Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif

A series of political and social developments led to the outbreak of mass violence in eastern Algeria. France’s brutal suppression of the violence arguably increased tensions in the country, hastening the Algerian War of Independence and later decolonization.

Summary of Event

The people of the predominantly Muslim town of Sétif, located in the Department of Constantine, Algeria, gathered on May 8, 1945 (V-E day), to celebrate the defeat of Germany and the end of the European phase of World War II. Some eight thousand people, many young children, gathered at the mosque near the town’s railroad station. At some point during the celebration, however, the crowd began to express its resentment of its colonial status: Algerians were the colonial subjects of an imperialist occupying power, France. Violence directed against the French colonials broke out, leading eventually to more than ten thousand deaths. [kw]Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif (May 8, 1945)
[kw]Nationalists Riot at Sétif, Algerian (May 8, 1945)
[kw]Sétif, Algerian Nationalists Riot at (May 8, 1945)
Anticolonial movements;Algeria
Civil unrest;Algeria
France;colonial empire
Sétif riot (1945)
Anticolonial movements;Algeria
Civil unrest;Algeria
France;colonial empire
Sétif riot (1945)
[g]Africa;May 8, 1945: Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif[01480]
[g]Algeria;May 8, 1945: Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif[01480]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May 8, 1945: Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif[01480]
[c]Independence movements;May 8, 1945: Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif[01480]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 8, 1945: Algerian Nationalists Riot at Sétif[01480]
Abbas, Ferhat
Messali Hadj, Ahmed
Chataigneau, Yves
Gaulle, Charles de
[p]Gaulle, Charles de;French colonialism
Violette, Maurice

The incident in Sétif was a symptom of tension that had existed between the French and the Algerian Muslims since before World War II, although it was not manifested in violence prior to the Sétif revolt. Algerian nationalism centered on personalities representing three major trends of thought. The first group, led by Ahmed Messali Hadj, was violently anti-French and demanded total independence from French rule. After the Sétif incident, when his Algerian People’s Party Algerian People’s Party[Algerian Peoples Party] (PPA) was banned, Messali Hadj persisted and created a new organization, the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, Algerian (MTLD), with essentially the same demands. The second group, led by Ferhat Abbas and his Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty (AML), pursued assimilationist Assimilation politics with a goal of Algerian autonomy within the French system. After the AML was banned in the aftermath of the Sétif revolt, Abbas too formed a second movement, the Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto Democratic Union of the Algerian Manifesto (UDMA). The most direct influence on the Muslim masses, however, was exerted by the third group, their religious leaders.

The colons (Algerian Europeans, both French and others) resisted pressure from both the Algerian moderates, who demanded French citizenship through assimilation, and the radicals, who demanded independence. The colons allied themselves with powerful elements of the French government, bureaucracy, and military and controlled the Algerian government through influence, finance, and the press. The major French response to the early assimilationist demands of the educated Algerians was the Blum-Violette proposals Blum-Violette proposals[Blum Violette proposals] of 1936, coauthored by Maurice Violette, which would have extended citizenship initially to a few thousand Muslims. Even this modest effort at conciliation was obstructed by the determined opposition of the colons, however.

The Algerian economy was organized to serve the colons’ interests. Commercially cultivated farmlands in the northern plains were controlled by colons. These lands had yields almost ten times as high per acre as the infertile lands to the south, to which the Muslims had been driven beginning in the early 1900’s. The colons exercised similar control over railroads, shipping, and other industrial enterprises. The plight of the Muslim farmers was complicated by high population growth and the gradual subdivision of their lands in the south. They depended for their meager livelihood on raising sheep and crops on their own land or sharecropping on colon farmlands in the north.

Prior to Sétif, Ferhat Abbas’s AML had led political agitation for a change in the conditions of native Algerians, which added to tensions in the colony. The AML, which diverged from Abbas’s agenda and came to be dominated by Messali Hadj’s followers, adopted a resolution for complete independence at the organization’s congress in March, 1945. The political atmosphere in Algeria had been charged with expectation for change since the landing of Anglo-American forces in Algeria in 1942. That atmosphere was influenced by the apparently anticolonial tone of the Atlantic Charter, signed in 1941. Muslim sentiments were further aroused by the establishment of the Arab League, a symbol of Arab unity, in 1945.

