Algeria: War of independence

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


France first occupied Algeria in 1830 and considered it to be an integral component of the French metropolitan state. More than one million French, Italian, and Spanish nationals were settled there by 1959 and comprised 10 percent of the general population. Despite their working-class background, these colons—or pied noirs as they became more commonly known—enjoyed a status that elevated them above the Algerian population.[i] This fostered widespread mistrust and disconnect between the groups, which festered into a low-grade insurgency that began in response to the May 1945 Sétif massacre to November 1954 when armed groups joined together to form the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).

The Setif massacre occurred on May 8, 1945, the day that Germany surrendered in World War II. In celebration, Algerian forces, who fought for France, displayed an Algerian flag as a symbol of freedom. French soldiers responded by shooting, several demonstrators were killed. Riots followed and after five days of chaos, 103 pieds noirs were killed. The subsequent French retaliation was overwhelming: a conservative estimate places the dead at 15,000 Muslims.[ii]

The pied noirs lobby was powerful in Paris, and it pushed for apartheid-like white dominance. This—in combination with the engrained perception that Algeria belonged to the Metropole—made the French government unwilling to address even the moderate demands of nationalist Algerian groups. The French military instead responded to small-scale revolts with disproportionate force, effectively catalyzing a more violent response by insurgents who targeted both pied noirs and moderate Algerians. The scale of French retaliations instilled fear and anger among the Algerian population and vengeance among the pied noirs. This trajectory silenced the voices on both sides that called for moderation, and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) was thus characterized by FLN terrorism and French brutality.

Atrocities (1954-1962)

The full-scale insurgency began when the FLN started launching coordinated, small-scale attacks against French military posts, while also killing small numbers of civilians, including European-born pied noirs and loyalist Algerians. The French military responded with ratissage, the “raking over” of towns and villages through bombing, arrests, and torture. This attempt at pacification by employing both targeted raids as well as mass punishment characterized the French strategy throughout the conflict.

In 1957, the FLN altered its strategy, moving into Algiers, where it could better hide among civilians while exacting higher costs for the French. As combat moved to the capital, casualties peaked over the next year during the two, back-to-back battles of Algiers. The violence first skyrocketed when the French responded to an FLN-led general strike and bombings by combing the city for pro-independence fighters. The military relied primarily on neighborhood raids, arrests, and torture, focusing its sweeps in the Casbah slum, an opposition stronghold. It killed thousands of Algerian civilians and combatants during the crackdown, successfully quelling FLN operations within Algiers.

The conflict then dispersed throughout the country, with the French military relying more heavily on helicopter bombing of opposition territory for the remainder of the war. The FLN continued to target the French military, but as the conflict wore on, it also increasingly launched retributive attacks against civilians. This pattern continued until independence in 1962.

A momentous turn towards Algerian independence came in 1961, but it was accompanied by a new spike in violence against civilians. On January 8, 1961, France held a referendum on Algerian independence. Some 75 percent of mainland citizens voted for independence, while 69.5 percent of the population in Algeria voted for it, and French President de Gaulle opened secret negotiations with the FLN. The Army attempted to halt these talks, but only succeeded in turning de Gaulle firmly against the pied noirs. Talks continued in 1961 in Evian and a cease-fire took effect on March 18, 1962. As the cease-fire was implemented, hardliners amongst the French Army and pieds noirs founded a terrorist organization with the aim of keeping Algeria under French control, the Secret Army Organization, through which they organized attacks against de Gaulle, the French government, FLN and Muslim civilians. One of the their goals was to provoked the FLN to break the ceasefire by restoring to violence in response to the OAS attacks.

OAS attacks subsided, however, through a combination of arrests and the failure of their project. The French military did not turn to their side, an estimated 1 million refugees of European descent alongside pro-France Muslims moved to France, and the vast majority of the Algerian population refused to compromise on their independence.

A final period of violence occurred after independence. People affiliated with the French rule in Algeria who stayed after the French left suffered retributive violence. “Harki” was a name given to Algerians who were French loyalists. By most accounts, some “tens of thousands” were killed in summer 1962, some fled, and others tried to stay and keep as low a profile as was possible in the new Algeria. Violence against harki began even before the ceasefire came into effect, with accounts suggesting a rise in violence in March 1962.[iii] Algerians who joined the FLN late once the tide had turned, used violence as a way to prove themselves and to claim materials rewards (through looting, for instance).[iv] The number of harki killed is often reported to be as high as 60,000 and 150,000, but recent historians have suggested the number may be closer to 30,000 (see below). There were also attacks against some of the remaining population of European descent.

