Algeria History 1986

A Stubborn Fidelity

by Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Source: Vingtième Siècle, Revue d’Histoire. 1986, Vol. 10, No. 1;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike)

Translator’s note: Pierre Vidal-Naquet, an important and influential historian of antiquity, was among the most important French voices during the war in Algeria in the fight against the crimes of the French army, most particularly against torture. Decades after the war, in this article he looks back on the full significance of that combat.

For Robert Bonnaud and Paul Thibaud

A historian by vocation and training, I lived through and fought against the war in Algeria. I tried to fight it as a historian. This was a situation that had an advantage in comparison with a mathematician or a physicist. Establishing the facts, constituting groups, re-establishing or attempting to re-establish the truth in relation to official lies didn’t force me to change crafts, even if my specialty was Greek antiquity, not contemporary Algeria. But this craft too has its servitudes, and the freedom of the citizen at every moment runs up against the difficulty of recognizing the truth, of distinguishing it from propaganda. The French state was not the only one to lie, even if the lie of the oppressed doesn’t have the same weight as the lie of the oppressors.

Without excessively schematizing, we can today lay out the broad lines of what “our war” was. To be sure the bibliography is colossal, and I hope that during and since the war I read the essential. But this paper would like to be something other than a bookish labor. After all the witness, historian or not, was himself caught in history’s net, and it is only right that he define the scope and the limits of his testimony.

1954-1962. At the beginning of the war, conventionally fixed on November 1, 1954, I was still a student preparing the aggregation that would cast me into professional life. In fact I have no particular memory of November 1. What happened that day made no impression in general, and made none at all on me personally. The events that were occurring in Morocco, the war in Tunisia that the Mendès France government had defused during the summer had a greater weight. Politically, I was a reader of “France-Observateur,” a left-wing weekly independent of all parties, a left Mendesist if you will, disappointed by the evolution of the government of PMF [Pierre Mendès France] but angered by the way the right, the MRP and the Communist Party liquidated this government in February 1955. My anti-colonialist past was that of a platonic enemy of the war in Indochina.

When the war ended I had greatly evolved. Member in principle of the PSU, I was what they would call in America a “radical,” close to the review “Socialisme ou barbarie.” Without having really participated in support for the FLN, I’d rubbed shoulders with it. It was at the side of an Algerian that I listened on the radio, on March 18, 1962, to the end of the Evian negotiations. Assistant at the Faculty of Letters of Caen, I was suspended for a year, from October 1960 – October 1961, without being deprived of my salary, for having signed the “Declaration of the 121” on the right to refuse military service. I doubtless ran a few risks, more than those who did nothing, less than others who knew exile, prison or, in a few rare cases, death. At the trial of the FLN support network, called the Jeanson Network, I was a witness, not among the accused: this is certainly a more comfortable position. At the moment that the war ended one of my oldest friends, Robert Bonnaud, a historian like myself, was in prison in Marseille. Accused but not condemned, he will leave prison earlier than the others. It was in 1968, thanks to a general amnesty, that the last of these sentenced in the fight against the war in Algeria will be released, a sergeant who, in obscure circumstances, had killed another sergeant and joined the maquis...


Ideologues can dream, did dream of a unanimous Algerian insurrection which a unanimous French working class would not have failed to join if traitors, social-democrats for some, watered-down communists for others, profiteers of the working-class aristocracy for the most subtle, had not prevented this movement. But this is not exactly how things happened. Let us attempt to lay out certain facts. In 1954 Algeria was a Third-World country whose modern sector was dominated by a “people-class,” the French of Algeria, who gave it an effectively French façade; to such a point as to give rise to illusions in a large part of Algiers and Oran. The re-conquest of the cities, largely begun before 1954, was carried out at high speed during the war, only to end with the departure of the Pieds-Noirs. The insurrection of November 1, 1954, the work of a small group of activists who profited from the implosion of the principal nationalist party, the MTLD, and which rapidly caught up with its rivals, was perhaps a spark (iskra) in the Bolshevik sense of the term, but it did not immediately set the plains aflame. The Algerian Revolution was no doubt part of the great movement begun in China at the beginning of the century, continued in Russia in 1917, and after the second Word War in Vietnam and elsewhere, in that of the revolutionized Third World. It was a social revolution to the extent that it implicitly aimed at replacing the foreign ruling class by an Arab and Berber ruling class with a Muslim dimension that escapes many observers, and whose outlines were already in place. It was also a civil war – and it wasn’t written in the stars that the FLN would win it against the MNA of Messali Hadj – carried out both among nationalist organizations and against Algerians who had entered the French sphere. That civil war was terroristic. There is no doubt that the insurrection caused fewer dead than the foreign repression, but those Algerian and French dead were better “exploited,” if I can use the expression.

