Algeria Gains Independence from France

Algerian independence ended 132 years of brutal French colonialism in which European settlers were granted citizenship and the majority of Algerians, who were mostly Muslim, were denied even basic civil and political rights.

Summary of Event

The struggle for independence in Algeria, one of the most bitter and protracted independence movements, was also the one involving the largest measure of Arab-world support. First occupied by the French in 1830, Algeria endured more than a century of brutal domination in which Algerian land was appropriated and assigned to European settlers, the majority of Algerian Muslims were denied political and human rights, the masses were impoverished, and those seeking political reform were imprisoned. Anticolonial movements;Algeria
France;colonial empire
[kw]Algeria Gains Independence from France (July 5, 1962)
[kw]Independence from France, Algeria Gains (July 5, 1962)
[kw]France, Algeria Gains Independence from (July 5, 1962)
Anticolonial movements;Algeria
France;colonial empire
[g]Africa;July 5, 1962: Algeria Gains Independence from France[07280]
[g]Algeria;July 5, 1962: Algeria Gains Independence from France[07280]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;July 5, 1962: Algeria Gains Independence from France[07280]
[c]Independence movements;July 5, 1962: Algeria Gains Independence from France[07280]
[c]Government and politics;July 5, 1962: Algeria Gains Independence from France[07280]
Ben Bella, Ahmed
Gaulle, Charles de
[p]Gaulle, Charles de;French colonialism
Abbas, Ferhat
Boumédienne, Houari
Ahmad, Hocine Ait

Unlike other French “colonies,” Algeria under settler domination acquired a special status as a “department,” an integral part of the French Republic. This status meant full citizenship for Europeans only. In the post-World War II era of decolonization and national independence movements, the special privileges of the European minority collided sharply with the desire for self-determination by the five-sixths of the population that was Algerian.

The key event in Algeria that affected the course of future Franco-Algerian relations was a demonstration in Sétif on May 8, 1945. Marchers carrying signs proclaiming “Long Live Free Algeria” and “Free Messali Hadj” (an imprisoned nationalist) clashed with police, setting off a spontaneous, uncoordinated countrywide insurrection. The brutally suppressed uprising resulted in many deaths (somewhere between the official French tally of fifteen hundred and the Algerian claim of forty-five thousand), forty-five hundred arrests, the banning of Algerian political parties, and the postwar generation’s belief that violence was the only road to independence.

This idea gained credence when the French concession to Algerian political participation, the Organic Statute Organic Statute (1947) of September 20, 1947, granted French citizenship to Algerians who renounced their Muslim status. The law also created a Muslim electoral college alongside a European one, recognized Arabic as an official language, and abolished military rule in the Algerian Sahara. Muslims and settlers alike opposed this statute, the former because it fell short of expectations and the latter because it went too far. In the 1947 municipal elections, Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Messali Hadj, Ahmed proindependence MTLD(Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, Algerian ) won a sweeping victory, frightening the settlers. Their leaders proceeded, through fraud and intimidation, to rig the first Algerian assembly elections in 1948, increasing Algerian bitterness.

The lack of Algerian political self-determination was compounded by economic inequality. Algeria’s wealth in manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and trade was controlled by grand colons (rich settlers). They also owned the most fertile land, producing wine, citrus, olives, and vegetables for the French market system. Undernourished Algerian Muslims were largely confined to subsistence cereal production and poorly paid manual labor. Contributions of Muslim taxpayers were disproportionately greater than the benefits they received. Muslims composed 90 percent of the population and produced 20 percent of the national income but paid 70 percent of the direct taxes, as settlers were exempt from many of them. Less than 1 percent of Muslims belonged to the middle class.

In Algiers, the capital city, Muslims were largely confined to the overcrowded shantytowns on the city outskirts, while colons lived in gardened, whitewashed villas or handsome apartment buildings. Inadequate health care for Algerians meant that diseases bred by crowded living conditions and malnutrition, including tuberculosis, trachoma, pneumonia, diphtheria, scarlet fever, malaria, and polio, were common.

France controlled all aspects of Algerian life, and through a policy of cultural imperialism worked to destroy Algerian cultural identity and reshape the society along French lines. Explicit French policy, to “civilize” by imposing French culture and language, reduced literacy. Algerian Arabic became a “street” language, and schooling in classical Arabic ceased. Education was French, aimed at preparing students for French exams and creating a small, indigenous elite who would compete with colonists for jobs in the modern sector. These few were disproportionately Berber-speaking Kabyles favored in school and jobs by the French “divide and rule” policy.

