HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 21

 - Vietnam and Algeria


France’s colonial territories were of very high importance after the embarrassment of occupation during World War II. Algeria, in particular, was a complicated case because it involved large numbers of French settlers, the pieds-noirs. Despite international support for Algerian independence, right-wing factions in the military and among the colonizers remained committed to staying the course. After Charles de Gaulle presided over French withdrawal, the cause of thepieds-noirs has remained divisive in French political life, particularly on the right.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 21 - Vietnam and Algeria

Chapter 1. Decolonization after the Second World War [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Okay, by the way there was big trouble over the weekend in a suburb. Next week, the last day, I’m going to talk about the problem, so-called problem of the suburbs. There was a big problem the other night and when a policeman ran down two kids on a scooter, a scooter, and they were both killed apparently. And, so, there’s a lot of riots again going on. So, you can — again you can follow this, if you know French, on France 2 or TFN, or inLibération; but this will probably be in the newspapers. Anyway, so what I want to talk about today — it’s hard to do both of them in one day, but let’s go — is to complement your reading on de-colonization, and talk about Vietnam and Algeria, and the subtext, obviously — it’s not text that’s intended in this course, but is that the Americans never learned the mistakes from which the French finally learned.

Next week, or next Wednesday, I’ll talk about Charles de Gaulle, but mostly about after he comes to power in 1958. But he’s obviously important in this. You know from the beginning that it’s after World War Two that most of the colonies in the world became independent, in a process that took decades, and of course the 1960s, particularly the beginning of the 1960s, is very, very crucial in the case of Africa. And this, despite the insistence of Winston Churchill, for one, that the British Empire would not be dismembered. In Britain this transition from colony to independent state stays often replete and full of problems, came without violence, came generally without insurrection. This was not the case with France nor, as you know, some of you, not the case in Portuguese, for Portuguese colonies as well. The Netherlands and Britain both resisted independence movements before caving in. And by 1980, a year that I can even remember — that was a pleasure because I was married that year — more than half of the 154 members of the United Nations had been admitted to membership since 1956.

Now, one obvious point is that part of the dismantling of empires, one important theme in this is that Britain and France in the post-war period became less important powers than they had before; is that, as you know, France — and this was essential in de Gaulle’s view of himself and view of the world — seeks to retain its role as a great power, but the world had basically been divided up in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and both of those powers were competing aggressively for these newly independent states in Africa, in Asia and indeed in North Africa as well. And, so, World War Two accentuated the independence movements that developed after World War One. The case of Vietnam is of course just classic in that, and you had a well-organized nationalist communist movement ready to assume the mantle of the movement for Vietnamese independence.

And as you’ll know, Woodrow Wilson espoused nationalism as a way to determining the existence or the creation of states. And, so, Wilson and his American successors were kind of caught in a trap because on the one hand they were saying, “oh yes, we need to recognize independence movements and people that see themselves as a single nation ought to have the right to have their own state,” but then because of the domain of the Cold War the Americans often found themselves acting in ways that they did not match their rhetoric. The French left Syria and Lebanon by agreement made with the United States and Britain after the war, but the problem of Vietnam and the problem of North Africa, as you know where the French had been since 1830, would be much thornier.

Chapter 2. Vietnamese Independence: Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh [00:05:13]

Now, Ho Chi Minh — I can remember this; and so it’s sort of time warp for someone like me because I can remember all the marches, and was in all the marches against the war, back when I was your age, and the chants of “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win.” He’d become president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam after the war. Ho Chi Minh’s father was an official under the French, under French rule, and he had resigned from his position because he had become a Vietnamese nationalist. And there were other nationalists by the way. One has a tendency to say, well, the Communist Party represented Vietnamese nationalism, but there were other nationalists who weren’t communists, but the war — because the war ends — the way the war comes out one ends up talking a lot about communist nationalism.

But he had been working, a kitchen helper, on a French passenger liner, crossing the oceans, before becoming a communist activist. And he founded in 1929 the Indochinese Communist Party, which he founded in Hong Kong in 1929. In 1930 he unified three groups of Vietnamese Communists around his leadership. He was condemned to death in absentia by the French government and he was saved by the refusal of the British government in Hong Kong to turn him over to the French, because he would’ve been executed, without any question. But he was arrested by the British in 1931 and he remained in prison in Hong Kong until 1933. And during World War Two he led the Vietminh — viet, and then m-i-n-h — an organization of Vietnamese nationalists, some of whom, but as I said before not all of whom, were communists.