The “French” character of Algeria was certainly an illusion, but it inevitably brought in its train, in the parties and unions represented on both sides of the Mediterranean, beyond the famous pink stains of maps, solidarities all the more profound for the fact that the insurrection had some perfectly regressive aspects.

That being recalled, what was the resistance made of? Political parties? Approaching this means touching on a problem what was and still is at the center of all polemics, that of the attitude of the Communist Party. It goes without saying that no political party is qualified to give lessons to the PCF in this regard. Whatever the hesitations of the latter, the lack of firmness it demonstrated, it is nevertheless in the Communist press that we most consistently find information on the repression of the national movement. One must read this press very closely to see that there was no common measure between the fight against the war in Algeria and that which was carried out against the war in Indochina. The fact remains that a triple obstacle interposed itself between the PCF and the Algerian insurrection. First, an epistemological obstacle: by virtue of the heritage of old French socialism the Communist Party, representative of the working class of a developed country, only integrated the Third World revolt when it was led by a Marxist party. All the rest is bourgeois nationalism, religious and reactionary. What Claude Liazau wrote of pre-war communism remains true of post-war communism: “The colonies never entered the revolutionary categories of communism, by reason of the nearly total erasure of the national question; the Asiatic or Arab-Muslim cultural foundation remain completely unknown and the demand for independence tends to restrict itself to the class struggle.”

The second obstacle is of a national order and is tied to the first. A revolutionary party without a revolution, and so organized in a “counter society” (A. Kriegel), the Communist Party nevertheless was an expression of a part of French society. During World War II, for example, Algeria was the capital of independent France from November 1942 to August 1944, the Communist deputies there having successively known prison, freedom, and participation in power. Could they be at one and the same time the “first party of France” and also deny a notable part of the French heritage? Could they plead for the unity of the “parties of the working class” and wish to send Guy Mollet and Robert Lacoste to hell? The PCF voted for special powers on March 12, 1956, and in 1962 called for a vote for Guy Mollet and Robert Lacoste. It expelled all of its militants who had placed themselves at the service of the Algerians.

Finally, an international obstacle. When the insurrection broke out, and for a long time afterwards, the key question in foreign policy for the Communists of Paris as well as for those of Moscow, was that of German rearmament, was the fight against the visit to France of General Speidel. Algeria would only gradually become the first of the preoccupations of the Communists, who, because of their support for the Hungarian counter-revolution on November 1956, were on the defensive. There is in this a paradox that we can symbolize by this small true fact: perhaps the best specialist on the Maghreb at the time was a French geographer, Jean Dresch, professor at the Sorbonne and member of the PCF, who initiated many generations of students in the Algerian drama, including mine. But his influence within his own party remained weak, and it was on the margins of the party that he exercised the largest part of his activity.

To be sure, the Socialist Party, which had governed Algeria with Naeglen and which still governed it with Lacoste, was not a force in opposition to the colonial war, but rather a group that leaned more in the direction of crushing the Algerian people. It followed what Alexander Werth called “national-Molletism.” Before the war the party had had an anti-colonialist minority, of which Daniel Guerin had most been the most notable spokesman. In the new minority that constituted itself after 1956 there figured a few veterans of the “Revolutionary Left,” including its leader Marceau Pivert, and a few militants who had passed through Trotskyism. The mass of those who were to separate themselves from Guy Mollet who, in 1946, had arrived at the head of the party in the name of the Marxist left, did not come from this current of thought. They were the heirs, not of Jules Guesde and the Marxist lineage, but rather of Jaurès and Léon Blum. Daniel Mayer, Oreste Rosenfeld, Robert Verdier, Robert Blum, Edouard Depreux and their friends came from a socialist humanist current, developed through the Dreyfus Affair and the Resistance. They would be, with Pierre Mendès France and his friends, the principle component of the Autonomous Socialist Party (PSA), founded in September 1958. The first person expelled from the SFIO was situated more “to the right,” in the party’s meaning of the word, since it was André Philip, an ultra-reformist disciple of Henri De Man. Yet it was he who, in January 1957, at a meeting at which I was present, posed the real question: “Where now are the wretched of the earth? Where are the prisoners of hunger?”

On April 3, 1960 the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) was constituted. It brought together, aside from the PSA, several dissident Communists with Jean Poperen (“Tribune de Communisme”), and a party that itself came from the fusion of several small majority Christian formations, the Union of the Socialist Left (UGS). Claude Bourdet, and Gilles martinet, editorial rivals at “France-Observateur,” the main weekly of the independent or “new” left, tried to implant itself politically there.

