Published on March 6th, 20132
The Massacre in Sétif: How Peace Celebrations Ended in Bloodbath in French Algeria
By Håkon Tranvåg
On 8 May 1945, Europe celebrated a long desired peace after six years of war. So too did the people of Algeria, a French colony which had been controlled by the fascist Vichy-regime after the fall of France in 1940 until the Allied liberation in 1942. Tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets all over the country to celebrate the Allied victory. But in the city of Sétif, 300 km west of Algiers, things would turn bloody.
Some 8000–10 000 people gathered in the streets of Sétif on that day, carrying British, French, American and Soviet flags to celebrate the victory. But the crowd was not content with just celebrating the Allies. They quickly started chanting anti-colonial slogans, calling for independence from their French masters.
And when a young man covered himself in the green and white flag with a red star – then a symbol of North-African independence, now the Algerian flag – the French police had had just enough. A group of police officers surrounded the man, ripping apart the flag and beat him up. This infuriated the crowd, who now attacked not just the police, but French citizens as well.
The police tried to regain control and to spread the crowd with bullets and batons, but it only helped to escalate the violence. Word quickly spread about the chaos in Sétif, and soon the whole countryside was on fire. For three days the armed mob, now hiding in the mountains off the city, attacked anything representing France, killing French settlers – the pied-noirs – burning their houses and farms to the ground, attacking post offices and the local administration. The bloody turmoil now appeared to be a full rebellion, and the French counter-attack would be one fitted for war.
In one of the very few mentioning of the uprising at the time, France-presse reported that “The pacification [of the revolt] was managed without excess.” Nothing could be further from the truth, however. French war ships of the coast shelled the mountains where the rebels were based, the air force bombarded whole villages, and the army arrested and shot all civilians who were suspected of being a rebel or of sympathizing with them.
Without any show of evidence or trial, villagers were executed in the streets to serve as a warning to others. By May 16, all the main villages and cities in the region were again under French control, but the fighting would rage on for another two weeks in the countryside and in the mountains before the rebellion was finally put to an end.
There were hardly any reports or news about the events in Algeria at the time. In late June, the French Minister of the Interior stated on Algerian radio that approximately 50 000 people had participated in the rebellion, leaving 88 French dead, while the countermeasures had killed between 1200 – 1500 Algerians. Different foreign observers however, stated that while the number of French casualties lied somewhere between 100-200, as many as 17 000 – 40 000 Algerians had been killed by the French army. In 2005, the French ambassador to Algeria offered an official excuse for France’s role, calling it “unforgivable” and recognised that it had been a “massacre.”
At the time, the rebellion was called the “Food rebellion”, believing that the main cause for the uprising had been poverty and lack of food. In an attempt to cover up the whole incident, the French authorities claimed that the rebels had not attacked any Axis prisoners of war. In this way, the French were trying to label the whole thing as a fascist plot in order to prevent any actions or feelings of support and sympathy from other French colonies longing for independence, notably Syria and Lebanon.
The French soul-searching in the aftermath of the rebellion disclosed a number of different views regarding France’s politics in Algeria. Some politicians felt that the intellectual and cultural elite of Algeria had been given to many freedoms, and that this was the inevitable consequence. They concluded that the Algerians had to be “put back in their place.”
The Governor-General’s Commission of Inquiry however, showed a more nuanced picture. It focused on the institutionalised racism in Algeria, pointing to the fact that the native Algerians did not enjoy access to proper education, that all the best soil was occupied by the pied-noirs, and that all positions in politics and administration, be that local or national, were exclusively reserved for the French.
In addition, thousands of Algerians had fought in the European theatre towards the end of WWII, and saw how their masters lived in relatively abundance compared to them, even in wartime. When returning to Algeria, they were sent back to a system that excluded them from every chance of prosperity. This feeling of relative deprivation, combined with rising food prices, resulted in growing anger and despair amongst the population.
The Commission further stated that many Algerians were shocked to see how the French army had so utterly collapsed in just a few weeks in face of the Germans in 1940. The colonial masters were no longer conceived as invincible. And with the Allied invasion and liberation of North Africa two years later, they witnessed first hand the might of a new super power: the U.S. Hoping that the Americans would push its allies Britain and France into granting independence to their colonies after the war, many Algerians expected the San Francisco Conference in April 1945 to declare Algeria a sovereign state. When this evidently did not happen, the Algerian sentiment of oppression and desperation grew stronger.
No turning back
The French realised that measures had to be taken if they were to avoid more bloodshed in Algeria. Within a year after the massacre, school reforms were passed to give the locals better education, and political life was opened to Algerians, among other ways by the creation of an Algerian parliament. But it would be too little, too late. The massacre in Sétif would be a decisive turning point in the relationship between France and Algeria, which would only deteriorate in the following years. In 1954, the Algerian War of Independence broke out, and after eight years of war, the Algerians would at last achieve independence in 1962.
Halpern, Manfred (1946). ”The Algerian Uprising of 1945” Middle East Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2, pp 191-202.
Vallaud, Pierre (2006). La Guerre d’Algérie – De la Conquête à l’Indépendance. 1830 – 1962. Acrople, Paris.