On the eve of the Sétif incident, the AML, which feared the consequences of the policy of confrontation advocated by the Communist Party Communist Party, Algerian of Algeria, publicly attacked that policy. During May Day parades one week prior to the Sétif incident, there had been clashes, resulting in casualties, between the police and demonstrators in Algiers and other cities. There was no police intervention during Sétif’s May Day parade, however.

The local AML leaders agreed to act responsibly during Sétif’s V-E Day celebration on May 8 as well, promising to respect a police ban on political slogans. They planned to lay a wreath at the local war memorial and then disperse. On reaching the center of town, however, some members of the crowd brought out small British, American, and French flags amid shouts of “long live Messali,”“long live free and independent Algeria,” and “down with colonialism.” At least one man waved the green-and-white Algerian national flag. The commissioner of police, with only a few officers at his disposal, reluctantly decided to intervene. In the ensuing scuffle a spectator was shot, possibly by a panic-stricken police officer.

By noon, the rumor of what some saw as the beginning of a holy war spread east as well as north to the Babor Mountains. During the night, armed Muslims rampaged through the isolated villages and farms, cutting power lines, breaking into railroad carriages, and setting fire to public buildings. Guelma, a major town about 165 miles to the east, was encircled by a mob on May 9. Incited by events in Sétif, Muslim mobs lost control and committed atrocities against helpless Europeans of all ages, sometimes mutilating their victims’ bodies. The prefect of Constantine called on Yves Chataigneau, the governor-general, to send in the army. Violence continued for five days, spreading to settlements such as Sillegue, El Ouricia, LaFayette, Chevreul, Perigotville, and Kerrata. More than one hundred European men, women, and children were killed, one-third of them petty government officials, symbols of the French presence in Algeria.

The army, called in after five days, restored order in Constantine. Rather than bringing the culprits of the mob violence to justice and punishing the guilty, the army hastily adopted a policy of reprisal. The governor-general himself gave the orders for repression, so Charles de Gaulle, head of the French provisional government, was probably kept informed and had some responsibility for the army’s actions.

The retaliatory army actions, meant to protect and perhaps avenge the Europeans, have been described as a veritable massacre. Martial law was declared in Constantine Constantine massacre (1945)
Massacres . An army of about ten thousand Senegalese and legionnaires was given almost a free hand to clean up the area between the cities of Sétif and Guelma. This force rounded up hundreds of Muslims, summarily executing anyone suspected of any crime, as well as anyone found without the identity brassard prescribed by the army. Interrogations using violent methods were often held in public. Indiscriminate aerial and naval bombardments added to the death tolls, especially those of the innocent. On a single day, the French air force’s P-39 and B-26 warplanes flew three hundred sorties. Such repeated punitive operations destroyed many machtas, or Muslim settlements, particularly between Guelma and the coast. French naval units from the Gulf of Bongui repeatedly shelled the coastal settlements at close range.

Arms were distributed to European civilians as an added measure to ensure their safety. The Europeans quickly formed vigilante groups and roamed the countryside, meting out their own justice. More than two hundred Muslims were shot in Chevreul. Victims of the vigilantes were often old men, women, and children. The victims’ bodies were sometimes mutilated, and their homes were often destroyed.

Estimates of the death toll ranged from a few hundred to nearly fifty thousand. Official European casualties were 89 dead and 150 injured. French army officers involved gave a moderate estimate of between six thousand and eight thousand Muslim dead. The Algerian national press put the figure at fifty thousand dead, and The New York Times estimated about eighteen thousand Muslims dead. One plausible explanation for the wide discrepancy between these figures was the large number of Muslims who fled their villages once the army action started, thus depleting their ranks temporarily.

