Chapter 7, The War and French Society (1955-1962)

French Public Opinion:
Between Misunderstanding and Indifference

French public opinion became roused, thundered, and fumed. Compared to the war that had just ended in Indochina, the Algerian War seems at first sight to have been a time of intense consciousness-raising and scissions: the turbulence of a strong pied noir community and of the army; the antiwar involvement of intellectuals and trade unionists; the glorification of France's "civilizing mission" and the apologia for French Algeria; the vehement denunciation of colonialism and the mobilization for "peace in Algeria." Was the Algerian War a new Dreyfus affair? It would be tempting to believe so, in view of the rage and passion unleashed.

A careful examination of the reality, however, obliges us to nuance this assessment. "The events of Algeria," as they were called at the time, did not really rouse the public until 1956, the year of the "special powers" and the large-scale dispatch of the contingent. The campaigns directed against the use of torture did not truly begin until 1957, in the aftermath of the terrible battle of Algiers (thanks to the Comite Maurice-Audin in particular), that is, three years after the start of the war. The major student demonstrations for peace took place in late 1960, that is, a year and a half before Algerian independence. And the first large, impressive demonstration-more than 500,000 people-to rouse the French people against a war that had lasted for seven long years took place on February 13, 1962, on the occasion of the funeral of the victims of the Charonne metro, all Communist militants (see chapter 8), barely a month before the signing of the Evian accords that put an end to military combat. Let us add that between two hundred and three hundred rebellious or insubordinate soldiers, plus (merely) a few thousand militants, organized networks of sympathy with the Algerians; though they bear witness to the courage of a minority, they did not really constitute "French resistance" to the Algerian War (Ramon and Rotman 1979).

If we consider, among other sources, the changes in the opinion polls between 1955 and 1962, we realize above all that the majority of French people were not as attached as is sometimes believed to maintaining Algeria within the framework of a French nation. As the historian Jean-Pierre Rioux observes, that is no doubt because France had never made colonization "a collective project on a broad social, ideological, and moral plane" (Rioux 1990). Hence the "passive acquiescence" to decolonization. That point of view is shared by another historian, Charles-Robert Ageron: "The colonial impulse was the act of only a small minority. ...The colonial vocation was always rare and imperial consciousness came late. Was France colonial?"

In late 1955 the Front Republicain was victorious after an electoral campaign centered on "peace in Algeria." In February 1958, according to a poll by the Institut Francais d'Opinion Publique, or IFOP (French Institute of Public Opinion), the Algerian War placed sixth in the concerns of the French people. In October 1960, in an opinion poll in Paris for the newspaper Afrique-Action, 59 percent of individuals queried thought that "de Gaulle cannot return peace without negotiating with the FLN"; 24 percent were of the opposite view. Public opinion, eager to be done with the matter, designated the FLN as the Algerian interlocutor.

In May 1962, the filmmaker Chris Marker made Joli Mai, a documentary that shows the climate reigning in France on the eve of the Algerian declaration of independence. No one questioned in the film said that the essential event of May 1962 was the end of the Algerian War. And, in another opinion poll in September 1962, when pieds noirs and harkis were arriving en masse, only 13 percent of French people still maintained that "the Algerian tragedy" constituted a real concern.

In the face of such indifference, we might ask ourselves another question: might that attitude not be explained by a misunderstanding? Did the French know what was going on in the Aures or in Kabylia? Yes, necessarily, through the mass of soldiers involved in that conflict. Nearly 2 million! Thus thousands of families were affected, accounts and stories were later told at home, in the neighborhood, at the factory, in the village. In addition, there were committees, newspapers, and books that despite the censorship managed to divulge the "secrets" of an unacknowledged war. More than sixty thousand copies of Henri Alleg's La question, which brutally raised the problem of torture, were sold in 1958, before being seized (the book would continue to circulate under the counter).

France engaged in a cruel war against the Algerians, but society refused to live in a state of war. The majority of the French people took refuge behind the moral certainty that their country, fresh from fighting for its own liberation in 1944, would not be in the position of oppressing and torturing. To look lucidly at the course of the Algerian War was to run the risk of revisiting the dark Vichy period. That would be reason enough not to speak of either period. One ought not to conclude, however, that the period of the Algerian War was not auspicious for political involvement of all sorts, or that it was not a very important moment for a true cultural "reconstruction."