Now, the French attacked the port of Haiphong — God, these are names out of my past; I did not know about Haiphong, I was a couple of years old then, not even that, I guess — killing 6,000 Vietnamese, and they captured Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital — and this is after the war. And, so, France restored the nominal authority of a playboy emperor, but Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Army held most of the countryside, rather like Mao Tse-tung’s army in China, had begun during the war against Kuomintang to carve out huge sections of Chinese territory as well. And Ho was supported by the Chinese communists, and he prophesized, “you will kill ten of our men but we will kill one of yours, and in the end we will end up by wearing you out.”

Now, these were the origins of, at least in the modern era, of guerrilla warfare. A French intellectual who’s still living called Regis Debray wrote a very important book that I remember I had to read in the seminar on revolutionary elites, with Arthur Mendel at the University of Michigan, called Revolution dans la Revolution, Revolution in the Revolution, about guerrilla fighting. Now, if you go back, those that go back to before 1871 — ‘70/’71 — remember what the Spanish patriots were able to do in Spain against Napoleon’s occupying forces, which was to pick them off one by one, and the French retaliated by shooting down civilians, as they did in Calabria in the south of Italy and other places. But, “you will kill ten of ours and we will kill one of yours,” and eventually what happens in the Vietnam case is that — as in Algerian the case — is that the pressure to pull out of the war becomes so enormous that that strategy wins, and that the costs of continuing to fight, to battle, to repress, depending on your view of the matter, will affect the home front, and the home front will demand the end of the fighting and indeed of the empire.

Early in 1954 the French Army suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese at a place called Dien Bien Phu — p-h-u at end — which is now a tourist site, lots of French go there. I’ve never been there. Just as Vietnam has become the major sort of tourist center, and for — oddly, not oddly enough, but I suppose it’s good in bringing these things to an end — for lots of Americans who fought over there, and some of whom lost limbs over there, to go back and to put at least closure on all of that. Pierre Mendès-France, who was the new socialist premier, succeeded in taking France out of the war in Vietnam; and as you know he would be less successful in trying to convince the French to drink milk as opposed to wine, a hopeless task, and he without question became the most eminent French politician not to hold power as president in France. The Geneva Convention that year, France agreed to divide Vietnam into two states.

North Vietnam became a communist regime, led by Ho Chi Minh, the capital of Hanoi; and South Vietnam became a republic run by a succession, I think it’s fair to say, of pretty corrupt leaders who carried out U.S. policy in exchange for a free hand in all of that. Now, one thing that was going on behind all of that is the dissatisfaction of the army with what happened in Vietnam. Now, because the army, which had emerged from World War One victorious — but ultimately France was less powerful than Germany had been in defeat; France in victory was less powerful — had been defeated and many officers argued that it was the collapse of the home front that had brought this about, and that they had been supported actively by — over the long run; if enough resources had been thrown in then victory could be achieved.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time that nobody in this room except two of us remember, because that’s exactly the same scenario; and it’s exactly the same scenario now, but that’s another matter. And, so, therefore France gets out of Vietnam, and one of the things that happened — by the way, my friend Mark Lawrence has an excellent book on this — is that already the French and the British in the late 1940s were getting the Americans to kind of do what they wanted. But what happens then is that when the French are gone, then the communist insurgency in the north and the Vietcong in the south lead to this bloody series of just horrible years in which so many Americans and so many Vietnamese died, and they are commemorated by Maya Lin’s wall in Washington, with their names on it.

And you can remember those scenes of the frantic end when the helicopters are pulling off the well-heeled and the well-connected from Saigon, in the very end, and it was a lesson that was not learned; and sometimes that’s the way that things go. But that was nothing compared to Algeria, that was nothing at all. And one of the big differences why what happened in North Africa, but above all in Algeria, occurred is that Vietnam, for all of the residuals of French architecture, building cathedrals and opera houses along French architectural lines — there’s a wonderful book by a woman called Gwendolyn Wright about imperial architecture — and there were a good number of French living in Vietnam. But Vietnam was not a settlement colony the way that, for example, Australia and New Zealand had been in the British Empire.

Chapter 3. The Algerian Case: The Colons versus the Front de Libération Nationale [00:14:31]

But Algeria was, and so was Morocco, and Tunisia, were settlement colonies. All sorts of people lived there, from France, and they were called colons, or settlers, basically, and their nicknames were the pieds-noirs, the black feet. And there’s several interpretations — maybe Brian can illuminate us — but sometimes they were called black feet because of the boots that the army soldiers wore, or because it was thought that if they walked over the burning sands of the Sahara that their feet would be burned and therefore become noir. But they were settlers, they were people who had been there, in many cases, for generations and generations. Now Algeria, as Charles told you and you already know, was first conquered in 1830; Algiers falls in June, the end of June or early July, I can’t remember which, 1830, and it’s “pacified”; that is, lots of people are slaughtered over the next decades.

