French Counterinsurgency Failures in the Algerian War of 1954-62

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In recent years, it has become fashionable in the minds of some to belittle France. A rather boorish joke follows along the lines of arguing that the French have big heads only in order to accommodate their big mouths. This colloquial anecdote can be used to demonstrate that outsiders often view the behavior and policy of French government with contempt at their perceived arrogance. An example can be found in the case of Algeria’s decolonization. The failures and arrogance of the French allowed insurgents to emerge the victors of the Algerian War of 1954-1962. To understand why this occurred, it is imperative to examine how French military arrogance, political arrogance, and a failure to use military and political capabilities in combination doomed the French to defeat at the hands of the Algerians.

Before beginning an in-depth examination of French failures, it is necessary to provide background information regarding the years preceding the Algerian War. France began its occupation of Algeria in 1830 on the pretext of an offense by the reigning dey against the French consul; further, as Algeria was suffering from internal political difficulties while under the name and flag of the Ottoman Empire, it presented a lucrative target for imperial expansion (Horne 2006, 29.) Following years of warfare, while establishing the tradition of French military atrocities – such as lighting fires at the opening of a cave sheltering 500 refugees and asphyxiating all but 10 – “the Second Republic declared Algeria an integral part of France…” in 1848 (Horne 2006, 30.) With military conquest, the process of colonization commenced. European settlers became known as the pied noir, or black feet, and this group came to dominate the people and land. Indeed, for as long as it was a French possession, “the Algerian people did not enjoy the same status as Frenchmen.” (Millen 2008, 24) With the precedents of military atrocities, colonial arrogance, and a clear schism between the native Algerians and the pied noir, conditions were ripe for future conflict as the tides of economic, political, and military events would shift over the many decades of French occupation

When the Algerian War of did arise on November 1, 1954, from the agitations of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN,) it was the first and perhaps most significant type of French failure in Algeria – the arrogance and misconduct of the military – that proved a decisive factor in the outcome of the war. The pride of the French military had been ravaged by the dark, embarrassing, and recent shame experienced through failures in World War II and French Indochina. Indeed, the compensatory arrogance of the French military became apparent as both insurgent and counterinsurgent operations escalated. Following the notorious loss to the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in what would become North Vietnam, civilians, politicians, and military personnel in both metropolitan France and French Algeria sought to align themselves against the global trend toward decolonization in the 1950’s and 1960’s as the Cold War raged throughout the world (Goldstein and Pevehouse 2008, 68.) Further, these previous defeats eliminated the image of French military supremacy (Millen 2008, 25) and emboldened insurgents. With each side confident in the justice of its cause – and with the causes at odds with one another – the circumstances of prevailing sentiment were favorable for conflict. Extreme violence characterized French military actions. Brutal and exorbitantly excessive reprisals, along with torture, marked the counterinsurgency tactics used. The military presence in Algeria swelled from 3,500 French troops at the commencement of hostilities in November, 1954 to over 200,000 by December, 1955, and the FLN’s actions “were met with French repression, mass arrests, false imprisonment, collective punishments, torture, atrocities, and other pernicious acts associated, with ratissages that...
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