The PSU was a paradoxical enterprise. Fundamentally it was and still is a society of thought, tossing about ideas rather than organizing mass demonstrations. But from its birth it assumed the “serious” and “responsible” tones of a government party, opposed to the war in Algeria to be sure, but little favorable to “individual initiatives.” The PSU would play an essential, but tardy, role in the new Socialist Party reconstructed on the ruins of the SFIO after the congress of Epinay in June 1971, by providing many militants, deputies and, starting in 1981, ministers. The war in Algeria was far in the past, and many had forgotten that the first secretary of the PS, Francois Mitterand, had been minister of Justice in the Guy Mollet government.

We are thus led to develop a paradox. Was the space not occupied by the political parties of the left and the extreme left during the war in Algeria occupied by the Gaullist movement? The answer is complex. Before May 13, 1958 the Gaullist militants, those who would found the Union for the New Republic (UNR) had been – with the exception of an Edmond Michelet – in the vanguard of the fight for French Algeria. After the seizure of power the new party – with the exception of a Jacques Soustelle – successively supported French Algeria, an Algeria governed by a “third force,” and finally Algerian Algeria. The government of General DeGaulle in the end succeeded in the paradox of accomplishing the decolonization of Algeria, not only after having been enthroned in the name of French Algeria, but after having, almost up to the bitter end, adopted the vocabulary of the champions of French Algeria. In this regard the case of Michel Debré is almost a caricature, but it suffices to read what is being written today in regard to New Caledonia to understand that this strangeness was not without consequences.

For a number of militants and intellectuals engaged in the fight against the war the events of May-June 1958 unquestionably represent a turning point. Some – René Capitant and François Mauriac – practically only acted from within. Others carried out a policy that was a virtual high wire act. This was the case of a Robert Barrat, who succeeded in the paradox of being at one and the same time one of those in charge of the underground newspaper “Vérités Pour” after Francis Jeanson was removed for reasons of security, then one of the leaders – from May 1960 until the end of the war – of the semi-legal newspaper “Vérité Liberté,” while being an informant for General DeGaulle, the intermediaries being François Mauriac, the Guard of the Seals Edmond Michelet, and the collaborators of the latter, Joseph Rovan and Gaston Gosselin, all former deportees. This game was not without risks, and Barrat spent time in prison in the fall of 1960. In a less radical form, an analogous game was played at “L’Express” by Jean Daniel, and at “France Observateur” by François Furet, Roger Paret and a few others. In 1961-62, during the fight against the OAS, small groups of Gaullist militants, notably the famous “barbouzes,” fought on the field with much energy and an extremely marked ideological coloration in the service of Franco-Arab reconciliation. Some of them, for example Lucien Bitterlin, were to be found in the pro-Palestinian movement of the end of the 60’s and in the following years.

But inversely, the anti-Gaullist coalition, which began to organize starting in 1962, didn’t integrate, and with reason, the memory of the war in Algeria. Quite to the contrary. The extreme right that was close to the OAS in 1965 was called upon to rally to the candidacy of Fran?ois Mitterand. The “Common Program” was concluded in 1972 without reference to the fight for decolonization, and it was the Mauroy government which, against the advice of many Socialist deputies, with the law of December 3, 1982, completed the rehabilitation of the generals who led the OAS and who had already been amnestied in 1968 by the Gaullist government.

Compared to the political parties, the unions, with the exception of the “Reconstruction” group to the left of the CFTC, didn’t constitute a very original group. The CGT, the only organization to include a large number of Algerian militants, and because of this an obstacle to the development of racism in working-class circles, on a whole largely supported the positions of the PCF. Two minorities are nevertheless to be noted, one placing the accent on the “national” line, most notably the union of prison guards, and the other, hardly organized, grouping together Christians who were within the Communist sphere though tending to be radicalized, and Trotskyists, furnishing the militants of the support networks.

Two organizations pose a particular problem because of their ties with their membership in French Algeria. Force Ouvrière, an extremely composite organization, with a center and many minorities, included a group so marked by French Algeria that one of the leaders of the federation, Raymond Le Bourre ended up finding himself close to the OAS, while the leading group, in the modest measure in which it intervened before 1960 in the Algerian affair, had a discrete sympathy for the MNA of Messali Hadj. Finally, the National Education Federation, (FNE) which counted a Communist minority and another, less important but resolute one controlled by the Trotskyists (“The Emancipated School”), but whose majority (particularly that of the National Teacher’s Union – SNI) played a role in the “national-Molletist” current, issued balanced humanist declarations, and up to the end of the war dreamed of a pluralist democracy in Algeria which this insurgent country could hardly offer itself.