In 1851, after the insurgency to defend the democratic and social republic against — this is before this course but it’s still important — against the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who became Napoleon III, many of the people who were arrested and put on trial, court-martialed essentially before what they called mixed commissions, were sent to Algeria, either as prisoners in Algeria, or just simply kicked out, and then in a whole variety of ways were essentially allowed to take lands that belonged to the Arab and Berber populations, and therefore they are there. And one of the things about imperialism is that this sort of social imperialism, that Algeria was sort of a safety valve, that people who couldn’t find work or couldn’t survive often went to Algeria, because it was sort of like the far west, the image of the far west in the U.S. — there’s a place you can get land, you can plant vineyards, you can plant fruit and you’ll have a life; you could buy a café and you will have a life.

And, so, it was much easier to get out of Vietnam because you didn’t have a lot of French people living in Vietnam, and many of the people in Algeria did not want the French to pull out. They associated the empire with their lives. They were French, and Algeria as you know from reading Chip’s book, Sauwerwein’s book — who’s retiring, he’s just retiring, there’s a party for him I think today at the University of Melbourne — that they were — I lost my sentence there — but they were there and their empire was their lives, the French Empire was their lives. And, so, you’ve got one million French, originally French people living in Algeria; you have 200,000 in Tunisia; and you have 300,000 in Morocco. And, so, they poured money into their cafés in Algiers, in Algiers, into their farms, into their economic activities, and they were there. Some of them were very wealthy, big landowners; they were called the gros patrons, the big guys sort of, and they were determined that France would stay in Algeria, Algeria was French. They were opposed by the FLN, the Front de Libération Nationale, which was very similar to the Vietminh in Vietnam.

And the resistance was also very, as one would reasonably expect, with Islam, with the Muslim world. Three events in 1956 hardened the lines between the colons, that is the settlers, and Algerians fighting for independence. On February 6th a mob in Algiers greeted the French premier, who was called Mollet, m-o-l-l-e-t, and his choice for governor general who was considered by the colons to be too pro-Arab, and they greeted him with rotten eggs and with tomatoes. And it’s a very nasty scene and Mollet capitulates and appoints a socialist, a more strident on the issue of holding onto Algeria, as governor general. In October 1956 there’s a conference between the Sultan of Morocco and a leader of the FLN in Tunisia.

There is outrage in the French rightwing press. And, so, French authorities had the most important delegate at this meeting, a guy called Ben Bella who is still alive — b-e-n, b-e-l-l-a. I just looked the other day to see, and I think he’s still alive; he was born in something like 1919, if I remember correctly. They have him kidnapped and put in a jail near Paris. They begin to repress critics of this rather bold and totally illegal act, and seize books that are against this movement. And then in November, as some of you know, the French government participates in the whole Suez Canal mess, in part because Egypt — and we’ll see this in a minute, at least briefly — was an important part of generating sympathy for the Algerian national resistance movements. And the British and the French invade, there’s a ceasefire that’s forced by Russia, the Soviet Union, with the aid of the United States. And this seems to be another humiliation, and what this does as it begins to harden the lines.

Chapter 4. The Fight for North Africa: Rise of Right-Wing Military Control [00:21:18]

Now, the problem with all of this again is the army, is that now it looks again from the point of view of the high command in the army that again the civilians are going to capitulate and there’ll be some humiliating withdrawal from Algeria, as there had been from Vietnam. But it’s a very different cost, isn’t it, because you’ve got a million “Frenchmen,” in quotes, as they see themselves — they didn’t accept the Frenchness of the Other, as they unfortunately saw the Arab population. Is the army going to be disgraced again? Now, again World War Two and the defeat in 1940, and people could remember that, has to be seen as a background; and the defeat in Vietnam. In 1958 the average military officer had spent at least one thirty-month tour of duty in Indochina and the average military officer had spent two to four years in Algeria, along with a small tour of the occupying garrisons in West Germany. But support was wavering for the war.

Citations for wounded soldiers stopped appearing in the official journal, the Journal Officiel. 20,000 French soldiers had died in Vietnam — that’s a lot; 9,000 had died by 1958 in Algeria. And, so, there are charges of abandonment and hatred of the officers of the French Communist Party, which seemed to be orchestrating, among other people orchestrating it, along with the intellectuals, opposition to the war. And then there was the issue of torture — how topical again in the world in which we lived. The army had revived an old concept of what they considered to be the real country, the true country, the true France, if you will, representing the real interests of France, that is the army, and the legal country, which included some of those people who opposed them.