Apart from the activities of the European vigilante groups, the army made wholesale arrests of suspects, some of whom were only remotely connected to Sétif and the mob violence there. These arrests posed a major threat to Muslims’ personal freedom. Ferhat Abbas, who visited the governor-general to congratulate him on the allied victory over Germany, was arrested inside the governor-general’s mansion. His AML was banned soon afterward. Messali Hadj’s party bore the brunt of the arrests. Of about forty-five hundred arrested in the aftermath of the Sétif incident, about one hundred were executed and sixty-four were imprisoned for life.

Back in the mother country, France, like the rest of Europe, was busy with victory celebrations, and major French newspapers downplayed the extent of the violence in Constantine. De Gaulle himself dismissed the events as insignificant.


Tension built upon the inferiority of Muslim wealth and status within the colonial system erupted into violence in Sétif. The official inquiry committee on Sétif, which never published a final report, mentioned in its provisional report the resentment toward an unjust system felt by those Muslims who returned to Algeria after working in more egalitarian environments outside the country. Their resentment found a sympathetic reception among their fellows.

The repression of native Algerians by the colons led to expression by poets and politicians alike. Poet Kateb Yacin, who was then sixteen years old, spoke about his first feelings of nationalism. Ben Bella, the revolutionary leader who was returning to Algeria after serving with the French army, was aghast at the sight of the bloody repression. Hardly any nationalists believed any longer that changes in the colonial system could be accomplished through reform.

The French tried to stem the growing tide of Algerian nationalism by granting Algerians limited political rights. In addition to granting French citizenship to limited numbers who did not have to relinquish their rights under Qur՚ānic laws, a privilege that had been granted to a few beginning in 1944, the French gave voting rights to women, recognized Arabic as another official language along with French, and brought the tribes in the southern high plains under civilian rule for the first time.

In September, 1947, dual electoral colleges were introduced for the Algerian assembly, one for the French minority and another for Muslim French subjects. Artificial parity between the two in representation, however, allowed the French to maintain official control, vitiating the purpose of representation. Confidence in French goodwill further eroded after the 1948 assembly elections, in which widespread official use of gerrymandering and other kinds of fraud resulted in a landslide victory of official candidates over the nationalists. The governor-general, appointed by the French Ministry of Interior, retained the ultimate control over administration.

The greatest long-term political consequence of the massacres was the resolve of many young men to fight colonialism by every means at their disposal. The Algerians finally mounted a full-scale revolution in November, 1954. Insecurity of life and property and violation of personal freedom became common experiences, as native Algerians struggled to liberate their country from French imperial control. The French, for their part, adopted torture as a common means of eliciting information from suspects in their attempt to root out all revolutionaries. Indeed, at one point in 1957, a formal proposal was made to approve the use of torture by the French army. The revolt at Sétif thus marked the initial stage of Algerian revolution, starting the period of resistance to France’s massive efforts to retain Algeria within its political system, and it oriented indigenous Algerians toward the goal of national independence, which was achieved in 1962. Nationalism;Algeria
Anticolonial movements;Algeria
Civil unrest;Algeria
France;colonial empire
Sétif riot (1945)

Further Reading

  • Ageron, Charles Robert. Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present. Edited and translated by Michael Brett. London: Hurst, 1991. Revised and updated translation of the ninth edition of this standard of Algerian history.
  • Behr, Edward. The Algerian Problem. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976. Eyewitness account of the period from the Algerian revolution to Algeria’s independence. Includes a short bibliography almost entirely composed of French publications; photos, map, no index.
  • Gordon, David C. The Passing of French Algeria. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. An account of the revolution written from the neutral British perspective. Like the books by Behr and by Horne, this volume treats the nationalist cause with understanding. Bibliography and index.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987. One of the best works on the military aspect of the revolution by a British historian. Inspired and almost poetic, yet extremely detailed, account of the political and social context of the revolution. Includes maps, charts, chronology of events, detailed bibliography, and rare photos. The first three chapters are useful for those interested in Sétif.
  • 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.
  • 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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