Treason of the parties and unions of the left? The accusation was made during the war itself, aimed particularly at the Communist Party. At the time people spoke of a respectful” left, playing on the meaning that Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “The Respectful Whore” had given the word. The accusation was to be taken up again in 1968 when revolutionary hopes ran up against the cold tactics of the PCF. Things were certainly more complex than this. In order to seriously speak about treason it must be established if the mass movement was more advanced than the political parties. The answer to this question can only be qualified.


This is not the place to study the evolution of French public opinion, notably that of the “Sleeping Beauty” of the extreme left, the working class. It was certainly “indifferent with a hint of hostility” towards the Pieds-Noirs before decisively changing course for reasons that were naturally less Algerian than French, starting in the early part of, but especially late in, 1960. Starting with the end of that year, that is, after the Algerian demonstrations of December 1960, the French government found itself in agreement with the mass of French public opinion in moving towards negotiations with the FLN. In fact, these secretly but decisively began after the failure of Melun (Jun 1960) at Lucerne on February 20, 1961.

Before this turning point were there “spontaneous” movements against the war? It seems to me that we can use this adjective in two slightly different ways. Opinion movements and demonstrations can be called spontaneous when they break out under the force of events without serious preparation. In addition, organizations are called spontaneous that escape from the control of organized political parties and, on the left, in particular from the Communist Party.

In this sense, the demonstrations against the departure for Algeria in the fall of 1955 and spring 1956 of the draftees who were placed on available status or recalled to the colors, movements re-routed in a petitionary direction by the Communist Party, were a capital and unique episode. It didn’t lead to the formation of a maquis, but if a certain number of demonstrators returned wearing the medal of the “Pacification,” others testified to what they had seen, and their testimonies played a decisive role in 1957 during the campaign against torture. It was during this same period (from the end of 1955 to the beginning of 1956) that the oldest of intellectual groups, The Action Committee of Intellectuals Against the Continuing of the War in North Africa, functioned, and which organized a meeting at the Salle Wagram in Paris on January 27, 1956. Edgar Morin, who was among them, alongside Communists, disciples of Sartre, Christians, and members of the Trotskyist extreme left, cruelly wrote: “The summer vacation of 1956 was to break up this great movement.” A strange destiny for a movement about which the same Morin said: “It was a period when a tidal wave seemed about to form across the country.” The remark on the summer vacation, that “season of crimes” as François Mauriac expressed it to me in June 1958, has its importance. France was entering into the phase of being a “post-industrial society,” where a July 14 was difficult and an August 10 impossible. But it must be noted that a coalition committee could hardly survive the pressure and the control of the Communist Party. The committees that would manage to survive, notably the Maurice Audin Committee, founded in November 1957, a few months after the disappearance of a young mathematician of the Faculty of Science of Algiers, had on a whole the same political composition as the Committee of Intellectuals, but despite sometimes ferocious pressure, not to mention blackmail, it maintained its “spontaneous” (in the second meaning of the word) autonomy. The criterion for refusal or dependence was the refusal or the acceptance of membership in the mass movement led by the PCF, the Peace Movement.

But precisely this “mass movement” didn’t manage to animate a mass movement. The largest demonstrations, that of May 28, 1958 which buried the Fourth Republic, and especially that of February 13, 1962 which led the eight Communist victims of the killings at metro Charonne on February 8, 1962 to Père Lachaise cemetery, with 500,000 participants, were aimed, the first especially, less against the war than against the threat of a military coup. Sixteen months earlier, the demonstration on October 27, 1960 around the Mutualité had certainly demonstrated an awakening; the union organizations, and especially the UNEF had managed to impose themselves against the Communist Party, which was opposed at any price to the principle of a central demonstration, but that demonstration brought together around 20,000 people.

On October 17, 1961 and the following days an anti-Algerian pogrom occurred, causing several hundred deaths across Paris and its suburbs. Even in the newspapers of the extreme right the information was of an exceptional scope, but the reactions were insignificant: two mini-demonstrations organized November 1 by the Committee of Intellectuals and the PSU. During the funerals on February 13 only one speaker, Duvivier, the spokesman for the CFTC, mentioned the bloody events of October 17.

Aside from demonstrations there were of course strikes, like the one supported by the great union centers, the “small left,” and a part of the PCF on February 1, 1960 after the affair of the barricades, and which lasted an hour. But the strikers, even if there were 13 million of them, and this is quite doubtful, almost inevitably served as a support for the government in its fight with the ultras. Until the return of the army, after the Evian accords and the defeat of the OAS, the massive presence of the army in Algeria saw to it that it was repression which was “mass” and not the fight against the war, which in the final analysis only concerned a fraction of young people, particularly students.