As the example of French extremists and harki demonstrate, not all violence occurred across the schism of French and Algerian. One additional factor was fighting within the FLN. The FLN was composed of several major groups: the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne  (GPRA), formed in exile in 1958; the six regional military commands (wilayas) that had formed the backbone of the struggle for independence; the Armée de Libération Nationale  (ALN) composed of Alergian exiles in Tunisia and Morocco; and the  Fédération de France du Front de Libération Nationale (FFFLN) the arm of the FLN that had operated in France.[v]

Fighting between political parties (particularly the GPRA and ALN) resulted in the “deaths of over a thousand members of both sides during August and early September 1962 before a ceasefire was agreed on 5 September.”[vi]

On July 1, 1962, Algerians overwhelmingly voted for independence and on July 3, French Pres. de Gaulle officially recognized the vote. Ben Bella, associated with the ALN, became the head of the new independent government, during which time he attempted to concentrate power. He was overthrown in a coup in 1965 led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika.


Minimum estimate of fatalities: 87,788 (90,000). Overall deaths from multiple causes and including combatants is likely around 300,000.

Martin Evans (2012) provides an overview of the sources and debates over the numbers of people who died as a result of the conflict. Citing work by historian Charles-Robert Ageron, Evans notes an upward trend of violence between the FLN and French Army that begins in November 1954 and peaks in April 1958. Violence committed by the OAS reached its highest point just after the ceasefire period, and anti-harki massacres spiked in July 1962.[vii]

He also argues that the least controversial of all the numbers put forward by various groups are those concerning the French soldiers, where government numbers are largely accepted as sound. Most controversial are the numbers of civilians killed. On this subject, he turns to the work of Meynier, who, citing French army documents (not the official number) posits the range of 55,000 – 60,000 deaths. Meynier further argues that the best number to capture the harkis deaths is 30,000. If we add to this, the number of European civilians, which government figures posit as 2,788.[viii]


In 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle signed the Evian Accords, a peace agreement with the FLN leadership. Despite the FLN’s extreme military weakness—France had defeated it in almost every battle—it had significant leverage because France’s now-infamous brutality in the conflict had alienated its domestic citizens as well as the international community. In the treaty, the FLN achieved most of its demands, including complete autonomy and a full French withdrawal.

We extend the period of atrocities into the post-independence conflict, with assaults against the harki and remaining European population. The Algerian civil war in the 1990s appears as a separate case in this study.


We code the ending as primarily one of strategic shift by the primary perpetrators, the French government forces. We cite both domestic and international forces of moderation impacting the perpetrators’ decision, and code the ending as impacted by the withdrawal of French troops. Additionally, we note that there were multiple victim groups and that non-state actors, the various Algerian-based and some French-based groups, were secondary perpetrators of atrocities.

Works Cited:

“Pieds-noirs”: ceux qui ont choisi de rester. (2012, 10 2). Retrieved from

Calcada, Miquel. 2012. “Analysis of the Algerian War of Independence: Les Evenments, a Lost Opportunity for Peace” Journal of Conflictology 3:2, 52 – 61.

Connelly, M. 2002. A Diplomatic Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 2012. “The Contortions of Forgiveness: Betrayal, Abandonment and Narrative Entrapment among the Harkis” in Skinner, Jonathon, ed. The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach. New York: Berg, 195 – 210.

Evans, Martin. 2012. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hussey, Andrew. 2014. The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs. Faber and Faber.

Horne, A. 1977. A Savage War of Peace. New York: The Viking Press.

Jones, J. (n.d.). Africa History to 1875. Retrieved from Routes to Independence in Africa:

Stora, Benjamin. 2001. Algeria: 1830 – 2000 A Short History. Tr. Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Willis, Michael J. 2014. Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco From independence to the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[i] Describing groups involved in the Algerian Revolution can be tricky. The population of European ancestry was established for over 100 years by the time the revolution occurred, making it difficult to separate them from what one might call a “native” population. Ethnicity is also a contentious categorization, since the populations in support of French rule and in opposition to it were composed of multiple ethnicities. Historians commonly used the term “Muslim” to speak of the vast majority of the Algerian population who were against French rule, hence we have used it as well.

[ii] Calcada 53. He also notes that many soldiers were from Senegal and other sub-Saharan French colonies.

[iii] Hussey 204.

[iv] Crapanzano 196.

[v] Willis 46.

[vi] Willis 47.

[vii] Evans, 336.

[viii] Evans, 337.

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