THE prospect of a settlement in Algeria casts a dark shadow over the fate of more than a million European settlers. For in its hour of supreme peril, the settler community finds itself without friends or allies. From the Moslem rebels of the National Liberation Front (F.L.N.) who for six years have fought them for independence, the settlers can at best expect toleration. The French army has ceased to fight their battles: even the abortive April 22 putsch against General de Gaulle was staged by the military with only the faintest reference to the settlers. General de Gaulle himself, if not disowning them entirely, is taking his distances. "Algerians of French descent," he called the settlers in his address of May 8.

But who, in fact, are the settlers? "The agricultural scum of the European countries," they were called by Marshal Bugeaud, the Governor-General from 1840 to 1847. Modern Frenchmen, not less contemptuously, speak of them as "pieds noirs"--the black feet. But it is a native son that has best caught the national character. Mersault, the hero of Camus' novel "l'Etranger," is the archetype of the Algerian settler. "A poor and naked man," he lives the life of an office worker, but is a child of nature at home in the sun and the sea, and a stranger to the sophistication of abstract codes and ideas. What happens in his firm or even to the closest members of his family barely touches him. "Mother died today," he says introducing himself with grotesque insouciance. "Or maybe yesterday." But it happened to him, without deeply willing it, to shoot an Arab. Dimly the sense of transgression is borne home: "I knew that I had shattered the equilibrium of the day, the spacious calm of this beach where I had been happy."

II

Every nation has its border peoples, cruder than the settled population of the interior, and therefore an object of fun and contempt, but tougher and more energetic, better at working and at fighting. When finally absorbed, as were the American pioneers, the frontiersmen add dynamic leaven to a nation. Dominant, as the Prussians became in Germany, they impose harsh rule and set foot on the road to disaster. The case of the European settlers of Algeria falls midway between the two. Not powerful enough to become dominant, they have proved too lumpy for good mixing. From ordinary Frenchmen they are set apart by reason of racial origin, occupation, a clawing struggle for survival, and the circumstance of being an outnumbered minority. In outlook a sea as unbridgeable as the Mediterranean divides them from European France. "You reason like a Frenchman of France," a group of settlers once complained to an official involved with Algerian matters. "You must reason like a Frenchman of Algeria."

Frenchmen of Algeria: it is one of many myths. Of the 1,200,000 persons officially classed as Europeans in 1954, about 325,000 concentrated in the Oran district were of Spanish descent; another 100,000, living chiefly around Constantine and Bône, had Italian lineage; another 50,000, located in the same region, came originally from Malta. There were also 140,000 Jews, made French citizens by the Cremieux decree of 1870, but half of them indigenous to North Africa. Even by French figures, in short, well over half the Europeans of Algeria are of non-French stock.

Except for the Jews, what is most common to the settler pedigree is origin in the backward, rural districts of southern Europe. The great majority of the Spanish immigrants were day laborers, braceros from Andalusia. Calabrian and Sicilian sharecroppers made up the bulk of the Italians. Similarly with most of the français de souche, or Frenchmen by descent. Attention has been directed to the special cases: the case of the 400 Rhinelanders who left Le Havre for America in 1832, only to find themselves cast up by crooked sea captains as the first Algerian settlers; the case of the 13,000 unemployed Parisians transported south in 1848 after the riots of the June days; the case of the 5,000 Alsatian refugees from the German victory of 1870. But most of the French immigrants, too, came from the backward agricultural provinces. Not the south coast of France which is so close, still less the industrial North or the Parisian region, but Corsica and the poor farming sections of southeast and southwest France provided by far the greater number of the French colonizers. These had more in common with the braceros of Spain and the farmworkers of the Mezzogiorno than with their own countrymen. In Algeria, they combined to form a homogeneous settlement.

Land drew them in the beginning. After 1840 plots expropriated from the Beylical domain, and thereafter from native holders, were made available to soldiers serving in the French forces; then to groups of official colonists transported by the French Government. After 1873, in keeping with the free enterprise doctrines of the Third Republic, private property law was applied to what had been joint Moslem holdings: purchasing Arab land became for a European about as easy, and as cheap, as taking candy from a baby.