Let us now attempt to better characterize those who were the most radical opponents of the war and to develop a brief typology. I would be tempted to distinguish among them three major ideological and political temperaments: the Dreyfusards, the Bolsheviks, and the Third-Worldists. The Dreyfusards were the heirs (or the imitators) of the great movement that brought together intellectuals and some politicians around a Jewish officer accused of treason, who was found guilty, and was innocent. This was a secular movement, and yet it had a religious dimension. “It was a matter of nothing less than the eternal salvation of France,” an active militant, Charles Péguy, would say. In the Dreyfusism of the war in Algeria the French, and even patriotic, dimension was fundamental. That the country of the Rights of Man could allow its governments to tolerate, and then order – not to mention organize – torture and massacres was absolutely unbearable. It can perhaps be said that the Dreyfusards were more worried about the executioners than the victims, and they were often attacked for this. And yet there was a certain grandeur in the phrase of Jérome Lindon, director of the Editions de Minuit and publisher of the principle books on torture. Asked after the end of the war to participate in an information organ concerning Algeria he answered with simplicity: “What I was able to do, I did for France and not for Algeria.” It was in this same spirit that René Capitant, professor at the School of Law in Paris, former and future minister under General DeGaulle, suspended his classes after having learned of the “suicide” on March 23, 1957 of his former student, the Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel.

The Bolsheviks for their part claimed to be the heirs of the party of the October Revolution and of its radical and betrayed hopes. For the most part they hoped, beyond the “Stalinist parentheses,” to reconnect with Lenin and revolutionary “purity.” Among them, the dissident communists, those of “Tribune du Communisme,” of “L"Etincele – Tribune de discussion,” of “Voies Nouvelles,” of “Voix Communiste,” and of “Unir.” To be sure, we can distinguish among them “Italians” and “Chinese,” but all were in agreement on the principle of a more radical fight against the war. Among them could be found the Trotskyists, heirs of a long combat and divided into several sects. One, the “Lambertists,” supporting not without risk and courage the MNA, the other, with Pierre Frank and Michel Raptis (Pablo), the FLN. This latter group was to split in 1962 between those who saw in the Algerian army the revolutionary force par excellence (the Pablists) and those who were worried by the reactive, if not reactionary retreat of Algeria to its Arab-Islamic traditions. In the Bolshevik tradition there was an attempt to “Marxize” the Algerian Revolution, that of Henri Curiel, self-proclaimed international communist militant. On the contrary, Francis Jeanson and his successors in “Young Resistance” considered that the FLN was the Bolshevik Party and that it could even assist in revolutionizing France.

Another Bolshevik tradition was that which consisted in ferociously combating the parry you were closest to or a tendency within the same party. This was most fully expressed in the lawyer’s collective led by Jacques Vergès, young campaigner of Bolshevism old and new, and who aimed both at the elimination of the traditional lawyers of the Algerian nationalists, like Pierre Stibbe, and at blocking the judicial mechanism by bringing out the absurdities in treating soldiers in an army of national liberation, even if they were terrorists, as common criminals. These judicial commando operations, little concerned with the truth, were not without success.

What distinguishes the Bolsheviks from the “Third Worldists,” many of whom were soon to become secular or Christian Maoists, was their humility as Westerners in relation to the suffering and rebellious Third World. This was most fully expressed on the secular side in Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth.” “Les Temps Modernes” became the organ par excellence of secular Third Worldism, of which Algeria was not the sole support. “To discover new wretched of the earth, other than a working class movement controlled by communism, meant both finding an historic force incarnating the revolution and finding a solution to the crisis of the intellectuals.”

In evoking the two currents that shared in Third Worldism Gilles Martinet spoke, without excessive benevolence, of the alliance of the Mission de France and Saint-Germain-des- Prés. And it is true that religious Third Worldism was both distinct from and a relative of that of “Les Temps Modernes.” For many Christians – a Robert Barrat at his beginnings, a Louis Massignin with his inimitable and touching mix of a Christian testifying for mystical Islam and a former intelligence officer of the French Army of the East – Algeria represented the suffering just man and thus a Christ-like figure, the maximal victim and thus the symbol of a humanity to be redeemed, if not of a redemptory humanity. Revolutionary hopes could easily be inserted into this schema. “instead of talking to us all the time of the relations between French socialism and Algerian nationalism,” Robert Barrat, former secretary general of the Center of Catholic Intellectuals one day said to Gilles Martinet, leader of the PSU, “you would do better to reflect on what the relations will be between Algerian socialism and French nationalism.” One of the characteristic traits of this Third Worldism of the early 1960’s was the refusal to accept the obvious, i.e., that Algerian nationalism was divided, and I’m not only speaking of the division between the FLN and the MNA, between good and evil, but of internal divisions within the FLN, which we know was soaked with bloody confrontations. All this slightly frivolous cultivating of the great Stalinist cult was smashed into splinters, along with the FLN itself, in 1962. We saw some adorers of the FLN choose Ben Bella and others Boudiaf, and other still the officers of Wilaya IV. Since this little game couldn’t last, many among them turned to a more imposing idol, Mao Tse-Tung. Already, around the beginning of 1961, Robert Davezies, priest and author of “Front,” learning that he would be received in China if he purchased a plane ticket for 600,000 francs, exclaimed; “600,000 francs! I’m like Mao when he was 25; I’m making the revolution, I don’t have 600,000 francs!”

