Algeria was a part of the Ottoman Empire between 1517 and 1830. Therefore, both Ottomans and Algerians influenced each other for over 300 years. Contrary to what some have claimed, this was not a one-way relationship between these two countries; instead, it was shared history in the Islamic world. The Ottomans in Algeria helped local Muslims prevent the Christianization of the region. In addition, they protected the religious identity of the local Muslims in Algeria against attacks by Westerners such as the Spanish. Let me provide a brief write-up about the true intentions of the French colonizers. It should be known that while Algeria was under French occupation, the nation suffered from extreme poverty, repression, persecution, famine and massacres. It was at this same time that France became one of the most industrialized nations in the world.
During a speech at the Parliament of Algeria, French President Francois Hollande, who served from 2012 to 2017, said: “For 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a brutal and unfair system: colonization. I acknowledge the suffering it caused.” Hollande acknowledged this because France committed genocide against the people of Algeria. The French occupiers murdered, tortured, raped and attempted to forcefully assimilate Algerians. The strongest resistance and revolt against the occupation came in 1954, which paved the way for Algerian independence from the French. It is worth noting that the Algerians' struggle against colonization started in the 1830s. The goal of the French was to exploit the oil-rich North African state and by doing so, enhance French global prestige. Basically, the French were in a competitive race with other Western colonial powers. However, throughout the colonial era, Algerians such as Abd al-Qadir never gave up fighting for independence. There were many other significant actors and parties that were involved in the resistance against the French, such as Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Taïeb Boulahrouf and the National Liberation Front party.
Between 1830 and 1860, the French colonizers massacred nearly a million Algerians out of a population of 3 million. The Algerian War of Independence, waged from 1954 to 1962, saw the death toll rise above 1.5 million out of a population of just over 10 million (the population of Algeria was 8.87 million in 1950, and 11.62 million in 1962). This toll accounted for 15% of the total population of Algeria. Today, there are around 7 million to 10 million Algerians living in France, while Algeria's total population is above 40 million.
In 1954, Algerian Muslims established the National Liberation Front party, which aimed to gain independence from France. In response, France sent 500,000 French troops to Algeria to crush the resistance for good. After several decades of colonization, France came to the realization that Algerians’ persistent desire for independence was accelerating. So, in 1962, Algeria gained its independence from France. In this long struggle that saw profound and heavy sacrifices, the final war against French rule came to a decisive victory. In addition to the deaths in the War of Independence, another 2 million people were displaced.
France used African soldiers, including Algerians, to protect its own interests in many conflicts, including in World War I and World War II. Thousands of Algerians lost their lives in the pursuit of maintaining French prestige worldwide. In return, during the occupation of France, the French pushed millions of Algerians to the frontlines. This included the deployment of thousands of Algerians as soldiers; around 180,000 Algerians took part in the Battle of Verdun against Germany in WWI. An estimated 250,000 Algerian soldiers took part in WWI while more than 250,000 Algerian soldiers were part of the French army in WWII.
The French seized the entirety of Algeria; they controlled everything from manufacturing and agriculture to trade. The Algerians suffered from a lack of political, economic, educational and social status in their own country. The French placed heavy taxes on Algerians while giving limited education to Muslims, which led to the illiteracy of Muslims across the country. Education was also a part of French assimilation policies in which traditional and religious education was replaced by the French educational system, which was in line with Christianity. The French considered Algerians as aliens in their own land; for example, four-fifths of many legislative bodies in Algeria were French. Under French occupation, Algeria did not become an industrialized nation.
As a result of French atrocities, the world, if not the West, should consider the French colonial era in Algeria as a genocide. The numbers of casualties on the Algerian side due to French policies toward Algerians are explicit enough to bring one to such a realization. The past of these two nations could be looked on as a period of historical catastrophe that has impacted generations of Algerians. Enslavement, participation in the slave trade, the mass killing of Algerians and the theft of the wealth of Algeria can be considered war crimes committed by French colonizers. Today, the French must be reminded that Algerians made countless sacrifices to be among the league of the most industrialized nations.
* Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of Malaya, Malaysia