Torture in Algeria: Past Acts that Haunt France


Liberty, equality and colony

By Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison , Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2001

The war in Algeria has a long history. It started on 31 January 1830 when Charles X captured Algiers. The official aim was to avenge an affront to the French Consul by the Dey of Algiers and put an end to piracy in the vicinity. Unofficially the objective was to restore the prestige of the French crown and establish a foothold in North Africa, thus preventing the British from having a free hand in the Mediterranean. The July Monarchy, which came to power the following summer, inherited this burden.

The undertaking proved costly, mobilising large numbers of troops and reaping meagre benefits. A number of deputies at the National Assembly called for the troops to be withdrawn. Others suggested that they stay and occupy a limited amount of territory. A third group advocated colonisation and full-scale war, claiming that repeated raids were essential to destroy the power of Abdel Kader and ruin the tribes that supported him. At the end of 1840 the supporters of this policy gained the upper hand.

On 29 December of that year General Thomas Bugeaud, just appointed governor of the colony, arrived in Algeria, marking the real start of the country’s conquest. The means employed were atrocious. The army massacred or deported villagers en masse; raped women and took children hostage; stole harvests and livestock and destroyed orchards. Louis-Philippe, and subsequently Napoleon III, awarded their generals with promotion. The careers of several field marshals and a minister of war owed a great deal to the piles of Algerian and Kabyle corpses (1).

« In France I have often heard people I respect, but do not approve, deplore [the army] burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing unarmed men, women and children. As I see it, these are unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept, » wrote the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59). He added: « I believe the laws of war entitle us to ravage the country and that we must do this, either by destroying crops at harvest time, or all the time by making rapid incursions, known as raids, the aim of which is to carry off men and flocks » (2).

De Tocqueville wrote this in October 1841 after visiting Algeria. He supported colonisation in general, and in particular the colonisation of Algeria. As well as making two trips to the country, he addressed the matter in letters, in several speeches on France’s foreign affairs, and in two official reports presented to the National Assembly in March 1847 on behalf of an ad hoc commission. He repeatedly commented on and analysed the issue in his voluminous correspondence. In short, De Tocqueville developed a theoretical basis for French expansion in North Africa.

He collected an impressive library on the subject for he planned to write a book on India and British colonisation, comparing it with French achievements in what was then known as the Regency of Algiers. He even studied the Koran, sharply concluding that the religion of Muhammad was « the main cause of the decadence … of the Muslim world ». His contemporaries were therefore right to see De Tocqueville as an important figure in modern colonialism, to which he devoted much time and energy between 1837 and 1847.

French specialists, however, have little to say on the subject. They either pretend not to know about his writings on the subject or they gloss over their idol’s positions to avoid damaging his image as a liberal and a democrat (3) – focusing on works such as Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution is more conducive to academic canonisation than detailed examination of his works on Algeria. These texts, which have all been published, do not seem to have made a lasting impression on the eminent academics who explore De Tocqueville’s ideas and marvel at the subtlety of his analysis. Yet the texts provide an interesting insight into some his opinions. They are also instructive about the early years of the French conquest and how the colonial state was first set up and organised. De Tocqueville emerges as an advocate of « total domination » in Algeria and « devastation of the country » (4).

De Tocqueville thought the conquest of Algeria was important for two reasons: first, his understanding of the international situation and France’s position in the world, and, second, changes in French society. He despised the July Monarchy, which he described as mediocre and cowardly. He believed it impaired the internal affairs of the country. But its effect on foreign affairs was, he thought, even more disastrous at a time when the crisis in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, offered new opportunities for the European powers. France, he believed, should be daring enough to seize this opportunity and not be intimidated by Britain.
De Tocqueville was obsessed with halting France’s decline, restoring its standing and power. He was convinced that without a vigorous policy of conquest, it would soon become a second-grade country and the monarchy itself might disappear. In this context, he thought that withdrawing from Algiers would be irresponsible. The army should stay and the government should encourage the French to settle there, ruling the country and controlling the central part of the Mediterranean. He thought that two large ports, for the navy and trade, should be built, one in Algiers, the other in Mers al-Kabir.
Undertaking these projects would restore national pride, threatened, he believed, by « the gradual softening of social mores » in the middle classes. Their taste for « material pleasures » was spreading to the whole of society, giving it « an example of weakness and egotism » (5). War and colonisation therefore seemed to provide a remedy for France’s social and political ills. De Tocqueville accordingly came out in favour of radical measures to end 10 years’ procrastination and open the way for the rapid conquest of Algeria.

War in Africa is a science

He tirelessly defended a policy of controlling Algeria to colonise it – and colonising it to establish lasting control. The ends dictated the means to be employed. Abdel Kader was constantly on the move, drawing support from numerous tribes which supplied him with men, arms and food. The army must relentlessly pursue Kader, he believed, and above all destroy the social and economic roots of the various tribes, striking at Kader’s power base and putting an end to his influence.

