Terrorism in the Algerian War through Franz Fanon and Gillo Pontecorvo

In the aftermath of World War II and at the outset of the Cold War, France struggled to solidify its identity. From questions regarding the character of its youth to its tenuous global relevance, France grappled with shifting paradigms of power and morality. A key moment in this crisis was the Algerian War, which lasted from 1954 to 1962 and resulted in the independence of France’s most treasured colony, Algeria. Two critical works capture the Algerian struggle for independence and its implications for France. The first is Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, and the second is psychiatrist and political activist Frantz Fanon’s book, A Dying Colonialism. First, each captures the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) cultivation of Algerian national consciousness in order to emphasize the inevitability of its success in breaking the French stronghold over the colonized. Second, both illustrate France’s pervasive control of Algeria and its liberal usage of torture against the FLN to justify their argument that terrorism became necessary to sustain the independence movement. Under this umbrella, each depicts the role of female revolutionaries who negotiated their own liberation within the national struggle so as to highlight the critical blow this dealt to the moral authority of French colonialism. Third, though both sympathize principally with the FLN, Pontecorvo captures more of France’s suffering than does Fanon; the significance of this distinction for broader postcolonial discussions will be explored in this paper.

Throughout their works, Fanon and Pontecorvo link the FLN’s fostering of Algerian nationalism to the inevitability of Algerian victory. Fanon first asserts that the revolution restored the psyche of the Algerian whose inferiority had been imposed under colonial rule. Writing “The Algerian nation…is no longer the product of hazy and phantasy-ridden imaginations. It is at the very center of the new Algerian man”, he emphasizes the irreversible awakening of national consciousness wrought by the revolution (Fanon, 30). Pontecorvo underscores this notion in the scene when young Omar exclaims pro-FLN encouragement to a crowd of Algerians with a microphone stolen from the French army. Forced onto the streets in retaliation for their peaceful strike, the people respond to Omar with cries of “Long live Algeria!” in support of the movement (Pontecorvo). Moreover, both works highlight the importance of communication to creating such coherence. To Fanon, the radio station The Voice of Algeria “brought the nation to life and endowed every citizen with a new status, telling him so explicitly” (Fanon, 96). In contrast to the colonially operated Radio Alger, The Voice of Algeria engaged Algerians in the events of the war and marked the evolution of the radio from a symbol of the occupants to an instrument of the revolution. Pontecorvo illustrates several uglier means of fostering unity. One was the elimination of disloyal Algerians, as evidenced by Ali la Pointe’s killing of Hassan el-Bidi for refusing invitations to join the FLN; another was FLN Communique no. 24’s ban on “the sale and use of all drugs and alcoholic beverages”, which precipitated the mobbing of a drunken man by children (Pontecorvo). By delineating the FLN’s ability to engage the masses in spirited opposition to French colonialism, both Fanon and Pontecorvo illustrate the seeds of its success in liberating Algerians and weakening the French colonial empire.

Both additionally argue that FLN “terrorist” tactics were necessary, albeit undesirable, measures for securing independence. Though the first major instances of violence in the film are perpetrated by Algerians and accompanied by sinister music, these are police killings that do not harm civilians (Pontecorvo). Early on, the film displays both the beheading of an imprisoned Algerian, and FLN Communique no. 1 of 1954, which reads “To avoid bloodshed, we propose that the French authorities negotiate with us our right to self-determination” (Pontecorvo). The first FLN activities shown that harm civilians are the bombings carried out by the women, which follow the French prefect’s bombing of innocent Algerians in the Casbah (Pontecorvo). By noting the FLN’s desire to negotiate and structuring his film such that French violence precedes FLN terrorism, Pontecorvo identifies part of the impetus for the latter. Additionally, in showing both the French disruption of a nonviolent FLN labor strike and French torture methods, marked by General Mathieu’s statement that “humane considerations can only lead to [our] despair”, he emphasizes the mounting French violence that threatened to crush the movement (Pontecorvo).

