Small Wars Journal

French Failure in Algeria: A Public Relations Disaster

Wed, 10/30/2013 - 8:02pm

French Failure in Algeria: A Public Relations Disaster

Stephen J. Fallon

This paper will show that the French government’s weak commitment to maintaining the rule of law and her tradition of civil liberties cost her public support when the war began to impose on Metropolitan France. Similarly, poor conduct and hypocrisy lost her the conflict within the international arena as her allies lost faith in her ability to win and grew increasingly embarrassed to be associated with her.  France was politically weak when war broke out in Algeria as domestically, little consensus could be found as to the direction the Fourth Republic except for a common fear of communism. Unwanted attempts to reassert authority failed in Indochina, Tunisia, and Morocco. Algeria held an exceptional place as the crown jewel of the empire was legally part of France proper and governed similarly with three départments, although 90% of the population were non-European. The divisiveness of the Algeria campaign on French society has been likened to that of the Dreyfus affair and had a similar effect as the Vietnam War had in the US a decade later.[i] The reliance of French authorities on brutal methods to win an information war caused her to lose the war on the home front, despite a clear victory on the battlefield. France failed to understand that she was subject to moral scrutiny that was asymmetrical; condemned for every failure while her enemy the Front Libération National (FLN) was seemingly beyond rebuke.[ii] In the wake of military failures in Indochina and Suez, many in the military felt that Algeria was a desperate last chance for them to prove their effectiveness

The war occurred in three distinct phases: initially France failed to understand who she was fighting and why, secondly the government seized the initiative and began to impose loses on the enemy three years after fighting began.[iii] By 1959, France had driven her adversary into the most remote areas where they could only operate in small units, poorly armed bands thanks to the implementation of the quadrillage system, local troops (harkis) and the full might of the French Army.  Finally in 1962, France withdrew from Algeria in ignominy with 25,000-30,000 military deaths and nothing to show for it. Few if any writers doubt that France achieved near-total tactical victory, which begs the question: what went wrong strategically? In order to understand this we must look at the most decisive battle of the war; the Battle of Algiers.

In a very conventional manner, the FLN decided to focus on Algiers in 1956 and sought decisive battle. Algiers’ position as the centre of French power in the country, with a large European population on whom they could prey was not lost on the FLN who hoped to inflict a Dien Bien Phu style loss there. In the wake of growing violence in Algiers, the French Minister-in-Residence Robert Lacoste requested additional forces and the 10th Parachute Division were sent into to impose order in Algiers. Within three months the 10th had killed more than 200 rebels and arrested 1,800 others in Algiers alone. The tactical success of the French army in Algeria continued from there, unfortunately the French army could not kill its way to true success no matter how hard it tried. The colonial government’s legitimacy was shaken along Weberian lines for its inability to protect its citizens from violence. While conducting operations in Algiers, the French Army came to rely increasingly on Human Intelligence.[iv] Committing a major strategic blunder, the French Army placed short term expediency ahead of the good will and support of the majority of Algerian people by resorting to torture.  Aside from torture, extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions also occurred in the battle for Algiers, as many as 40% of adult Arab men (55,000) in the city were detained in brutal circumstances during 1956.[v]  Moran notes that somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 Algerians died in custody and during interrogations while many others deemed ‘too important’ were held indefinitely without trial.[vi] Due process was sacrificed for the sake of expediency during the war, as the bar for arrest and interrogation was set very low with minimal suspicion needed for arrest as guilt was assumed. Breaking curfew resulted in shootings on sight, while forty eight hour sentencing and action limits were common during the war, leading to swift executions with little to no independent legal oversight.[vii] To this day, debate continues as the extent to which illegal procedures were used and whether they were they exceptional or systematic.