Cultural Changes, Intellectual Involvement

The years 1956-1957 witnessed the sudden rise of the LP and the introduction of Bach, Beethoven, and Vivaldi to mass consumption. Through the transistor, which would be useful to the contingent in its refusal to follow the generals' putsch, the noise of American rock arrived: Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Platters. In terms of film, in 1957 Fellini made Nights of Cabiria; in the United States, Brigitte Bardot triumphed with And God Created Woman. (Roger Vadim's film earned twice the receipts of Around the World in Eighty Days.) However, 1959 was the real turning point for the silver screen. A fine foursome was shown at the Cannes film festival: Hiroshima man amou7; Les cousins, Black Oryheus, and, above all, Francois Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (The Four Hundred Blows), which was awarded the Palme d'Or. The "new wave," an expression coined by the journalist Francoise Giroud for a survey in L '&press of eighteen- to thirty-year-olds, was launched. In 1960 the true shock came with Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle (Breath- less): a hero, mirroring the tragedy that France was living through, marches toward his ineluctable destiny. It is clear that everything has been deter- mined from the first sequences, but a carefree atmosphere reigns. A bout de souffle tells the story of those who were going to the Aures, and it became a mirror for youth in the contingent. In these " Algerian years," other images appeared on the small screen. And, on December 14,1956, readers saw in L'express: "Already at the present time, with the four hundred thousand officially declared sets, RTF [Radiodiffusion Television Francaise, the French television system] touches millions of French people, for whom it has replaced recreation and serious newspapers. In the hands of a government resolved to use it shamelessly in its propaganda, television may become another unsuspected weapon of power."

In 1957, with Alain Robbe-Grillet, the author of La jalousie (] and literary editor at Editions de Minuit, a new literary school called the "nouveau roman" appeared. It was Roger Vaillant, however, who won the Prix Goncourt with La Ioi (The Law). On the intellectual scene, Jean-Paul Same and Albert Camus dominated. Camus, who "ached for Algeria," reasserted his solidarity with the Algerian people as a whole in the columns of L 'express, a newspaper with which he had become affiliated in order to be able to support Pierre Mendes-France, the only man, in his view, capable of solving the crisis while avoiding the worst outcome.

With the approach of the January 1956 elections, Camus launched an appeal for a reasonable compromise whereby the French would admit the failure of assimilation, and the Algerian nationalists would renounce their intransigence and the temptation of pan-Arabism. On January 22, 1956, that appeal was repeated in Algiers. But it was too late: already the voices of those holding liberal opinions could no longer be heard. Pacification took on the aspect of war. Camus did not approve of the radical position of the French of Algeria, but he also did not accept the idea of one day becoming an alien in his own country. He went through a period of doubt tinged with bitterness. The writer decided to be silent, once and for all. Only one sentence was needed, however, to bring about his downfall. They were simple words, almost dragged out of him by an Algerian student challenging him during a lecture given in Stockholm after Camus had received the Nobel Prize for literature in December 1957: "1 believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice." This line, often distorted, was only the touching confession of an intellectual in the grip of the uncertainty and confusion brought on by an outcry on the left. Camus the "traitor" was said to have definitively rallied behind the camp of French Algeria. Camus returned to his solitude. He died in a car accident on January 4, 1960. In contrast to Camus stood Jean-Paul Same. On January 27, 1956, the Comite d'Action des Intellectuels contre la Pour- suite de la Guerre en Afrique du Nord (Action Committee of Intellectuals against the Continuation of the War in North Africa) held a meeting in Salle Wagram. Jean-Paul Same, who was part of the committee, spoke: "The only thing we can and must attempt, but it is the essential thing to- day, is to struggle beside both the Algerians and the French to deliver them from colonial tyranny." In 1958, he wrote an article on Henri Alleg's La question, in which he tried to show that torture was not an epiphenomenon but a necessary method in the type of war France was waging, and that one had to "put an end to these vile and dreary advances." Torture and terrorism, democracy, the rights of a people, and human rights: it was not the time for consensus, but for involvement.

With Frantz Fanon's works, which were banned, "Third World" ideology was asserted: to discover new "wretched of the earth," apart from a French working class still controlled by the PCF, was to rediscover a historical force embodying the revolution. The 1959 Cuban revolution reinforced that conviction. But that swing to extreme involvement, clandestine activities, or marginality was not found exclusively on the left. The refusal to abandon French Algeria pushed many intellectuals, whether pieds noirs or metropolitans, toward dissidence against the state, and into the OAS. A few days after the Manifesto of the 121 in October 1960, a countermanifesto was published, bearing three hundred signatures by political personalities on the right. Among the signers were Roland Dorgeles, Andre Francois-Poncet, Henri de Monfreid, Roger Nimier, Pierre Nord, Jules Romains, Michel de Saint- Pierre, and Jacques Laurent. They condemned both the subversive activities of the Algerians and the practice of torture. The "trial of the barricades," which opened on November 3, 1960, was the occasion for the supporters of French Algeria to publicly set forth their theses. The anti- Third World ideologies for "the defense of the West" against "Muslim fanaticism" took shape. Thanks to the Algerian War, a generation, primarily belonging to the student world, entered politics and took a position in one camp or the other. The historian Jean-Francois Sirinelli, however, raises the question of that "war of writing" conducted by the French intelligentsia:

Did not the shock of the photos in Paris-Match, with its readership of 8 million French people, carry more weight than the words of intellectuals? And, as of January 1959, what was the impact of the televised reports of Cinq colonnes a la une [Five Columns on the Front Page], some of which have remained much more firmly rooted in the collective memory than one petition or another by intellectuals? This was a "war of writing," then, but also a period of change, when pictures and sounds continued their rise in power within French society. (Sirinelli 1992)

Sociological Upheaval

In the brief period before and after the Algerian War, a period combining crises, tears, and violence, France set out on the path of the most extraordinary development it had ever known. The French people, who between the change of government and the threats of civil war did not have time to be bored, did not see that upheaval. And yet, the face of the country changed more in fifteen years (1950-1965) than it had in a century.