Getting the land, though, proved easier than working it. Uncertain weather and thin soil afflicted the European peasant as much as they did the Moslem fellah. More than two-thirds of the 1870 immigrants had failed as farmers within five years. "Algeria," Marshal Bugeaud, one of the stanchest of the colonizers, said in a moment of desperation, "cannot be cultivated." Disease took an even heavier toll. A third of the workers transported in 1848 died of cholera within a year. "Only the cemeteries," one soldier wrote back home, "are prosperous." Moreover, for the "agricultural scum," movement off the land was a step up the social ladder. From the beginning, accordingly, scores of Europeans headed for the towns after the briefest fling on the land. By 1870, when the settlement numbered 245,000 Europeans, 60 percent were in the towns. By 1920, when the immigration began to cease, 70 percent of the 820,000 Europeans were urban. In 1954, only an eighth of the European population was on the land. Far more than Frenchmen of France, the Europeans had become a community of city dwellers. Similar in social origins, they found their unity further cemented by a common urbanism.

Even more are they bound together--and sociologically distinguished--by an absence of extremes in wealth. Sharp differences, to be sure, mark the fortunes of those--130,000 in all--who have stayed upon the land. At least 7,500 are unskilled agricultural laborers. On the other end of the scale, a comparable number of gros colons live off huge tracts of land planted in wine or fruits and farmed by the most modern methods. Private holdings of 50,000 acres are not unknown. Henri Bourgeaud, a senator from Algeria known as the wine king, controls a domain of 2,500 acres of prime land from which have grown important interests in banking, tobacco and transport, as well as wine. But in the urban sector of the settler population there is astonishing uniformity. Of the 200,000 active Europeans working in the cities, perhaps 10 percent are workers in light industry. But administration and the liberal professions (32 percent), services (9.2 percent), trade (8 percent), transport (10 percent), highly skilled workers (14 percent) make up three-quarters of the Europeans--a substantial middle class. Average income is about $600 annually, almost what it is in France.

An immense social plant, or infrastructure, is required to meet the Europeans' needs, and like settlers almost everywhere, those of Algeria have been builders on the grand scale. Forty thousand miles of straight road crisscross the territory. An excellent railroad fronts the coast, and sends spurs into the hinterland back of Bône in the east, Algiers in the center, and Oran in the west. Algiers, Oran, Bône, Bougie and Philippeville are all busy modern ports, the first two being the third and fourth most active in all French-ruled territory.

One thing the settlers could not build: inner economic balance. For labor, the farms, mines, docks and light industry are dependent upon the Moslems. From their ranks come nearly 100,000 workers on European land: over 90 percent of the total. They supply more than 150,000 workers in the mines, docks and light industry--about two-thirds of the total employed. Not so crudely, but in as binding a way, the settler economy depends upon European France. French capital supplied, and supplies, most of the funds for development. The French market, protected and heavily subsidized, buys nearly all the produce of the settler farms--which probably could not be sold competitively. Many shops and almost all industry in Algeria are projections of French firms. The external transport business is almost exclusively transport to and from France. The Administration, which directly supports 18,000 settler families, is the French Administration. Only by backing from the French Treasury could Algeria pay the enormous cost of the social services which the settlers require. In short, the settlers are doubly dependent upon others. They need first the Moslems, next European France. Out of that condition there emerges the strange phenomenon of settler politics.

III

"Art thou my master? Or am I thine?" George Meredith called this "the parent question of mankind." For its answer civilized men have traditionally turned to politics: a way of waging war, to reverse Clausewitz's famous dictum, by peaceful means. Wherever there are not universally accepted standards for singling out superiority, there politics will flourish. It enters, of course, into the designation of civic leaders, but also into the awarding of fellowships and contracts, the promotion of executives and army officers, the matter of who gets the corner office. It is, as Max Weber pointed out, the art of getting something for nothing: a phenomenon bred in the bone of virtually all communities.

