19 February 2008

The Muddled Liberation of French Algeria, 1942

From The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation, by Richard Vinen (Yale U. Press, 2006), pp. 318-319:
The significance of American landings in North Africa, and particularly in Algeria, was complicated. Parts of the French Empire had rallied to de Gaulle or been conquered by Free French forces ever since 1940. However, these were mostly distant places with small French populations. Algeria was close to the mainland. It contained more than a million French citizens, including a large number of soldiers. Furthermore, Algeria was not a colony, unlike Indochina, nor a League of Nations mandate, unlike Syria where Free French and Vichy forces had fought in 1941, nor a protectorate, unlike Morocco. Algeria was part of France. It returned deputies to the French parliament, and its European population had resented Vichy moves that seemed to blur the distinction between it and the colonies or protectorates.

Operation Torch was, however, a funny kind of liberation. Landings in North Africa did not involve even the token Free French force that went to Normandy with the Allies in 1944. Furthermore, there were no Germans in French North Africa in 1942 and resistance to the American landings came from French forces loyal to the Vichy government. France was being liberated from the French.

Giraud, the Americans' candidate for the leadership of the French in 'liberated' Algeria, missed his rendezvous with an American submarine that was meant to pick him up from southern France, and was still on Gibraltar when the Americans landed in North Africa. If Giraud was unexpectedly absent, another conservative French military leader was unexpectedly present. Admiral Darlan was in Algiers visiting his son, who was seriously ill with polio. Darlan had no advance knowledge of the landings. Even as American warships approached North Africa, he insisted that the Americans would not break their promise not to enter French North Africa uninvited. When American troops landed, Darlan ordered the French to resist—1,368 Frenchmen and 453 Allied soldiers died in the few days before Darlan changed his mind. Eventually, however, a ceasefire was arranged and the Americans suggested that Darlan himself might lead the French in Algeria. This was an attractive suggestion to an ambitious man who had recently been squeezed out of power in Vichy by Laval's return, and Darlan signed an accord with Clark, the commander of American forces in North Africa. The British were unhappy with Darlan's rule in Algeria as were American liberals: the journalist Ed Murrow suggested that letting Darlan rule Algeria was like letting Quisling rule a 'liberated' Norway.

Pétain was furious at the Clark-Darlan accords and denounced them six times in the week after they were concluded. Darlan did not denounce Pétain. On the contrary, he argued that he was acting in the Marshal's name and carrying out the policy that the Marshal was unable to announce openly. Darlan's suggestion that Pétain was not a free agent was made more convincing by the fact that the Germans invaded the free zone of France in response to the American invasion of Algeria.

Darlan's reign in Algeria ended on Christmas Eve 1942 when he was shot by a young royalist. The assassin was himself executed on Boxing Day, giving conspiracy theorists much food for thought. Now the Americans installed their original candidate, Giraud, in power in Algeria. Unlike Darlan, Giraud had never held office under the Vichy government and, unlike Darlan, he had always been anti-German. However, he had also expressed loyalty to Pétain and shared many of Pétain's beliefs. Giraud presented himself as a military figure who did not wish to play politics, a classic conservative stance that meant, in practice, that he would not overthrow much of what Vichy had established in Algeria. He had particularly strong views about one piece of Vichy legislation. He had spent his early life serving with North African units of the French army and had developed a deep admiration for Islam. This made him keen not to restore the Cremieux decree, which had given French citizenship to Jews in Algeria and which had been abolished by Vichy. Giraud believed that the Cremieux decree antagonized Muslims in Algeria, and, in fact, Jews in Algeria did not regain French citizenship until May 1943, six months after the Americans arrived.

1 comment:

Languagehat said...

Fascinating! Man, what a mess Algeria was.