And, so, within the army there begins to be not only discord but attempts to organize rightwing groups — they became known as the OAS, the secret army, that eventually tries to kill Charles de Gaulle himself, and launches a campaign of terror in France, and things that you can read about. They try a putsch in 1961. Sometimes — I used to show this film in here, but the torture scene is too hard to see and people used to leave; it’s horrible but it’s one of the great movies made in our lifetimes, it’s The Battle of AlgiersThe Battle of Algiers, absolutely fantastic. The scene where the woman with a bomb goes into a café and places the bomb and looks at families, who personally she has nothing against, and she knows that they’re going to blow up and be killed — it’s one of the great scenes in film. And you think it’s a documentary but it’s not, and it’s about the French war against the Kasbah, against the Algerian quarters, and these two worlds, the French colon worlds and the cafés of the colons — their extension would be the port of Marseilles, the old port of Marseilles — and the world of people in the Kasbah.

And, so, what the military wants to do is they want to break the political military organization of the insurgents, and they want to do this through state terror. So, you have the terror of those who are accused of being terrorists, who are blowing up cafés, as the independence movement did in Vietnam, and the state terror involving the systematic torture, the murder, the slaughter of very ordinary people, many of whom had nothing to do with anything. And their response is repression, first; second — this is from a book by Chalmer, I think, I can’t remember who lists these things, on the army — a totalitarian technique of organization promising some reform but basically just organizing basically a military state; the political activism of the army, thus the OAS, and working on the French population as a whole to argue that those who are against these measures being taken by the French Army in the name of France are disloyal, and do not represent the true France, the real France, as they see it.

And, so, the cycle of violence is totally untenable. And the intellectuals get involved — Camus, Albert Camus, and lots of others organize opposition to the torture, to this repression, to these mass murders, and the stakes increase dramatically, and it is a total chaos. Camus, who was born in Algeria, described the difficult choices for French families who lived in Algeria — the vast majority were not in favor of mass murder and torture. He said that if he was given the choice between justice and his mother he would take his mother. But lots of people there were again these café owners, were people of modest of means who were simply caught in the middle of all of this. Now, on March 13th, 1958, a protest demonstration by French settlers, the colons, in Algiers, turned into a military led insurrection against the French government.

A committee of public safety, but not a leftwing one but a rightwing one, of rightists seized power — this is in Algeria — and there was a distinct possibility of a military coup d’état in France. I have a friend called Maurice Gardin who’s been in the ministry, he’s now retired, but is an academic, and when he was in the army back in those days he was in Dijon, and they had — or he was in the air force — and he had — they were told to park planes on the runways in Dijon — and this happened in very many places in France because it seemed quite likely that the paras, that is the French paratroopers, were going to be landing and that there would be civil war in France between the army and those army elements that didn’t go along with all of this, and those intellectuals, and the communists, and the socialists, and all these other people; though a lot of the socialists were quite ambivalent about all this.

Chapter 5. De Gaulle’s Return to Power: Betrayal of the Army, the Exit from Algeria [00:29:09]

Now, Charles de Gaulle, who had gone off to his small house in a place called Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, after he didn’t get his way, as you know, right after World War Two, announced that he was ready to serve France again. Many politicians who had real reasons to fear a seizure of power by the military, they believed that only the towering figure of Charles de Gaulle could save France. And on May 29th, 1958, President René Coty, c-o-t-y, perfume, appointed de Gaulle premier, a move approved by the National Assembly in early June. He accepted on condition that he could rule by emergency decree for six months, and then asked the nation to approve a new constitution. Now, de Gaulle had always insisted that France needed a stronger executive authority, that the Third Republic had fallen, basically, because no there weren’t any strong leaders to make what he considered the right decisions in the 1930s, but because of the fear of Caesarism, of Napoleons, of Boulanger and of these kind of strong types, or of Vichy, for that matter, of Pétain, the President of France had very little power; power remained in the Chamber of Deputies.

Now, the Right, including the army, was delighted to have de Gaulle, the big guy, serving in what they assumed would be a more or less permanent or lengthy capacity until a new constitution with a strong executive authority could be written. He was one of theirs. He was wounded on a bridge in Dinant, not the two French Dinan, but the Dinant in — with a t, Belgium, at the very beginning of World War Two. He was born, had been born in the fortress town of Lille, not too far away from the big garrisons and the big fort there, and surely de Gaulle would want Algeria to remain French — wouldn’t he? Now, the new constitution increased the authority of the president. It was written by Michel Debré, by the way, whose son is a very important Gaullist — well it’s not called Gaullist anymore, but UMP leader in France now.