Settler politics are strange precisely because at first glance they seem not to exist at all. System makers and pleaders of causes may single out "ultras" and "enragés," identifying them with gros colons and petit bourgeoisie respectively. But in fact, Mersault, Camus' child of nature, is apolitical. His kind has produced no important leader. For heroes the settlers take French figures--Edouard Drumont, the author of "Jew France," in the 1890s; Pétain in the 1940s; Jacques Soustelle in the late 1950s. Still less have the settlers produced any original ideas. "The Algerian settler," Charles-André Julien, one of the great experts on the subject, has written, "never had l'esprit politique (the political mind)." Nor did he have the party habit. A handful of intellectuals in the liberal professions and trade unions may have joined the Socialists and Communists. But of the traditional French parties only the Radicals struck root in Algeria, and they, even in France, were less a party than a collection of notables and their clients. Most settler parties were ad hoc affairs, put together for one electoral test or another, then junked. Poll after poll was won by lists bearing such general, non-party names as Algerian Union. And hardly anyone cared anyhow. "Only journalists and candidates," a settler once said, "care about elections."

On reflection, however, the absence of politics is a mirage: what seems emptiness is filled to the brim. The settlers had no need for political leadership, for programs or party organizations. Among themselves, there was virtually nothing in conflict. "No cleavage," as E. F. Gautier wrote, "has appeared in the bloc of the European settlers." "In Algeria," Marc Lauriol, one of the most penetrating of the settlers, and currently a deputy, once noted, "the difference between right and left is glossed over. . . . The candidates have, on all the major issues, practically the same opinion. The voters come from almost the same social background. Uniformity of interests and of opinions is the striking fact of public life among the Europeans. . . . It is only natural that the political debate is distinguished by indifference. . . . Serenity is the characteristic trait of the country's politics."

Except in the two areas of dependence. On all matters touching the nerve of relations with the Moslems or with France, the parent question came surging to the surface. On the one hand, the settlers regarded themselves without equivocation as the masters of the Moslems. On the other, their supremacy depended upon backing from Metropolitan France. In both these areas the settlers threw themselves into the political fray with the unchecked fury of men backed against the wall in a battle for survival. Apolitical themselves, they were strangers to the sense of moderation and compromise, the willingness to support ambiguity and live with problems--qualities that comprise the most cherished bounty of active participation in public affairs. Mistrustful of party, and of the complicated workings of representative government, they looked to direct action--through chambers of commerce and agriculture; through professional, veterans and student associations; through the local administration; by plot, if need be, or mob pressure. There thus evolved a unique brand of apolitical politics. The settler community was not divided by party. It was itself a party. It was engrossed in an oppressive, authoritarian movement aimed at asserting mastery over both the native population in Algeria and the government in France.

IV

Upon the Moslems, the settlers fastened a régime of barefaced inequality. "It is difficult," Jules Ferry wrote in 1892, "to make the European settler understand that there are other rights than his in an Arab country, and that the natives are not a race subject to taxes and forced labor at will." In 1955 Jacques Soustelle found "contempt for the Moslems" to be "a constant theme." In the settler lingo the Moslems were melons (simps) or ratons (coons). "They weigh in the scales," a settler mayor, Raymond Laquierre, once told me, "as feathers against gold."

On those principles, the settlers pitched the government of Algeria. Up to 1944 all European males, but only the merest handful of Moslems, voted in elections for Algerian delegates to the French Assembly. The financial delegations, which from 1900 through 1944 had the major voice in budgetary decisions, were composed of three sections: two with 48 representatives in all, for the Europeans; one with 24 representatives for the Moslems. In local government, towns where the settlers predominated were endowed with full powers (hence the name Communes de Plein Exercise) and elected a municipal council which in turn named a mayor; but where Moslems predominated, the towns, called Communes Mixtes, were administered from above. Except for tribal affairs where hand-picked Caids held sway, the whole administrative apparatus--including the local police, the bureaucracy of the Government General, and the Algerian branches of the French ministries--were in settler hands. "Between the settlers and the government of Algeria," E. F. Gautier wrote, "there is a symbiosis. . . . The result is that the Government General is imbued with the settler spirit."

