‘Decolonisation was a vast process of adaptation for both sides, hitherto colonised countries and the colonial powers, not just for the former.’ Explain how far, and for what reasons, you agree this statement. In 1939, “France controlled a colonial empire…over twenty times as large as the home country, and it contained one and a half times as many inhabitants” (Costa). One such country controlled by France –and my focus for the purposes of this essay- was Algeria. From its initial occupation in 1830, France’s hegemony over Algeria spanned more than one hundred years whilst the colony’s revolt against its imperial master lasted a mere eight.
Finally, on the 3rd of July 1962 Algeria gained independence from the French empire. I shall now explore how Algeria adapted to its new found status of self-determination and how France reacted to the disintegration of its once mighty empire, to demonstrate how both countries were fundamentally changed by the process of decolonisation. Firstly, it must be clarified that decolonisation is defined- in the Oxford English Dictionary- as the withdrawal of a dominant state from a colonised country, leaving it independent; in this case the departure of France from Algeria.
The adjustment process for Algerians after securing independence was a difficult one. Costa states that until 1958 – i.e. during the course of the Algerian war – 59% of the Algerian population did not support the fight for independence. This would suggest that for a large proportion of the Algerian people independence, when it came, was unwelcome and therefore more difficult to accept and adapt to.
The first major problem Algerians were faced with was an economic one; the need for money to create trade. As part of the French empire, France had controlled trade and the economy on behalf of its colonies, including Algeria. Without access to these markets, predominantly within Europe given its geographical proximity, the Algerian government was in need of new countries with which to trade. However, this seemed an almost impossible task as the French had organised the delivering of goods abroad and Algeria were without the means to take on such a task with so little money. This consequently meant that Algerians had to look for other ways to generate an income.
This led to a growth in agriculture but with such a crucial industry so reliant on the weather, in a part of the world often affected by drought, the result was often famine and impoverishment. Furthermore, following independence, Algeria was beset with various revolts and terrorist attacks instigated by extremist groups upon civilians culminating in the violently grotesque civil war which was fought from 1991 until 2002. As cited in the BBC’s Fact File of Algeria, Algerian politics became mostly concerned with the conflict between the country’s armed forces and Islamist militant activists. In 1992 a general election won by an Islamist party was annulled, heralding a bloody civil war in which more than 150,000 people died.
This war – according to Yasmine Ryan – was instigated by the Algerian military to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front from winning a second round in Algeria’s first democratic election. Instead of the stability, diversity and harmony that were promised to the Algerian population, the country has been left – in the words of Mariano Navarro – “insecure and culturally impoverished”. Since the end of the civil war, Algeria’s economy has finally begun to improve due to the many recently discovered oil and gas reserves on Algerian soil. With the current global situation in terms of oil supplies and pricing, these discoveries have generated a lot of interest from overseas oil companies. However, some fifty years after winning its independence, during which its population has suffered decades of poverty and internal strife, Algeria is only now beginning to build a self-sustaining, confident nation state.
Likewise in France, drastic changes were required in both civic society and politics; the French were forced –according to Costa- to “readjust their ideologies according to France’s new international role”. Previously, France had viewed itself as a significant power within Europe and indeed the world due to its acquisition of large colonies and the power it attained from ruling these countries. With the loss of Algeria – and many other former colonies – France was forced to reassess its status in terms of economic and military power. This loss of power and influence in the world did not sit well with the French population; they disliked the notion of being considered as weaker due to the loss of its empire. The decolonisation of Algeria also had negative implications for French politics. Firstly, there was the collapse of the Fourth Republic which governed the French Empire at the time of the Algerian War. Secondly, the change in origins of French colonial populations resulted in a need to change many political policies as society’s ideals and beliefs changed with the dissolving empire.
The loss of Algeria was especially negative for France in that it was –as quoted by R. F. Holland (p.165) – “always accorded a special place in French colonial thinking” due to its geographical location in relation to Europe. This then damaged French profits from Algerian exports, consequently negatively affecting the overall French economy in terms of exported goods. French society had to adapt by readjusting the widely held resentful and hostile attitude towards Algérie française, the Algerians who had settled in the mother country. The French saw them as an “embarrassing relic of a colonial adventure better forgotten” (Aldrich, 312). The influx of thousands of Algérie française to mainland France meant that the native population had to accept the arrival and backgrounds of these people.
However, it took a long time for many immigrants to feel at all welcomed by the French; many people held grudges against the Algerians because of the unwanted yet unavoidable reminder of their tense history that arrived with them. French society also had to come to terms with the knowledge that their army had been using torture techniques against the Algerian opposition. This drew unwelcome comparisons with Nazi tactics employed during the Second World War and the role of Vichy France at a time “when Frenchmen had chosen sides against each other and sold each other out” (Costa). These painful memories and a determination to not resemble the German people in their “silent complicity” (Costa) with torture, manifested in a mutual feeling of outrage shared amongst all French people as their core beliefs were ignored by those who were supposed to protect them and uphold their values.
Having considered the effects of independence on Algeria and the loss of its empire on France, I can now conclude that I agree fully with the statement that decolonisation was a process of vast adaptation for both sides and not just the previously colonised countries. Algeria, whilst freed from the empire which they never chose to be a part of, had to build a new economy and suffered years of civil war and is only now emerging as a sustainable nation state. Evidence suggests that for the most part, France was also worse off after Algerian independence; the peoples’ politics, society, economy and world status were all negatively affected as a result. I can therefore conclude that decolonisation, although a vast process of adaptation for both sides, did not solely affect the formerly colonised country of Algeria, but also –and arguably more so- the colonial power France.
Aldrich, R., Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion, 1996, 8: 266 – 267, Epilogue: 311 – 312. Bernstein, S., The Republic of de Gaulle, 1958-1969, 1993, p 28 Chamberlain, M. E., European Decolonisation in the Twentieth Century, 1998, 3: 158 – 162. Costa, D., Decolonization and French Society, 1999, URL: http://www.indyflicks.com/danielle/papers/paper06.htm Holland, R. F., European Decolonization 1918-1981: An Introductory Survey, 1985, 6: 163 – 175 Jones, J., The French in West Africa, 2012, URL: http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his312/lectures/fren-occ.htm#algeria Jones, J., Algerian Independence, 2012, URL: http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his312/lectures/algeria.htm Navarro, M., Algeria: A Case Study of Decolonization, 2012, URL: http://frontpagemag.com/2012/mariano-navarro/algeria-a-case-study-of-decolonization/ Ryan, Y., Uncovering Algeria’s civil war, 2010, URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/2010/11/2010118122224407570.html