Generally, the consensus is that while torture was common, it was not part of a conscious system but rather the by-product of a total lack of leadership. However, this idea has been shaken in the past few years by the publication of the memoirs of Major Paul Aussarasses, who admitted in his 2000 book, ‘Service Spéciaux’ that his special interrogation unit (SAS), routinely tortured and killed prisoners. A number of other French authors have conducted research that suggests the scale and planning that went into its (torture) use is indicative of a more sinister nationwide plot, that deliberately left little trace on paper.[viii] Relying heavily on oral commands and by using ‘parallel’ language, veiled or obscure lexicon and jargon as well as polemics, the army maintained plausible deniability from events using code words and Orwellian word games.  Interrogation policy during the period reads very subjectively, guidelines advised that arrogant or recalcitrant prisoners were to receive ‘special services’ such as that of Major Paul Aussarasses. Péries shows that semantic name changes described the abuse in religious, medical or paternal terms, so that prisoners were ‘converted’, ‘rebuked’ and ‘brought around’ but never ‘abused’.[ix]

At the time, the Wuillaume Report suggested  that removing the veil of hypocrisy surrounding the use of torture to be lifted and ‘approved techniques’ to be allowed, however this report was dismissed out of hand by the government as Article 303 of the French penal code expressly forbid torture under penalty of death and charade continued.[x]  Horne notes that while a little roughing up on arrest or ‘passage à tabac’ was historically present in French policing methods; full-blown torture on the other hand had never been prevalent as in fact the idea of it had become more morally abhorrent following Nazi abuses in occupied France.[xi] Todorov poignantly notes in his interviews with veterans of this war who in cases seem well aware that roughing up of prisoners had progressed to a level previously unknown among French troops- ‘if one day there’s another Nuremburg trial, we’ll all be convicted: every day there was another Oradour (sur-Glen); and this time we were committing them‘.[xii]  Rarely did Army and Police officers speak out against practices, as those that did were silenced and imprisoned as was the case with Tietgen and Bollardiere, the two most senior officials who tried to raise the alarm.[xiii]  The ‘strategic message’ conveyed by the use of torture was at odds with the stated reason for being there, how could the rule of law and the status quo be maintained if the government and its agents were prepared to employ extra-legal methods and have no limits?[xiv]  The uniqueness of the situation, a police action that the French had no theoretical reference to build upon was touted as a justification for torture, as was the viciousness of the foe who led many to believe this war was just ‘different’.  The results of torture were a loss of moral authority by the very nation that had placed itself on the pedestal of western thought as the home of liberty, self-determination and anti-despotism. The advantages of intelligence gained by torture were totally negated by the plethora of strategic dangers arising from the methods used, including military and political cohesion, moral superiority, and national legitimacy.

France’s brutality, atrocities and repression of Algerians’ rights were debated and attacked in public, her behaviour was in stark contrast to  her own projection of France as the epitome of western civilisation and champion of the ‘rights of man’.  Internationally, France was not warmly received by its allies in the US or the UK who did not agree with the way things were being handled and feared being tarred with same abusive colonial brush.[xv] Within the unaligned Third World and in the UN, France also faced growing condemnation; the war was often raised by the FLN’s government-in-exile as well as by sympathetic third parties. The Algerian Independence movement contested France principally in two foreign domains; the United States and the United Nations. Matthew Connelly’s work on the internationalisation of the conflict provides phenomenal insight into the media and public relations efforts engaged in by both sides, for this was a world war of opinion.[xvi] French economic woes at home compelled her to listen to international concerns from the IMF and US. During the war France stationed a sizable force of delegates in New York and Washington in an effort to court US domestic opinion. Considerable sums of money were spent wooing the US public, with as many as 60 million Americans seeing pro-French propaganda movies in January 1955 alone.[xvii] These movies stressed that only France had the solution to the Algerian problem.[xviii]  France called in a variety of favours to stem the tide of bad publicity in the US as Jacob Kaplan, Grand Rabbi of France persuaded New York Times Senior Editors to stick to the French line when covering UN debates.[xix]

