Algeria is a Northern African country that was colonized by the French, and by 1945, more than a million French settlers had moved to Algeria. By the beginning of the 1950s, strong nationalistic sentiments were prevailing as the Algerian Africans wanted to achieve equal status with the settlers and gain their political independence.
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However, the French were not willing to let go of this North African colony, and they violently repressed demonstrations made by the nationalists. The Algerian Nationalists through the National Liberation Front (FLN) resulted in an armed struggle against French colonization. This armed confrontation between the French and the Algerian Nationalists occurred in 1954-1962, and it ended in victory for the Africans.
Fig 1: Map of Algeria with Tunisia on its North East Border
The intense and brutal campaign undertaken by French forces to counter the FLN network of terror contributed to the failure of France in Algeria. To gain international attention and support for its cause, the FLN moved its guerrilla warfare into the cities in 1957. The movement engaged in terror activities against the French settlers and their sympathizers in the Algerian capital of Algiers. To deal with this terrorist threat posed by the FLN, the French engaged in nine months of an intense and brutal campaign.
Merom notes that by the end of the campaign, the capacity of the FLN to initiate violent actions in Algiers had been virtually eliminated (604). Shennan observes that while France’s 10th Paratroop Division was able to decimate the FLN organization in the city of Algiers, its methods had a devastating effect on the political standing of France in Algeria (76). The army came under moral criticism because of its military conduct. This criticism proved critical in shifting the public support for the war efforts.
Another important failure by France was the 1958 attack of the FLN base in Tunisia. The recently independent Tunisia was a key ally to the FLN, and it allowed the movement to establish a military base within its borders. This base was used to carry out attacks against French forces in Algeria.
To counter Tunisian support for the FLN, the French launched an airstrike against an FLN base in Tunisia on 8 February 1958 (Shennan 77). This attack had a large civilian cost as it destroyed the adjacent village of Sekhmet. The killing of civilians from neighboring Tunisia during the counter-insurgency operations hurt the French Army. It provoked an international outcry against the French government, and it led to the government losing a confidence vote in parliament.
An important military infrastructure employed by the French was the fortified barrier built between Tunisia and Algeria. This state-of-the-art defensive barrier, popularly known as the Morice Line, included an eight-foot-high electrified wire barrier running through the middle of a wide minefield overlooked by regularly spaced watchtowers. The Morice Line was considered a necessity since the newly independent Tunisia was sympathetic to the cause of the FLN.
As such, Tunisia provided the FLN with a safe harbor where they could establish their bases within its borders. The role of the fortified barrier was to prevent guerrillas from crossing in and out of Algeria. Shennan notes that the Morice Line was able to slow the flow of troops and weapons to the FLN in Algeria (76).
The barrier was effective in tackling infiltration from guerrilla sanctuaries in Tunisia (112). The Morice Line will not only simply a passive defense system as it included mobile combat formations who met insurgent breakthroughs whenever they occurred. The FLN’s attempts at breaching the French fortified barriers cost it over 6,000 men, which was a devastating setback that completed the FLN to stop trying to beach the wall.
Fig 2: Map of the Morice Line between Algeria and Tunisia
In spite of the military victory against the FLN, French withdrew from this colony in 1962. Several important factors led to this reluctant withdrawal after eight years of battle to maintain control over Algeria. Domestic opposition to the war forced the French to abandon Algeria.
Merom observes that by early 1956, the general public in continental France considered the Algerian War a major issue on the national agenda (601). However, the French society at large did not challenge the legitimacy of the war. However, this changed following the revelation of the methods used by the military to contain the FLN guerillas in 1957.
Merom observes that while France had unquestionable military dominance in the battlefield, it abandoned its political objectives leading to failure in the Algerian conflict (601). After news of the methods used by the French military to counter the FLN became public, there was widespread opposition to the war by Frenchmen. The government caved under this pressure and proceeded to grant Algeria its independence.
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Another reason for the withdrawal of France from Algeria was the view by many French citizens that the financial cost of the war was unjustifiable. Arnold reports that there were numerous economic and social pressures to reduce domestic support for the French government (114). The massive conscription efforts to support war efforts in Algeria had also increased military spending in France.
Shennan documents that the Algerian War was the cause of a financial crisis in France as it cost Paris one billion francs each day to sustain the war (112). The war’s financial costs endangered France’s surging economic growth, and this led to the contemplation of a French withdrawal as early as 1959. France’s President Charles de Gaulle decided to withdraw his country from Algeria in 1961, and this brutal and protracted war finally came to an end in 1962.
Arnold, James. Jungle of Snakes: A Century of Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq. London: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2010. Print.
Merom, Gil. “The Social Origins of the French Capitulation in Algeria.” Armed Forces & Society 30.4(2004): 601-628. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Shennan, Andrew. De Gaulle: Profiles in Power. Routledge, 2014. Print.