After explaining that he was in favour of banning trade with local people, De Tocqueville added: « Large-scale expeditions seem necessary now and then: first, to continue showing the Arabs and our soldiers that there are no obstacles to our progress through the country; and second, to destroy anything resembling a permanent settlement, or in other words a town. I believe it is of the greatest importance to leave no town standing in the lands of Abdel Kader, now or in the future » (6).

De Tocqueville clearly approved the methods of General Bugeaud and defended them publicly on several occasions. Bugeaud’s approach consisted of laying waste to Algeria and seizing anything that might be useful for the army – « using war to keep the war alive », as General Lamoricière put it. He drove the native population further and further back to secure complete control of conquered territory. Once these objectives had been achieved, through mass terror, settlements were established, making it impossible for the original population to return.

De Tocqueville did not rely exclusively on military might. He intended to protect and extend expropriation by the rule of law. He therefore advocated setting up special courts, based on what he himself called a « summary » procedure, to carry out massive expropriation for the benefit of French and other European settlers who would thus be able to purchase land at an attractive price and live in villages that the colonial government had equipped with fortifications, schools, churches and even fountains. De Tocqueville was apparently concerned about the material and moral welfare of the colonisers. He recommended that they should form armed militia, led by an army officer, to defend the population and their possessions. The network formed by the various villages would secure their hold on the conquered territory. The local people, who had been driven out by the army and robbed of their land by the judges, would gradually die out.

The French colonial state, as he conceived it and as it took shape in Algeria, was a two-tiered organisation, quite unlike the regime in mainland France. It introduced two different political and legal systems which, in the last analysis, were based on racial, cultural and religious distinctions. According to De Tocqueville, the system that should apply to the colonisers would enable them alone to hold property and travel freely, but would deprive them of any form of political freedom, which should be suspended in Algeria. « There should therefore be two quite distinct legislations in Africa, for there are two very separate communities. There is absolutely nothing to prevent us treating Europeans as if they were on their own, as the rules established for them will only ever apply to them » (7).

It could hardly be clearer. The people from glorious, enlightened Europe were entitled to rights. As for the « barbarians », there was no question of their enjoying equality, freedom or the universal rule of law. Nor did De Tocqueville set any time limit for this arrangement. Predictably, the system that applied to the Arab and Kabyle populations resulted in a permanent state of war, designed to keep them under the brutal yoke of the colonisers and an all-powerful government.

In 1847, after several years of ruthless fighting, De Tocqueville wrote, « Experience has not only shown us where the natural theatre of war is located. It has also taught us to make war. It has revealed the strengths and weaknesses of our adversaries. It has made us understand how to beat them and, once beaten, how we should keep the upper hand. It can now be said that war in Africa is a science. Everyone is familiar with its rules and everyone can apply those rules with almost complete certainty of success. One of the greatest services that Field Marshal Bugeaud has rendered his country is to have spread, perfected and made everyone aware of this new science » (8). There was clearly nothing exceptional about the crimes committed by the French army and state in Algeria in 1955-62. On the contrary, they were part of a long ongoing story.

Translated by Harry Forster

* Lecturer in political science at Evry-Val d’Essonne University and editor of 17 octobre 1961: un crime d’Etat à Paris, La Dispute, Paris, May 2001.


(1) In a work that seeks to defend the army’s excesses, Pierre Montagnon wrote of the victims: « 500,000? A million? The truth must lie somewhere between these figures. Anything less would be to play down a terrible reality, » La conquête de l’Algérie, Paris, Pygmalion, 1986, p 414. If we compare these figures with historian Denise Bouche’s estimate of the total population in 1830 at « about three million people », the scale of the massacres becomes clearer; see her Histoire de la colonisation française, volume 2, Paris, Fayard, 1998, p 23.

(2) Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie in Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991, pp 704 and 705.

(3) With the notable exception of Tzvetan Todorov who has presented several of de Tocqueville’s pieces on Algeria. See De la colonie en Algérie, Complexe, Brussels, 1988, and Nous et les Autres, Seuil, Paris, 1989, « Tocqueville », pp 219-234.

(4) Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie, op cit, pp 699 and 706.

(5) Alexis de Tocqueville, Letter to J S Mill, 18 March 1841, in Oeuvres complètes, « Correspondance anglaise », volume VI, 1, Gallimard, Paris, 1954, p 335.

(6) Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie, op cit, p 706.

(7) Idem, p 752.

(8) Alexis de Tocqueville, « Rapports sur l’Algérie », in Oeuvres complètes, op cit, p 806.

  « When people talk about cannibals we smile with pride at our superiority over such savages. But who are the real savages? The people who fight to eat their victims or the ones who fight just to kill? We take a fancy to a town in China. To capture it we massacre 50,000 Chinese. A further 10,000 French are slaughtered in the process. The town will be of no use to us. It is just a question of national honour. So the national honour that drives us to capture a city that does not belong to us, will gain all the more by the death of 50,000 Chinese and 10,000 French. » Guy de Maupassant, Gil Blas, 11 December 1883.

  « They consider any village that gives refuge to a group [of rebels] or fails to report its presence to be responsible and guilty. They have the chief and the three or four most important villagers beheaded, then set fire to the village and raze it to the ground. » Jean-Louis de Lanessan, Principes de colonisation, Paris, 1897.