Fanon enumerates the ethical dilemma this posed to the FLN, noting that “no one takes the step of placing a bomb in a public place without a battle of conscience” (Fanon, 55). To him, though the FLN hesitated to kill civilians, the high degree of colonial control and French torture necessitated the adoption of such “new forms of combat” (Fanon, 57). In the film, FLN leader Ben M’hidi responds to accusations of cowardice for using such tactics: “Isn’t it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” (Pontecorvo). Materially outmatched, the FLN was forced to resort to drastic measures to sustain their hope of freedom. Fanon outlines another dimension of this choice by citing the prejudices held against the colonized. While they had to win “cleanly, without barbarity” so as not to confirm their presupposed savagery, acts of terror by European colonizers were viewed as aberrations from their pure nature (Fanon, 24). This set the colonized at an immediate disadvantage in their struggle for legitimacy. Fanon additionally distinguishes between FLN activities and traditional “terrorism”: while a terrorist “has a rendezvous with death”, the Algerian fidai does not choose death, but rather acts for “the life of the Revolution, and his own life” (Fanon, 57). Fanon thus attributes the FLN’s tactics to its noble struggle for freedom rather than a proclivity for violence. Like Pontecorvo, he enumerates the circumstances which he felt necessitated the use of terrorism for the FLN’s survival in order to justify and defend this usage.

Within their discussions of terrorism, each work also captures the critical role of female revolutionaries in advancing the Algerian cause. In the film, Pontecorvo highlights their involvement, which included hiding FLN “brothers”, hiding weapons under their veils for an FLN man to murder an officer, and even planting bombs in public settings. The film emphasizes their determination and solidarity by showing three Algerian women altering their appearances so as to look European, receiving instructions from the FLN leaders, and placing the bombs as rumbling, war-like music plays (Pontecorvo). Fanon similarly touts the Algerian woman’s place “at the heart of the combat” while emphasizing that she simultaneously fought for liberation from her traditional confinement (Fanon, 66). As the film suggests, particularly during the informal marriage of an FLN boy and a young girl, the Algerian family transformed with the revolution (Pontecorvo). According to Fanon, whereas the Algerian father once constituted the source of all values, witnessing his unveiled daughter’s participation in the anticolonial struggle galvanized him and his family to commit to the “new Algeria” and the woman’s more prominent place within it (Fanon, 60). Demonstrating that the Algerian woman advanced herself through anticolonialism, not through French admonishment of the Algerian man for his treatment of women, Fanon and Pontecorvo contend that Algerians challenged Western moral authority by asserting their right to control both their government and their culture.

Finally, the French are treated with slightly different levels of sympathy in each work. Though Fanon sympathizes with innocent civilian causalities, he firmly indicts the French colonial system for its oppression of the Algerians: “French colonialism since 1954 has wanted nothing other than to break the will of the people…it has avoided no extremist tactic, whether of terror or of torture” (Fanon, 119). Given his childhood in the French colony of Martinique, his involvement with the FLN, and his status as one of the foremost anticolonial theorists of the 20thcentury, Fanon’s rejection of colonialism understandably outweighs any sorrow for the French (Chaplin, Lecture 12). Though the film’s structure emphasizes the resilience of the Algerians, it is also sensitive to French suffering. This is clear during the bombings of colonial cafes, as somber music plays amidst the footage of destruction and murdered civilians (Pontecorvo). During the bombing of Ali and others, General Mathieu’s brief hesitance even suggests a tinge of remorse, which could slightly improve France’s image if genuine (Pontecorvo). Regardless, though he favored the movement and cast FLN leader Saadi Yacef in his film, Pontecorvo was European; without Fanon’s direct ties to Algeria, perhaps he was more inclined to consider the ramifications of Algerian independence for colonials and French society at large.

Algerian independence was a harbinger of the rapid downfall of France’s colonial empire. As the Cold War progressed and France struggled to forge a “Third Way” between the US and the Soviet Union, decolonization confused and demoralized its perception of its global standing. Both The Battle of Algiers and A Dying Colonialism offer seminal accounts of a people struggling for freedom. Though each celebrates the Algerian independence movement and defends its use of terrorism, their difference in sympathy for France highlights the importance of considering a nation’s loss of status to understanding its postcolonial development. Driving the French obstinacy that forced the FLN to employ terrorism was France’s reluctance to suffer another loss after such recent events as Vichy and Indochina. Though the FLN was justified, accepting terrorism as a fixture of national conflict is undesirable. Until the human, political, and economic consequences for a nation that loses colonial territory can somehow be reconciled with the inviolable right of the colonized to freedom, however, such terrorism will surely persist.

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Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.