No longer content with concessions short of majority rule, in 1948 young men from MTLD chapters formed the Organisation Secrete Organisation Secrete (OS), a group aimed at building a resistance force and destroying the myth of French Algeria. Ahmed Ben Bella emerged as the dominant personality among its collective leadership. By October, 1954, the OS core, along with nationalists from other groups, formed the Front for National Liberation Front for National Liberation, Algerian (FLN) and chose November 1 to begin a revolution Algerian War (1954-1962)
Revolutions and coups;Algeria . That day was marked by seventy synchronized attacks on French facilities, an invitation to Algerian Muslims to join the National Liberation Army National Liberation Army, Algerian (ALN), and a public call for the French to negotiate peace, recognize Algerian independence, and allow settlers to remain as Algerian citizens. Taken by surprise, France sent reinforcements of soldiers and arrested 160 known activists. Soon, indiscriminate repression by the French army—destruction of villages and mass arrests—galvanized the Algerian masses to support the rebellion.

By February, 1956, France’s new prime minister, socialist Guy Mollet Mollet, Guy , ordered more than 400,000 French soldiers to achieve victory. Army tactics included population deportation and resettlement, the destruction of FLN suspects’ homes, and systematic torture during interrogation of suspects. The FLN also carried out terrorist acts—selected assassinations of French officials and Algerian collaborators, and bombings at cafes and nightclubs. In France and abroad, much publicity and protest was given to torture Human rights;Algeria victims such as Djamila Bouhired Bouhired, Djamila , a young, educated Algerian woman active in the urban resistance who refused to reveal the names of her associates even after being raped and tortured in jail.

By 1957, signs that the French government was losing the propaganda war were evident, as French intellectuals, including anthropologist Germaine Tillion Tillion, Germaine and authors François Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, mobilized public opinion against the repression. Tillion visited Algeria to protest rights abuses in June, 1957, as a member of the International Committee Against the Regime of Concentration Camps International Committee Against the Regime of Concentration Camps . International protests against French human rights abuses escalated after October, 1956, when the French forced a commercial Air Maroc plane to land at Algiers instead of Tunis, taking four FLN leaders hostage—Bella, Hocine Ait Ahmad, Rabah Bitat Bitat, Rabah , and Mohamed Khider Khider, Mohamed .

Fearing international pressure, settlers backed by French generals occupied the governor-general’s office in 1958. In this tense atmosphere, Charles de Gaulle offered his services and became premier on June 1, 1958, believing he could control the uprising. De Gaulle’s policy centered on checking extremists among the settlers and the army, ignoring the FLN, and infusing money to induce moderate Algerians to negotiate. The FLN responded by intensifying guerrilla action, extending terrorist raids to France, and, with the encouragement of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, forming (in September, 1958) a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), a representative coalition with Ferhat Abbas, a moderate, as the president.

Locked between settler-army intransigence and growing international pressure, de Gaulle moderated, telling the United Nations in September, 1959, that Algeria could soon choose its status—secession, federation, or union. Widespread demonstrations during a December, 1960, visit to Algiers convinced him of mass FLN support. With a January, 1961, French referendum showing 75 percent of French voters favoring Algerian independence, France’s policy shifted. The Secret Army Organization Secret Army Organization (OAS) of diehard settlers, however, began a reign of terror Terrorist organizations , ensuring the departure of 90 percent of the Europeans. The OAS shot Muslims in public, killed European and Algerian teachers in classrooms, assassinated patients in hospitals, and burned the University of Algiers library. Their goal of provoking a Muslim counterattack to prevent independence failed because of FLN and public restraint.

Negotiations between the French and the GPRA opened at Evian on May 20, after the release of Bella and other FLN leaders. Negotiations foundered on two French requests: special status for settlers and separate sovereignty of the oil- and gas-rich Sahara. Eventually the French yielded on both, signing an accord on March 18, 1962, ending hostilities and agreeing to independence. French voters approved the accords in April, as did 99.7 percent of Algerians on July 1. Independence became official on July 5.


The Algerian struggle for independence produced important global as well as national consequences. For Algerians, the war had proved tragically costly: 1 million dead; 2 million in regroupment camps; 300,000 refugees in neighboring Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya; and 150,000 persons in detention camps. The immediate transition from revolution to the socialist development sought by the FLN was fraught with problems that precluded any immediate improvement in living standards: devastation of agriculture, a shortage of capital, and especially the flight of 90 percent of the Europeans.

Algeria was left without doctors for victims of the last bombs and without typists, civil servants, or secretaries. On Independence Day, the Oran telephone exchange had one operator doing the job of two hundred. Factories, farms, offices, and transport facilities were destroyed by departing settlers. Close to 70 percent of the workforce faced unemployment. A new Algerian bureaucracy tried for months to restore basic public services. The state limped along with foreign loans.