The discriminatory nature of that spirit showed itself in all domains. Independent Moslem political movements were savagely persecuted by the army, the administration and settler vigilantes; Jacques Soustelle found "the call for bloody repression" a constant settler theme. Direct taxation, which would have borne heavily on the settlers, was much less used as a revenue producer than indirect levies, paid mainly by the Moslems. Schooling, in theory, was open to all. But as late as 1957, over 80 percent of the Moslems had no school.

Settler reaction to the Moslem rebellion followed predictable lines. A handful of individuals and organizations not dependent upon French control of Algeria worked beneath the tide of events to maintain rapport between the Moslem and European communities. The least important and most invidiously interested was the Algerian Communist Party, largely dominated by Europeans. It tried to penetrate the rebel organization, and despite ignominious failure continued to parade pro-rebel sentiments in a bid for Moslem support. By far the most important group working for harmony was the Catholic Church. Archbishop Duval of Algiers spoke repeatedly of "peaceful cohabitation of the spiritual communities," and called for "a brotherly dialogue," which sounded all too much like negotiations. Catholic social service missions continued to do charitable work for Moslems in trouble, whether nationalist or not.

To these strange bedfellows there was added a commercial interest. Almost alone among the big business groups of Algeria, the esparto grass monopoly of Georges Blachette is independent of subsidy from France: the whole crop is sold to Britain where it is converted to vellum paper. Able to do business without France, M. Blachette, and even more his political ally, former Mayor Jacques Chevallier of Algiers, sought to work with the Moslems for a settlement by negotiation.

But after innumerable indignities at the hands of his fellow settlers, M. Chevallier was forced from office in 1958. The Communist Party was banned in Algeria in September 1955. As to the Church, the Archbishop came to be known in settler circles as Mohammed Duval; one church mission was expelled from Algeria, and members of two others were brought to trial before military tribunals, found guilty of aiding the enemy, and sentenced to prison terms. For, faithful to its traditions, the overwhelming majority of settler opinion assumed a role of defiant intransigence toward the rebellion. Henri Bourgeaud, the wine king at the top of the social scale, spoke of the rebel leaders as "a handful of agitators" and demanded that their organization be "decapitated." A rung down the ladder, Mayor Henri Baretaud of Cherchell adopted the slogan: "You do not treat with hired killers." Further down the scale, dozens of semi-private organizations echoed the Mayor in even sharper terms. A group of settler doctors issued a pamphlet showing children mutilated by the rebels, and arguing that "mutilation is an inbred trait of the Arabs." Fifty-two different veterans organizations came together behind a program that included "execution of all sentences imposed by the courts, notably the death sentence." And at the lowest end of the scale, in the underworld of politics, there sprang up a crop of shadowy conspiratorial groups, ad hoc vigilante organizations, staffed by adventurers and dedicated to terrorizing the Moslem community. "We will defend French Algeria with arms," one of the best known terrorists, Joseph Ortiz, proclaimed. "We will do justice ourselves."

V

In dealing with their other sore point, European France, the settlers played the role of super-Frenchmen. A typical settler leader, the deputy Etienne Morinaud, once described his fellows as "valiant Frenchmen maintaining here [in Algeria] the French flag and sovereignty." "With the settlers," Algerian-born General Georges Catroux once acknowledged, patriotism is a "primitive, instinctive reflex." But there was a proviso, noted by Léon Blum. "What they call French sovereignty," he wrote in the Populaire, "is nothing but their own domination."

