Commentary Magazine


Algeria—Two Views

To the Editor:

It is easy to understand Maurice Carr’s sympathy with Charles de Gaulle’s effort to find a way out of the Algerian war (“Algeria After the Referendum,” December 1958). But I do not think that an Algerian solution is in any way aided by the propagation of misinformation on essential aspects of the question. And Mr. Carr’s article, unfortunately, is a mine of such misinformation. However, I must necessarily confine myself to pointing out but a few of his most important errors. Mr. Carr says: “Until the end of the First World War Algerian nationalism was virtually non-existent.” Actually, Algerians united under the Emir Abd-el-Kader to resist France’s invasion so effectively that the conquest of the country took the French seventeen years of warfare, carried out by means of ruthless massacres of Algerian civilians and punctuated by a series of French defeats, followed by treaties which the French broke as soon as it suited their convenience. Thereafter, there were bloody uprisings followed by much bloodier repressions at five- to ten-year intervals throughout the 19th century. (Nor were similar events unknown in the present century, prior to the FLN. In 1945, a number of Frenchmen were killed at Setif; several thousand Arabs died in reprisal.) Mr. Carr says: “Yet the communities coexisted quietly enough for more than a century under the old colonial system, which was not unduly harsh.” Actually, the “not unduly harsh” colonial system involved a series of confiscations which robbed the Algerian Moslems of all the best land in their country for the benefit of the European colonists, whose serfs they in effect became. At the same time, the European colonists of Algeria became the most dependable clientele of French anti-Semitism. (This was the basis for their overwhelming support of the Pétain regime.) European expropriation and massacre of the Moslems and agitation and discrimination against the Jews are not, I think, properly to be described by the phrase “the communities coexisted quietly enough.”

Mr. Carr attempts to show that the Moslems have received substantial economic benefits from the French occupation, and cites population statistics as proof of a rising standard of living. But in fact the population explosion which has resulted from the impact of certain modern technical advances—and which has been paralleled in underdeveloped countries which have not had the benefit of foreign occupation—does not indicate a rising standard of living. Quite the contrary. As Gunnar Myrdal points out: “The recent explosive development of medical science, making the prevention of death even at exceedingly low standards of living a rather easy and inexpensive matter, has tended to weaken the population checks and thus has moved the stagnation equilibrium to a much more depressed level of human misery.” The actual decline in the standard of living of most Algerian Arabs is shown by the fact, cited by André Philip, that there has been a steady decline in the per capita production of grain during the period of French rule. In part, this reflects the rise in population; in part it is due to the diversion of land from grain to wine grapes. Wine is more profitable than bread to the European landowner; the Moslem peasant would still be forbidden by his religion to drink it even if he could afford to buy it. The real meaning of the growth of Algeria’s population is to be sought in the unemployment statistics. Approximately half of the Moslem population are permanently or seasonally employed; another fifth of the adult males find work in France, where they live for years on end, separated from their families and in conditions of utter squalor. It is the earnings of these sub-proletarians which support the Algerian Moslem economy on its subsistence level. (Incidentally, Mr. Carr need not worry that “France, to make room for the refugees from Algeria . . . would repatriate the 400,000 Moslems whose earnings keep 2,000,000 relatives in Algeria alive today.” One may be sure that the colons, even if repatriated, would neither replace the Algerians as the coolie labor of the French economy nor move into the slums and bidonvilles in which the Algerian workers are housed.)

Mr. Carr makes a great deal of the results of the constitutional referendum in Algeria to prove that the people do not support the National Liberation Front. Although Tennyson said that simple faith is more than Norman blood, it seems to me that there is such a thing as overdoing it. I wonder whether Mr. Carr really believes that the even more overwhelming election victory which Kadar has just won in Hungary proves that the people of that country repudiate the freedom fighters of 1956. Yet Kadar did not even have to round the voters up and transport them to the polls in military trucks, as the French Army did in Algeria. The touching scenes described by Mr. Carr of Moslems demanding the right to vote, although their names had been left off the registers by accident, indicate only that they had good reason to fear the consequences of not being able to prove that they had voted. Yet there was one aspect of the referendum which did have significance—the almost total abstention of the Algerian workers in France, who were not directly in front of the guns of the paratroopers.

But perhaps the most serious departure from fact in Mr. Carr’s article is his misrepresentation of the character of the FLN. By the use of phony quotation marks, he attributes to it doctrines which are in major respects almost the exact opposite of those it actually holds. Far from urging a single Arab empire, expanding from the present Arab lands to conquer Asia and Africa, the FLN advocates a Maghrebian federation of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Nor does it propose to expel Europeans; rather, it offers them the right to remain—but not as rulers or possessors of special privileges. And politically, it is allied in a joint committee with Habib Bourguiba’s Neo-Destour and the Moroccan Istiqlal; one would never guess it from Mr. Carr’s article, but Bourguiba has consistently supported the FLN as against the Algerian National Movement of Messali Hadj, and the FLN has designated Tunisia to speak for it in the United Nations.