I have just proposed three ideal types. I am nevertheless as aware as anyone how artificial this classification is. Let us take the case of Robert Bonnaud, called back to the colors and a militant in France, and not without risks, for independence. He broke with the PCF at the end of 1956 under the double shock of the crushing of the Hungarian revolution and the extreme lack of firmness of the PCF in the face of the war and “national-Molletism.” He joined the UGS, but only joined the PSU in 1960 because he didn’t want to coexist in the same party as Mendès France and Edouard Depreux. He organized in the south an effective support network for the FLN. As an analyst and practitioner of politics he was certainly both an heir of Leninism and a convinced Third Worldist, which in his eyes was in no way contradictory. For all this, was he foreign to the Dreyfusard spirit? He would affirm in an expression that would become famous: “For having seen from up close the poignant unhappiness of a crushed people, for having participated in the unjust war that was made on them, there was left to me a kind of stubborn fidelity to our own values that we ourselves had violated that I will be excused for not calling treason.”

By no means were all the Christians who participated in these combats preaching brothers of revolutionary violence. Catholic and professor of Latin at the University of Algiers, witness well before November 1, 1954 to the insurrection to come, André Mandouze decoded the Algerian revolution with glasses of 1789, not of 1917, even less with those of Arab-Islamic culture. A Catholic as well, professor at the Sorbonne, secular militant of the CFTC, Henri Marrou, who in July 1960 would become the vice-president of the Maurice Audin Committee, denounced torture with republican arguments and to the cry of: “The fatherland is in danger!” Among the three models I attempted to separate and describe there were thus all possible interferences. But I think that this does not prevent them from being significant.


That said, what did these “resistance fighters” do? Can we classify the field of their activity? I must, of course, deal with this only superficially, for all of this varied as a function of the times and the men.

We must repeat that this was a minority battle, which had its striking moments but doubtless didn’t move the country in its depths.

It was in the first instance a battle of information carried out with rudimentary means. Neither the television nor the radio was accessible. Was it in 1959 or was it 1960 that someone proposed installing in the Sorbonne a transmitter dedicated to the struggle against the war in Algeria? The mathematician Laurent Schwartz greeted this idea with enthusiasm. But it was only many years later that the first free radio was to broadcast.,” Staying within the Dreyfusard vocabulary, what sense would a “J’accuse” have if it wasn’t televised?

The battle for information thus had as its objective the “four majors of anti-French propaganda,” as Jacques Soustelle called them: “France-Observateur,” “L’Express,” “Témoignage Chrétien,” and “Le Monde,” to which should be added “Libération,” (split between the Communists and the independent left), “Le Canard Enchainé,” and “Réforme.” The Communist press had its own sources of information and criteria for selection. A conservative newspaper like “Le Figaroonly became accessible to a minimum of information in 1961. But the movements had their own press. The underground publications began with “Vérités Pourcreated by Francis Jeanson in 1958 and which would have children, especially in the provinces (“Vérités anticolonialiste,” “Jeune Résistance”). These were less information organs than liaison organs between militants of the networks and their sympathizers. On the contrary, “Témoignages et documents” (1957 -1962) which Maurice Pagat led, and “Vérité-Liberté (1960 -1962) whose manager was Paul Thibaud, republished texts from the major press, entire books like Alleg’s “La Question,” “La Gangrène,” Jeanson’s “Notre Guerre,” texts from Algerian sources, analyses un-publishable elsewhere, and documents handed over by “traitors,” by which I mean functionaries driven out in 1958. These newspapers, generally published in press runs of 10,000, were more often than not seized, but it must be said that these seizures were more symbolic than real. Their public? In the provinces essentially teachers close to the group “The Emancipated School,” professors, and priests. The arrests were many, but only one resulted in a guilty verdict, that of Maurice Pagat, who had published a secret document from the DST. In the last months of the war added to this parallel press was parallel cinema (“Octobre à Paris” by Jacques Panijel, “J’ai Huit Ans” by Yann Le Masson), which of course only reached an already convinced public.