The FLN were slower to begin acting on this international stage, but when they did it was pivotal. While the French government’s outspent the FLN ten times over on publicity, the FLN were savvier and used their limited resources to much greater effect.[xx] With a small team of personable, western educated English speakers, the independence movement put the best foot forward on television, radio and newspaper interviews.  Requests from the FLN to debate French officials in front of an American audience were refused as they did not want to give them the dignity of recognition; however France appeared ‘maladroit, constrained and defensive’ as a result.[xxi] From mid-1958, the FLN’s official mouthpiece ‘El Moudjahid’ (The Jihadist) dedicated an even 50% of its paper to the International context of the war as each year the UN vote showed growing support for the Algerian Independence movement.[xxii] When the Algerian Provisional Government (GPRA) formed in September 1958, eighteen countries recognised it within ten days. The GPRA was aware that the US watched events unfolding in Algeria with interest and periodically over-stated communist interest in the war, urging the US to bring France to the negotiation table before radical, disparate elements of the GPRA could follow through on invitations to allow Communist Chinese volunteers to fight in Algeria.[xxiii] Support for the GPRA grew quickly much to the fury of the French, when in December 1958 the US abstained from voting on the Algerian issue at the UN in a further sign that France was losing this war abroad.  Reports from the time show the US increasingly trying to hedge its bets, with the CIA indirectly funnelling funds to the FLN by way of sympathetic Trade Unions in France.[xxiv] France grew increasingly concerned by the behaviour of her Anglo-Saxon ‘allies’, who she suspected of working against her in the hope of being allowed privileged access rights to newly discovered oil in the Sahara upon independence.[xxv]  French annoyance at this deteriorating international situation is highlighted by two strange paradoxes; firstly while the overall situation in Algeria improved her position in the UN steadily weakened, secondly tactical successes of increased killed and captured FLN fighters hurt her image abroad serving as poor publicity.[xxvi]

After the Battle of Algiers, French society’s moral indifference to the war ended as the war’s centre of gravity shifted from Algeria to Metropolitan France. The public outcry in France against the war was slow coming, but when it came it was decisive. The increasing reliance on conscripts and reservists from 1957 onwards prevented the French government from keeping the public’s attention away from the issue and leaving the fight only to elite units.[xxvii] As reports of atrocities and crimes came to light within the press and in memoirs, the war changed from an abstract issue (anti-colonialism) to a more concrete issue of revulsion at French brutality in wider public discourse.[xxviii] As the government lost this public relations battle, steps were taken to silence the press and punish anyone that criticised the government with McCarthy style black-lists as occurred to those who dared support the ‘Manifesto of the 121’ in 1960.[xxix] For the French government and army, still haunted by the spectre of 1940 and a succession of post-war defeats, this war was a messy, thankless task and internal criticism was not taken kindly.[xxx] Attempts to ban works by writers such as Henri Alleg and his harrowing memoirs of torture were poorly thought through, drawing international condemnation for censorship.[xxxi] There was an overarching theme in French behaviour during this war of incompetent, mismanaged situations, where basic principles that France had upheld for generations were ignored and broken for the sake of expediency.

John Talbott’s work measures the metrics of public perception of the war in a most illuminating manner. His unique research in the archives of the Insitute Français d’opinion publique (France’s answer to Gallup) shows that French sympathies for the war were slow to emerge, however the war was one of three issues alongside the economy, and de Gaulle during this period.  A mere 37-38% of those polled in the spring of 1956 (before the Battle of Algiers) stated that they ‘have confidence in government’s handling of war’ dropping further to 25% in September 1957.[xxxii]  Other figures from mid-1956 show a glaring lack of faith in the Fourth Republic and hope in efforts to stabilise Algeria. Talbott shows that 40% ‘blame the government for the issue’ and 45% were ‘opposed to the use of available conscripts to fix the issue’.[xxxiii] While oil discoveries in the Sahara and de Gaulle’s return temporarily increased mainland confidence, the necessary base of good will and faith in the government was lacking in France even before revelations of torture and abuse began to dominate headlines. Little solidarity was felt for Algeria on the French home front, 49% those polled in May 1959 reported ‘little to somewhat solidarity’ while about 16% felt ‘no sense of solidarity’ (my emphasis) with Algeria.[xxxiv] Public interest in the issue grew as the war progressed, but hopes of a remedy slipped away as those favouring a truce with the FLN grew in number from 53% in July 1957 to an inadmissible 78% in April 1961.[xxxv] Talbott concludes that the army did not have support throughout the war, merely a free hand as the mainland was more a spectator than a participant.[xxxvi]