Maurice J. Goldbloom
Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Mr. Carr writes:

  1. On the subject of Algerian nationalism, I would refer Mr. Goldbloom to a public statement which Ferhat Abbas made some years before he became head of the “Free Algerian Government”: “I have spoken with the living, I have even been to the cemeteries to interrogate the dead, but none could furnish any evidence that there has ever existed an Algerian State.” The Encyclopedia Britannica in its article on Algeria notes that no Algerian nation existed before or after the French conquest. Mr. Goldbloom singularly weakens the case of FLN when he denies the demonstrable truth that “until the end of the First World War Algerian nationalism was virtually non-existent.” He would do better to plead that some Algerians now want to constitute themselves into a nation.
  2. The rising of Abd-el-Kader was not nationalist, but (again I would refer Mr. Goldbloom to the Britannica) a religious war of Islam against the “infidel.” Abd-el-Kader was a pious Moslem, a man of great culture and ability and a clean and generous warrior. The Britannica points out that his ultimate failure was largely due to the refusal of the Kabyles (Berber mountain tribes whose Mohammedanism was not too strongly held) to make common cause with the Arabs against the French. After his defeat Abd-el-Kader declared, “It is the will of Allah!” and became a devoted friend of France. During the Syrian massacres of 1860, Abd-el-Kader saved the lives of many Christians attacked by Moslems in Damascus, where he was then living, and was decorated by Napoleon III with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. In 1871, when a revolt broke out in Algeria after France’s humiliation in the Franco-Prussian war, Abd-el-Kader appealed to his co-religionists to lay down their arms.
  3. Mr. Goldbloom is perpetuating a myth when he alleges that after the surrender of Abd-el-Kader “there were bloody uprisings followed by much bloodier repressions at five- to ten-year intervals throughout.” In the course of a century, serious troubles broke out in Algeria on three occasions; but they were no more nationalist than is the present outbreak of dissidence among the Riff tribesmen of Morocco. The Maghreb peoples have a long tradition of hostility to any central authority. Under the French colonial system, which has now outlived its raison d’être, Algeria enjoyed what was relatively by far the quietest period in its turbulent history of internecine warfare.
  4. Far be it from me to defend the European land speculators who bought up (but did not, as Mr. Goldbloom asserts, confiscate) Moslem farmlands. On the other hand, by draining swamps and providing irrigation, the colonists created much new arable soil, so that on balance the Moslems today own a far greater acreage of productive land than ever before. The production of cereals rose from 19,794 quintals (hundredweights) in 1948-9 to 24,532 quintals in 1954-5 and has steadily increased since, despite the systematic burning down of farms by the guerrilla forces. The Algerian Moslem farm laborers are underpaid and underemployed; but even so their standard of living is incomparably higher than that of the Egyptian fellahim. Already one in every six Moslem Algerians is economically, socially, and culturally on a par with the European settlers, and the task which the Gaullist regime has now undertaken—without prejudice to the future political status of Algeria—is simply to emancipate the still backward masses in the shortest possible time. The greater part of Algeria is a natural desert, and the future prosperity of the country lies in industrialization and universal education. The colonists may be blamed for many things, but it is to their eternal credit that by the introduction of sanitation they enabled the Moslem population to multiply fivefold. The natives were not massacred; nor were they at any time subject to segregation. Both the Moslem and Christian communities of Algeria have benefited greatly from their past coexistence. Algeria can flourish only if they continue to coexist, no longer after the colonial fashion, but as absolute equals in every way.
  5. The Jews, who were locked up in ghettos and oppressed under Turkish rule, welcomed the French as liberators. Naturalized French citizens en bloc in 1870, Algerian Jewry emerged from the Dark Ages to a new status of human dignity. That there are anti-Semites and fascists among the European settlers is incontestable. Mr. Goldbloom may have noticed that in my article I vehemently denounced the European ultras as fascists. But does Mr. Goldbloom know, or care, that the FLN terrorists have perpetrated anti-Semitic pogroms, and have killed proportionately three times as many Jews as Christians in Algeria?
  6. If Mr. Goldbloom had been in Algeria at the time of the referendum, he would have seen for himself—as I did—that the Moslems voted of their own volition. The men did so because they are war-weary and have faith in General de Gaulle’s willingness and ability to bring peace with justice to Algeria. The women did so with an added motive: they yearn to free themselves from their millennial slavery. Scores of foreign newspapermen will corroborate that the inhabitants of the Casbah flocked to the polling stations entirely of their own accord, defying the FLN threats of bloody reprisals. The many Moslems who chose to abstain came to no harm at the hands of the French.
  7. The FLN draws its inspiration as well as the bulk of its funds from Nasser and his Arab League, which seek to establish a united Arab Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and from the Mediterranean to the heart of Black Africa. Not all the leaders, and certainly not the rank and file of the FLN, wish to be Nasser’s catspaws. Ferhat Abbas, who is according to his lights an Algerian patriot, was anxious to accept General de Gaulle’s recent peace offer, but was prevented from doing so under pressure of the Nasserist elements of the FLN. An FLN victory would certainly lead to the immediate departure of virtually all the 1,200,000 Algerians of European origin. Even in moderate Tunisia, 130,000 out of a total of 190,000 Europeans have been forced to leave since the country became independent. Mr. Bourguiba is loathed, but utilized, by the FLN, whose 8,000 well-trained troops hold the whip-hand in Tunisia. The FLN actively sympathizes with Bourguiba’s arch-enemy, Salah ben Youssef, who is a refugee in Cairo. The Tunisian president is fortunate to have escaped assassination.

In conclusion, I would like to express the hope that the more liberal, humane elements among the FLN will finally triumph over the pro-Nasser pan-Arab fascists, and will help bring peace with justice to stricken Algeria. Their First duty as Algerians surely should be to help General de Gaulle to educate and emancipate the Algerian masses. When that is done, no force on earth will be able to thwart their legitimate political aspirations. Justice demands that in the ultimate settlement the European minority community in Algeria shall not be persecuted by the Moslem majority any more than that the majority should now be illtreated by the minority.

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