Those were the means, but what were the themes? Our contemporaries have retained from that difficult period the memory of the campaign against torture and the crimes of the French army. In the first weeks of the war the news of these practices filtered into “L’Express” (François Mauriac) “France-Observateur” (Claude Bourdet), and “L’Humanité.” The denunciations continued more modestly and played a limited role in the electoral campaign that preceded the elections of January 2, 1956. The formation at the end of that month of a majority left government led by Guy Mollet, and in which P. Mendès France was minister of state, delivered a near fatal blow to the campaign. 1956 was the year of silence.

The return of those recalled to the colors and their testimony was to change everything. “Contre la Torture” by Pierre-Henri Simon was published in March 1957 by Editions du Seuil. It was the manifesto of an indignant but patriotic Catholic intellectual who was in no way an enemy of French Algeria. There was a new change at the end of the year. The formation of the Maurice Audin Committee gave birth, beyond the investigation into the murder of the mathematician from Algiers, to a center for investigation and the dissemination of information which, in liaison with the League of the Rights of Man, “Témoignages et Documents” and “Vérités-Libertéwould, against all obstacles, continue the campaign until the end of the war. At the same time the Editions de Minuit entered the fight, accompanied since 1960 by the bookseller and publisher François Maspero, a radical if ever there was one.

It was already no longer a matter of individual enterprises. But insofar as it was a matter of an organized campaign it was threatened, like every individual enterprise of this kind, with intellectual perversion or, to phrase it differently, blindness. It was difficult to ignore the crimes of the FLN, broadcast by governmental propaganda. It was not a question of denying them, and they weren’t denied. But it would have been extremely unfair to place them on the same plane as the crimes committed by the colonial invader for 130 years. But as the FLN got closer to state power its responsibility entered into play. After the war the Maurice Audin Committee accused it, along with the French government, of responsibility in the massacre of the harkis. This shocked many militants of the “small left.” And yet the force of the campaign was in its universality which, for example, forced the Communist members of the Audin Committee to question themselves at a time when the counter-revolution in Hungary had just occurred. A difficult stage was that of the revelations of the real torture inflicted on real or supposed members of the OAS. The Committee denounced them, but since history is ironic, this denunciation was published in the October 18, 1961 issue of “Le Monde,” which appeared on the 17th, the very day of the anti-Algerian pogrom of which I have already spoken. The Communist Party condemned this denunciation. This was not the sole occasion upon which there was a disagreement between the Committee and the Party, a duel with blunted foils all the more difficult because Audin himself was a member of the Algerian Communist Party. This was a battle for the control of information. When the truth about Maurice Audin’s death would become known, who would reveal it to the public? When the Audin Committee decided to sue a provincial newspaper for defamation, who would plead for it, the lawyers it had chosen (notably Robert Badinter) or those chosen by the Communist Party? These are a few of the at times frivolous discussions that were opened, which put in question the autonomy of the small organizations.

Looking back on the chain of events there is one unavoidable remark to be made: between the unfurling of the acts and the information campaign there was an obvious time lag. The battle of Algiers (January – October 1957) was at the center of polemics long after its end. Politically it marked a redoubtable phase, since it was based on the conspiracy between torturers and putschists, but it wasn’t the most ferocious moment of the war, the one that would cost the most in human lives. And of course, the murder of Maurice Audin was for French public opinion a more appropriate symbol than it was for Algerian or international opinion. The farmers of the Aurès and Kabylia both before and after the battle of Algiers paid a much higher price; the documents were far less plentiful on the crimes committed under the Fourth Republic than on the crimes under DeGaulle. Many documents were learned of and published with many years of delay.

Robert Bonnaud, writing to his friends from the prison of Baumette in Marseilles on October 3, 1961, after having recalled that his friends had constituted “a vanguard of revolutionary support” added this: “That said, if we set aside the imposters, the informers, if we leave aside exaggerations and intoxications, we are forced to say that we are a very fragile vanguard. It has happened that I have jokingly suggested that we wouldn’t be far off in saying that we will have novels on support, but no support; a manifesto on the right to refuse service, but no one refusing service.” The remark has a wider scope than the author thought, and suggests that in effect we now live in a society where representation is more important than action.


