a conscious effort to make amends for its tragic role in Algerian deaths during its colonial rule. This came after the skulls had been on display in the Museum of Man in Paris for years.
But such moves are criticised as token gestures that do little to address France’s more grievous crimes.
France has yet to address its role in conducting 17 nuclear detonations in Algeria, which experts’ state has led to 42,000 deaths, while affecting Algerians with higher rates of cancer, mutations and disfiguration.
Very little attention has been given to the atrocities, rapes, mutiliation, executions and torture used by French regimes to subjugate Algerians for well over a century, in spite of overwhelming documentation, witnesses and recorded accounts by both French and Algerian alike.
No recognition has been given to countless thousands of Algerians political prisoners and revolutionaries who were shipped off to penal colonies such as Devil’s Island in French Guiana and New Caledonia.
The life of back-breaking servitude they endured was documented in the famous novel and later film Papillon (1973). It is only recently that third and fourth generation descendants of these forgotten Algerians are beginning to reconnect with their homeland.
Little to no official mention has ever been made of France’s neocolonial role in infiltrating and co-opting Algeria’s post-revolutionary government into an autocratic regime Algerians have only recently risen against.
France has long struggled with an internalised taboo on its colonial past, with many seeking to ignore or avoid discussion or responsibility for it.
While France may view its colonial crimes through the lenses of history, Algerians continue to struggle with its trauma and effects to the present day.