What it did is it set the term of the presidency at seven years — it’s gone back to five now — and ended the revolving-door ministries. And presidents under the Fifth Republic could now conduct foreign policy, they appoint prime ministers and they can dissolve parliament. In September 1958 eighty percent of the population approved the constitution of the Fifth Republic. But what about Algeria? Now, the Algerian situation was different than any other war of independence that had been fought before, and there was an internationalization of that war. There’s a brilliant book on this by a guy called Matthew Connolly, who teaches at Columbia, who was a graduate student here, and what the National Liberation Front in Algeria was able to do was to mobilize newspapers of the Left and of the Center, and to use this sort of publicity machine to excite worldwide attention against torture, against the abuses of civilians.

There was an internationalization of that war, and this goes a long way to try to help the situation of the rebels, of the insurgents, in Algeria. Now, so, what’s he going to do? So, on the 4th of June, 1958, he goes to Algiers, and he’s welcomed by the throngs; not the Algerians but the colons. By the way, the harkis — two names I need to explain — theharkis were the Algerians who fought for the French, and if they stayed in Algeria after the war they are toast, and so they — and then the French, what they did is they brought them back and put them in not really internment camps, but sort of; they put them into areas, kind of reserved areas for them, and of course their relations with other Algerians are not very good, and it’s a very awkward situation. The other name up here is Massu, who is one of the chief torturers, who just died a couple of years ago, in the army.

So, he goes to Algeria and he says, he gives this classic speech of non-committal. He told the settlers on the 4th of June, 1958, “I have understood you, I know what you have tried to do here.” But he’d already decided that the costs of France continuing the war were too great, that the war was too decisive, and he removed many of the generals responsible for the coup d’état in Algeria from their post. For somebody for whom nationalism, as we’ll see on Wednesday, underlay his basic philosophy of life this seemed to be an astonishing turnaround, a stab in the back by a military man. And as the Dreyfus Affair had revealed in the 1890s, and the Vichy years had confirmed, a rightwing anti-democratic tradition survived in the officer corps, and so they felt absolutely betrayed.

And, so, the OAS, which had already existed, in reality they tried to kill de Gaulle. The closest they get is at a place called Clamart, outside of Paris, where they machinegun his big limousine, and there’s twenty or thirty bullet holes in there; and it’s hard to miss a guy who’s sort of power-forward size, 6’7, a huge, huge man, but he emerges unscathed — it was absolutely incredible. And they plant bombs in Paris — this is terrorism — to blow up and to terrorize the population. De Gaulle assumes emergency powers again, this time for a year, but not in the interests of the army. His interest is to pull France — this is the ultimate in realpolitik — is to pull France out of Algeria.

And there’s a vote for Algerian independence held in 1961, in July, and fifteen million vote oui and five million vote non. And there’s a new attempt in Algeria by army officers to organize an insurrection and is soon put down, and Algeria becomes free. Now, in the last minute that remains to me, that I have left, one of the things that is interesting now in the last, well, twenty years, is that when the National Front, the rightwing party of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had dismissed, by the way the death camps and the Holocaust as a “minor detail” — I’m quoting him exactly — and who applauded the drowning of immigrants in the Seine River by his thugs, when he first came to the attention of the world with a series of astonishing electoral victories, or at least good showings in various places in France, one of the things that people first, who followed it, first noted is that he didn’t do that well in the — any more than anywhere else — in the more traditionally Catholic parts of France, that is Brittany or one of the departments where he had his first big success, near Chartres, in a place called Dru; but the places that he did astoundingly well were on the Mediterranean and in the Vaucluse, that is where Avignon is, and Orange.

Why? It’s not the large immigrant populations from North Africa who are voting for somebody that wants to drown them or send them back to where they came from — they’re not voting for him. The people that voted for him massively are thecolons, the pieds-noirs — not all of them, but it was they who had to leave, in 1960, and ‘61, and ‘62, in many cases getting out quick, packing up photos, whatever they could take with them, in some cases, extreme cases, and going to France where they bought cafés, orange groves, et cetera. And they remembered and they hated. And that’s what changed in a dramatic way an area that had always been leftwing, at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, and turns it into the bastion of, for awhile, of the National Front. And then things got more complicated, but it went back to these events in Algeria and what happened there, that shaped not only France, but movements in other countries. See you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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