The debate concerning refusal of military service began in the spring of 1960 concerning a “novel” signed Maurienne and a short story signed Maurice Maschino. The discussion literally exploded on September 5 when the trial of the Jeanson Network began and the “Manifesto on the Right to Refuse Service in the Algerian War,” signed by 121 intellectuals, was sent to the press. These were two extraordinary months, where the word seemed to have been made flesh; the debate seemed to be sweeping the entire country. But what was it a matter of? A few dozen young soldiers, whose symbol was Alban Liechti, at first all of them Communists, then later Christian or secular, had refused, starting in July 1956, to bear arms against the Algerian people, and had found themselves in prison. Their gesture was only popularized by their party much later. Others deserted for the same reason. The case of Noel Favrelière, a sergeant in the parachutists and purely secular, who deserted August 19, 1956 in order to save a prisoner from death, remained unique, I believe. Unique also was the case of the filmmaker René Vautier, who worked for the FLN and knew long periods in Algerian prisons. This movement of course grew in 1960, but there were not 3,000 draft dodgers and deserters as we constantly repeated, but at most a few hundred who reached neighboring countries or, in small numbers, lived underground. The effect was nonetheless enormous, and each had to make a decision in his soul and conscience in the face of a reality which can be described as at the very least shifting. And we seriously debated the comparative advantages of individual and collective refusal of service. The Manifesto of the 121 made an impression all the more virulent for the fact that if all newspapers spoke of it, none (except the parallel press) had published it.

The UNEF, which at the time was a mass organization (with 100,000 members) and which, having been conquered by the left in 1956, in the spring of 1960 had renewed ties with the Algerian students, knew how to catch the ball on the fly. It evoked a student pressure in favor of refusal of service that nevertheless reached but a small number, and opened the era of large-scale demonstrations on October 27. At the end of the war the few draft dodgers returned more or less rapidly without doing the years in prison to which they’d been sentenced.

The most resolute of the draft dodgers and deserters placed themselves at the service of the Front. What was called “support” or assistance to the FLN was, since 1957 and thanks to Francis Jeanson, organized methodically, even if romantic figures and mentalities weren’t lacking in the network, which was decimated several times in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles by arrests, but which carried out its task up to the bitter end. With the agreement of the Algerians the members of the network had imposed a limit: they would not transport weapons. They transported money – much money – men and women, and especially they put up leaders of the Front. In parallel with this network an MNA network, led by Trotskyists, also functioned.

In the FLN support network the three ideological temperaments that I attempted to describe could be found, including the Dreyfusards, who were certainly the least numerous. Even so, their support could be justified as a form of individual testimony and even more, as reparations, however limited, for an injustice. The Algerian militants and the others as well, lived in a state of permanent insecurity because of French policies: giving them assistance and asylum was a matter of Christian as well as secular morality, and the small papers that defended the cause didn’t fail to recall this. Proletarian internationalism was nevertheless the major argument and, of course, the idealization of the clandestine combatants. An internal conflict traversed the network, between Francis Jeanson and his successors, notably Bonnaud, who resolutely turned to the Algerians as an autonomous force for revolution, and Henri Curiel, who wanted both to Marxize the Algerians and bring the French together in a solidarity movement which, in his mind, would place itself within the distant orbit of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. This was the objective of the French Anti-Colonialist Movement (MAF) whose manifesto was distributed in November 1960 and which did not live long. Once released from prison Henri Curiel constituted a non-violent support network for Third World revolutions until his assassination on May 4, 1978.


It is time to conclude this outline. Algeria, become independent July 3, 1962, certainly did not become what revolutionary Messianism hoped for. The naïve hope for an Algeria where a large number of Pieds-Noirs would remain was never realized, and the OAS alone was not responsible. But Algeria became an important country in Africa, and this counts for quite a lot.

The debates that tormented a minority of Frenchmen during the war seem to have been forgotten. Yet is it certain that they did not have their consequences? For my part I see two that are important. The first is the obligatory apprenticeship in autonomy for many militants who committed themselves at the time, I mean autonomy in relation to apparatuses, and primarily the apparatus par excellence, that of the Communist Party. This point is crucial, for the non-coms of the war in Algeria, notably in student circles, were, as members of groupuscules or not, the shock brigades of May 1968. It was during the war in Algeria that they did their apprenticeship in freedom. Something broke at that time between the PCF, the students, and the intellectuals.

A minority of intellectuals developed during the war themes and myths that we today qualify as “Third-Worldist.” They invested many illusions and much naïveté there, passing from one model to another, and sometimes inverting the model. Passing from the Soviet model, from the Chinese model, from the Algerian model, the Yugoslavian, Cuban, or Guatemalan to the Israeli is a bit surprising. That said, the whole Third World cannot be confused with Sekou Touré, who alas was an authentic idol, or with Idi Amin Dada, who was much less of a one. Describing the movement in favor of the Third World in the way “Le Sanglot de L’Homme Blanc” [67] does risks appearing like a justification of what Kipling called the “white man’s burden.” The delirium inspired by a cause doesn’t prevent that cause from being just. It is rather a matter of less delirium. The fight against the war in Algeria was certainly an ambiguous combat, but are there many that aren’t?