No solid consensus is apparent among French writer as the issue was too divisive; there were no Kiplings for this war as it was too dirty to glorify.[xxxvii]  Indeed as with the case of Albert Camus, who despite vested interests in France winning this war, decided in 1958 to no longer discuss this issue publically as he felt it would only ‘harden contending camps and divide France further’.[xxxviii] Dine’s review of the literature of this war shows that the Algerian conflict was a watershed in the evolution of public and media attitudes to war, ‘une guerre d’opinion’ in which the use of torture came home to mainland France. Following a short delay harrowing tales of abuse and murder were told by ‘recalcitrant appelés’ who did not side with the officer class’ self-imposed burden of Guerre Révolutionnaire .[xxxix] For many officers, the dirty work of torture was an ignominy to be borne on behalf of ‘la patrie’; refusal to torture was considered a failure of character that would be paid for with the blood of innocents.[xl]  English language literature at the time is largely in favour of independence, Brett shows that British writers in particular called on France ‘to do the right thing’ as she was historically, politically and morally in the wrong.[xli]

Ultimately France left Algeria for strategic and political reasons, not economic ones.  This paper has shown the clear presence of torture on an unofficially endemic scale; while the ramifications of it domestically and internationally have been analysed. The war did not place any serious financial strain on the French economy; furthermore while costs were initially high, they continued to diminish as the war progressed.[xlii] The use of torture destroyed the link between the army and the nation, utterly nullifying the myth of the colony warmly receiving ‘civilisation’.[xliii]  The French government sunk to the same levels as the FLN in terms of inhumanity and barbarity, losing the public relations battle for itself.  With no strategic victory in sight in the early 1960s, the people of France decided that they were not prepared to continue fighting this war for tactical successes at the expense of their country’s democratic way of life and continued bad press abroad, finally withdrawing from North Africa in 1962 after 130 years.


Alexander, Martin and Keiger, John (2010) ‘France and the Algerian war: Strategy, operations and diplomacy’ in Alexander, Martin and Keiger, John, eds., France and the Algerian War, 1954-62: Strategy, operations and diplomacy (London: Frank Cass Publishers), pp. 1-23.

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Galula, David (1963), ‘Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958’ (Santa Monica, California: RAND)

Hilde, Thomas C. (2007), ‘Information and the tortured imagination’, South Central Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press), pp. 183-201.

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End Notes

[i] Pierre (2009), p. v.

[ii] Rogers (2004), p. 16.

[iii] Ibid, p. 12

[iv] Di Marco (2006), p. 71.

[v] Ibid, p. 72.

[vi] Moran (2008), p. 4.

[vii] Cradock & Smith (2007), p. 92.

[viii] Thenault & Branche (2000), pp. 57-58.

[ix] Péries (1997), pp. 52-54.

[x] Horne (1977), p. 196.

[xi] Ibid., p. 196.

[xii] Todorov (2007), p. 22.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 25.

[xiv] Moran (2008), p. 5.

[xv] Keiger & Alexander (2010), p. 21.

[xvi] Connelly (2001), p. 224.

[xvii] Connelly (2002), p. 128.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 128.

[xix] Ibid., p. 127.