In keeping with authoritarian instincts, the settlers repeatedly aligned themselves with the extreme right wing in French politics. In the 1890s Algeria was a focal point of anti-Dreyfusard sentiment. The scene of vicious pogroms in 1897, the next year it elected, out of a total of six representatives, four blatantly anti-Semitic deputies, among them Edouard Drumont. During the régime of Léon Blum, Jacques Doriot launched his French Fascist party from Algiers. Marshal Pétain's National Revolution found enthusiastic support among the settlers. Jacques Soustelle, later to become one of the settlers' heroes, wrote of their attitude toward Pétain: "If the National Revolution had not existed, it would have had to be invented. Whipped up by family, race, and caste hates, open to [Italian] Fascist influence from Tunis and [Spanish] Phalangist influence from Oran . . . our North Africans offered a promised land for the Marshal's propaganda. Nowhere in France or in the Empire did one find it spread out so blatantly in enormous slogans defacing the walls, and in giant portraits of the 'good dictator.'" M. Soustelle put the Pétainiste support down to opportunism. A more convincing explanation comes from General Catroux: "Pétain gave the settlers just the kind of order they wanted, that is the submission of the natives." And when that order began to crack, they turned in dizzying succession to the holders of might, backing first the Allies, next General Giraud, then the Free French, then the Communists, and, after 1947, the Gaullists. At one stage, some of the settlers even threatened an appeal to the United Nations.

Authoritarian traditions also inspired the settlers' treatment of French representatives on Algerian soil. Officials whom they mistrusted they opposed with base rumor, gestures of contempt, administrative sabotage and Arabic names. Maurice Viollette, Governor General, 1925-27, they called Viollette l'Arbi; Yves Chataigneau, who held the position in 1945-47, was Chataigneau ben Mohammed. Jacques Soustelle, when he arrived in 1955, was hailed as a Jew from Constantine: Ben Soussan.

In extreme cases, the settlers resorted to more violent measures. The political underground, nursed by the settler community to cow the Moslems, also made itself available for terror tactics against French officials. Well before the Moslem rebellion got under way, political assassination was an Algerian rite. The bullet of a European assassin ended Admiral Darlan's life in Algiers in 1942. The next year an attempt was made in the same place on General Henri Giraud. The strange bazooka plot against General Salan in December 1956 was in the same tradition. So, on a far larger scale, were the settler uprisings of 1958 and 1960.

In striking contrast, but also in the authoritarian spirit, was the treatment meted out to French officials who expounded settler views. Feted in the villas of the rich, praised beyond measure in the press, saluted in endless parades by the military, they were accorded a dizzying popular acclaim. As the Fascists cheered Mussolini from the Forum, as the Nazis hailed Hitler from the Sportspalast, so the settlers found their political theatre on a huge terrace just beneath a balcony of the Government General building in Algiers. To the Forum, as the terrace came fittingly to be called, they throng by the thousands at moments of political stress. Hatless and coatless, they stand by the hour, shouting in a frenzy of enthusiasm. Amid such thunderclaps of glory, the merest civil servant sees himself a liberating Caesar. "From high on the balcony," Albert Fabre-Luce wrote of that experience, "he feels himself borne upon a shield. Above the vibrant crowd the air shimmers, as above a flame. Through this halo, beyond the noble staircases running down to the sea, he imagines the France of his dreams. The present seems less close than the antiquity of the Latins, and most recent seems Algeria's role as a platform for Liberation. Once again, Europe offers to a martial foot a soft underbelly. No more is it Fascist Italy; it is republican France."

VI

Settler efforts to "liberate" France may not yet be over. Since the collapse of the April putsch, they have adopted as their anthem the famous song of Edith Piaf: "We Regret Nothing." While hiding dozens of officers who backed General Challe, they have threatened to lynch those who remained loyal to General de Gaulle. "The European community," Jean Daniel, a former member, wrote two weeks after the putsch, "has never been more homogeneous, more monolithic, more united."

Still, if the settlers are not contrite, their plight is real. The fate of minorities elsewhere suggests that coexistence with the Moslems in an Algerian state could prove, for them, disastrous. Partition, in either a European state or a province of the new Algeria, is hardly more promising. Repatriation to Europe would involve immense strains and costs. And all the real difficulties are sharpened by uncertainty. For no responsible authority has yet developed a program to ease their lot.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOSEPH KRAFT, a contributor to magazines, formerly with The New York Times; author of a forthcoming book, "The Struggle for Algeria"
  • More By Joseph Kraft