Between 1950 and 1960 the number of motor vehicles on the road would increase from 2,150,000 to 7,885,400. The number of airline passengers increased fivefold. It was the era of the Caravelle airliner. Trans-Europ-Express began service in early 1957. Between 1950 and 1960 the total length of electric lines doubled. In 1950 there were only 92 kilometers of highways; in December 1955, the Ministry of Public Works planned the construction of 2,000 kilometers of highways, a plan that was realized within ten years. Thanks to the large electrical dams, blackouts became nothing but a bad memory for the French people. And, in 1957, the EDF began work on its first nuclear plant in Avoine, near Chinon. The natural gas processing plant in Lacq began operation in May 1957; thanks to that production, by 1960 there were only 182 coal-fired power stations remaining, of the 546 existing in 1945. The examples could be multiplied: they constitute the signs of a massive introduction into the modern era. The construction of Europe was advancing and took a decisive turn with the signing of the Treaty of Rome. On July 9, 1957, the National Assembly, by a vote of 512 to 239, authorized the ratification of the Common Market treaty.
In these decisive years, France definitively wrested itself from its rural character. But it was ill prepared for that enormous upheaval. The peasant worldview found itself radically transformed. The older and younger generations disagreed on the methods of production, but also on the very values of that society. The majority of peasants' sons who waged war in Algeria came back changed.

The war waged in a distant land awakened and reinforced the peasant's sense of belonging to his "little homeland," his village, his region. For the young peasants, the Algerian War also symbolized the end of economic competition from the colonies. The retreat to the Hexagon favored the rise of regionalism, which manifested itself in the 1970s in Brittany, the Basque region, and Corsica. Now people no longer spoke of peasants, but of farmers. These farmers were supposed to think in terms of productivity, investment, depreciation, and not simply in terms of savings. They confronted a radically different mode of production and sale. The structural transformation that was taking root would "kill" the weakest members. Traditional farming was fated to evolve or to die. "The Dominici affair," which held France enthralled at the time, was also a symbol of the putting to death of the rural world (Gaston Dominici, found guilty of a triple murder in Lurs, was sentenced to death on September 18, 1954).

Finally, in the background of these changes, the urban landscape was profoundly changed. The end of the&qu t; Algerian years" meant the construction of tract housing, the growth of the suburbs, and a new (poor?) way of life. The first "hypermarket" (Carrefour) was opened in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois in 1963, while the suburbs developed, with Sarcelles (1961) as their emblem. Refrigerators and television sets (800,000 sets in 1958, 3 million in 1962) proliferated in homes.

Within that whirlwind, how could those who had "trudged" through the djebels, or who clung to the memory of a lost land, make themselves understood? Within the euphoria of "progress," everyone gave in to the pressure of the immediate, caught up in the avalanche of novelties and consumption.

How Distant the Aures

Only ten years after the end of the Occupation, political space was deter- mined less by ideological markers than by sociological ones: the upheaval of the agricultural landscape and end of the peasant world, the urban explosion on the periphery of the cities, the massive intrusion of television into homes, the beginning of the nuclear revolution. That nascent modernity concealed the issues born of the II Algerian years. "

The attachment to the brand new comfort that this old country now enjoyed, the memory of two gigantic blood-lettings (the two world wars), whose traces were still visible, if not on the French landscape, then at least on every village square: everything joined together to lead to an entirely new approach to the problems of a war waged outside the Hexagon. Society knew, but was content to keep, the secret of an undeclared war. The relation to death was wholly private and excluded from public life: no funeral orations, no specific tombstones, no particular inscriptions on city and village monuments celebrated the merit of those killed "over there." That tendency to exclude and conceal death led people to renounce the effort to come to terms with that war. The age of consumer society and the society of the spectacle had sounded.

At the same time, the war served as a revelation. What was being born under the thick mask of indifference was hostility toward the man living in or coming from the south. That mysterious "other" had resisted, had wanted to obtain a nationality of his own; here was a man whose life, hopes, and history no one took the trouble to find out about. How very distant and strange the Aures and their inhabitants seemed to the French. With the Algerian War, colonial racism began its crossing of the Mediterranean.