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FRANCE: Suitcase or Coffin?

3 minute read

Algeria’s Moslems have a saying: “When it is very hot in Tunisia or Morocco, it is warm in Algeria.” The violence that has erupted so often in Tunisia and Morocco has caused only tremors in Algeria. But last week, for the first time in nine years, it was very hot in Algeria.

Paris was shocked; unlike Tunisia and Morocco (“protectorates” in name, but actually colonies), Algeria is part of metropolitan France, and its people, Arab and Frenchman alike, are French citizens. Algeria’s three departments have as much standing in the French Assembly as any departments between the Pyrenees and the Rhine.

The rattle of guns started in Algeria one morning, an hour after midnight, and seemed to be directed from a single central source:

¶ At Ouillis (near Oran) a guard surprised a group of armed men who were trying to wreck a power transformer.

They shot him dead.

¶ A young Frenchman named Laurent Francois heard that terrorists were abroad, drove to the police station in Cassaigne for protection. At the station entrance, a shot from the shadows drilled him through the head.

¶ In the mountain district of Aures, terrorists stopped a car containing a kaid (rural chieftain) who was also a French army captain, and a young French husband and wife who were teachers. They clubbed the kaid to a pulp, then killed the Frenchman, then stabbed and raped the young woman, who survived and was rescued.

¶ Terrorists closed in on Arris, the administrative center of Aures, poured in repeated volleys of rifle fire. All the inhabitants of Foum-Toub were evacuated, to prevent slaughter or capture by the bandits.

Pursuit in the Hills. When the bloody day ended, eight Frenchmen and pro-French natives were dead, more than 30 wounded. Paris Le Monde lamented: “All this happened as if an invisible hand were looking for a way to destroy Franco-North African solidarity at the exact moment when we were about ready to strengthen it.” Premier Pierre Mendès-France, who wants peace and a settlement in North Africa, had just served notice, in one of his fireside chats, that his government was going ahead with plans to let French Africa “have her large part in the social and economic expansion of the entire French Union.”

At the urging of Governor General Roger Leonard, Paris dispatched 1,600 paratroopers and 1,400 security troops to reinforce the 10,000 soldiers already in Algeria. French armored columns pursued the terrorists up deep ravines in the mountains, with fighter planes for cover. In the cities, known nationalist hangouts were raided, more than 175 suspects jailed. Even some homes of North Africans living in Marseille and Lyon were searched.

“The Only Negotiation . . .” French officials blamed the outbreak on three sinister influences acting in concert: 1) Tunisian fellaghas (bandits), hard-pressed in their own country, who had crossed the Algerian border; 2) the inflammatory Cairo radio; 3) the extremist nationalist Algerian movement known as the MTLD (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties). Leader of the MTLD is Ahmed Messali Hadj, now in exile at Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, but reported in contact with Algerian underground leaders, and suspected of being the hand that set off last week’s synchronized violence.

The French say they will not negotiate the Algerian question—that revolt on the soil of Algeria is treason. “The only negotiation,” said Interior Minister Francois Mitterrand, “is war.” The Algerian nationalists have an answer: “La valise ou le cercueil”—meaning, if you don’t take a traveling bag, you will get a coffin.

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