[xx] Connelly (2001), p. 229.

[xxi] Horne, p. 246.

[xxii] Connelly (2002), p. 135.

[xxiii] Connelly (2001), pp. 221-222.

[xxiv] Connelly (2001), p. 228.

[xxv] Horne (1997), p. 243.

[xxvi] Connelly (2002), p. 136.

[xxvii] Rogers (2004), p. 15.

[xxviii] Merom (2004), p. 612. Servan-Schrieber’s ‘Lieutenant in Algeria’/ Alleg’s ‘La Question’ (1958)

[xxix] Ibid., p.  614.

[xxx] Obuchowski (1968), p. 2.

[xxxi] Ibid., p.101.

[xxxii] Talbott (1975), p. 356.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 356.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 358.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 361.

[xxxvi] Ibid., p.361.

[xxxvii] Obuchowski 1968), p. 103.

[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 96.

[xxxix] Dine (1990), p. 12.

[xl] Ibid., p. 240.

[xli] Brett (1994), p. 219.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 97.

[xliii] Péries (1997), p. 41.


About the Author(s)

Stephen J. Fallon is a MA Candidate, War in the Modern World, King's College London.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 2:39pm

There is another side to this story that is not reflected in the article.

I spent a number of years residing in a French town near Strausberg which had an unusual number of French Algerian veterans from the Legion living there since their Algerian service.

Spent hours over wine talking with them as equally surprised to be talking in Alsace German with a SF VN and Desert Storm veteran.

There was a deeper story and it is the internal dislike by the professional French Army units in Algeria ie Legion and Airborne vs the French draftee Army units during that period.

They spoke of many operations where they would drive the Algerian insurgents for days through mountain ranges and then down into the valleys where the draft Army units would be positioned to capture and or kill---every time the insurgents would drift through the draftee lines and since the draftees who were not motivated to "die" for their country in Algeria simply looked the other way.

What amazed me was the similarities with VN and Algeria where battle after battle the US and or French won them and then when there appeared to be no interest in the home front on success ---both wars turned brutal.

This led eventually the formation of the OAS within the elite French units and the eventual banning of the full Legion being based in France with the exception of one Regt.

Regardless of the losses in French Indochina, Algeria, and the OAS---the members of the French Legion are used today often as liaison officers between the various French intel and CT organizations as they are still in 2013 highly regarded and trusted to be neutral. Maybe because they answer only to the French President and the French tricolor.

Would like to see further writing by the author on this aspect as a balance to the article.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 1:03pm

I really enjoyed this article. The story of France in Algeria is a fascinating one.

Revolutionary insurgency is never seen very clearly, however, when viewed through a war lens.

France and her colonial governments were de facto illegitimate in all of these colonial possessions. That is an inescapable truth. If a foreign power can somehow overcome that de facto perception of having no right, other than brute force, to exercise governance over the people of the lands they occupy, then they can cure this condition of illegitimacy and find an enduring stability. This happens when Algerians view themselves as French, and when equally French view Algerians as French. Certainly that was not the condition of perceptions when insurgency broke out in Algeria.

Did the nature of military operations make these perceptions of illegitimacy worse? Absolutely. Could military operations cure these perceptions of illegitimacy? Never.

To seek to defeat some insurgent group through military power is reasonable and attainable - but it only buys one a short window of artificial stability and typically makes the underlying conditions of the illegitimacy of governance worse. (We see this today in Iraq and Afghanistan and dozens of other places struggling with these types of conflicts around the globe).

But to seek to resolve insurgency through military power is either ignorance or hubris. Insurgency if fundamentally a population perceiving themselves to have no option but to wage illegal, internal, populace-based, political challenge to the governance over them. Sometimes violent, sometimes not, but always illegal, internal, populace-based and political in primary purpose.

We must learn to address the problem rather than simply send out the military to attack the symptoms. But first, we must view the problem through a more appropriate lens.