An internal power struggle ensued, eliminating much of the early FLN leadership from power and slowing reconstruction. A few fortunate Algerians claimed abandoned property—houses, apartments, and farms—as their own. Workers’ self-management of factories quickly became a grassroots effort recognized by the state in 1963. Workers elected managers who directed production and marketing. In the March Decrees (1963) March Decrees (1963) , President Bella declared all property previously operated by Europeans vacant, legalizing state confiscation. State ownership of agriculture, industry, mining, transport, utilities, banks, and retail stores laid the basis for Algerian socialism. Gradually, public enterprises were organized into state corporations that participated in every aspect of the country’s life. Agriculture, however, languished, and farmers suffered from a lack of machinery, seeds, and credit because of bureaucratic mismanagement.

Algeria’s 1963 constitution declared the state to be an integral part of the Maghrib, the Arab World, and Africa. Freedom of religion was guaranteed, but Islam became the state religion and Arabic the official language. Education became a top priority, and enrollments jumped from 750,000 in 1963 to 1.5 million in 1967 and to 3 million by 1975. Girls remained about one-fourth of all students. Public health gradually improved, and so by 1974 a system of free national health was available to all. Social welfare was extended to all Algerians, including farmers. Housing shortages continued after independence, fueled by high population growth and capital shortages.

The Algerian constitution of 1963 Constitutions;Algeria outlawed torture but not detention, and article 12 specified that “both sexes shared the same rights and duties,” although women’s rights have not been implemented outright in law or custom. Article 24 invested power in a sole party, the FLN, which in turn controlled the action of the national assembly. The president, nominated by the party, was elected by universal suffrage to a five-year term, but Bella was ousted in June, 1965, in a bloodless coup led by Colonel Houari Boumédienne, thereby negating popular choice. Political freedom in the form of a multiparty system was not produced.

The costs of the Algerian War (1954-1962)—$1 billion annually and one-half million soldiers—mobilized French public opinion against maintaining an empire. Indeed, France succumbed to Moroccan and Tunisian independence in 1956 and granted independence to nearly all of its African colonies by 1961. A new Arab-world unity and developing-world politics also emerged from the Algerian struggle, which new developing-world nonaligned states supported.

The Algerian people had finally achieved three long-sought goals: independence, citizenship, and validation of an Algerian Arab-Muslim identity. Moreover, access to education, civil service, medicine, and other services was opened to all. Full political choice and a higher standard of living proved more elusive. Like all cultures and economies emerging from colonial domination, Algeria faced tremendous obstacles and challenges en route to political and economic democracy.

After three decades of state capitalist industrialization and a decade of political liberalization, another civil war broke out in Algeria in the early 1990’s, leading to another nearly decade-long round of bloodshed in which as many as 100,000 people were killed, including many civilians. Stability was again largely restored as rebel forces were gradually silenced around the turn of the century. Anticolonial movements;Algeria
France;colonial empire

Further Reading

  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A complete history of North Africa, including Algeria. Useful as an in-depth examination, from a Maghribi viewpoint, of the historical evolution of Algeria and its brutal colonial experience. Thorough bibliography.
  • Aroian, Lois, and Richard P. Mitchell. The Modern Middle East and North Africa. New York: Macmillan, 1984. A standard, readily available text. This work contextualizes the Algerian struggle for those seeking to understand it as part of the Arab world’s modern history. Adequate reference and index sections.
  • Barakat, Halim, ed. Contemporary North Africa: Issues of Development and Integration. London: Croom Helm, 1985. A useful anthology for evaluating the lingering political and economic problems of colonialism in Algeria and the Maghrib. Especially good on U.S.-Maghribi relations.
  • Entelis, John P. Algeria: The Revolution Institutionalized. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. A critical study of independent Algeria under FLN rule, this contains descriptive analysis of the political culture and the difficulties of industrialization in a postcolonial economy.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York: Viking Press, 1978. An eminently readable and dramatic account of the Algerian war for independence. Useful for its thoroughness and richness in detail. Especially graphic about French, FLN, and OAS violence. Well referenced and indexed.
  • Jackson, Julian. Charles de Gaulle. London: Haus, 2003. Biography focused on de Gaulle’s early life and the circumstances under which he returned to power in 1958. Provides the background to his presidency. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Naylor, Phillip C. France and Algeria: A History of Decolonization and Transformation. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. A scholarly account of the historical relationship between France and Algeria.
  • Ottaway, David, and Marina Ottaway. Algeria: The Politics of a Socialist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. A somewhat sympathetic examination of the first eight years of FLN rule and the effort to create socialist development. Helpful for understanding Algerian “state capitalism/Arab socialism.”
  • Quandt, William B. Revolution and Political Leadership in Algeria, 1954-1968. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969. A critical study of Algerian political leadership that traces the evolution of political thinking among liberals, radicals, and revolutionaries. Contains an excellent reference list and analysis of the postwar political conflict between intellectuals and the military.
  • Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Broad survey of Algeria’s history. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • Stone, Martin. The Agony of Algeria. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Vast history of Algeria’s difficult history with several chapters focusing on the influence of the French. Bibliography.

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