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On VE Day, French Colonists Launched a Massacre in Algeria

May 8, 1945 brought the end of World War II in Europe and the final liberation of German-occupied territories. But the creed of restored national independence wasn’t extended to Africa — and that same day, French colonial forces launched a wave of repression in Algeria that killed thousands.

A repentance from the French ambassador to Algeria sixty years after the fact, an official visit by the secretary of state for veterans’ affairs, and otherwise, a bleak silence. That’s what the forty-five thousand indigènes massacred in May and June 1945 in Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata are worth in the eyes of the French Republic. Their descendants can count on neither a day of national commemoration nor presidential recognition of the responsibility of the state, as was the case in 1995 for the deportation of Jewish people during the Second World War.

The day that the wave of slaughter began in Algeria is a symbolic one. May 8, 1945 — Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). The killings were carried out by a colonial army, supported by “European” civilians, and reveal a veil of blood that the official story extolling liberation from Nazi occupation prefers not to see.

On that day, France was in jubilation, having tasted the joy of freshly recovered sovereignty. Everywhere, in the métropole as in the colonies, the streets filled with spontaneous gatherings. This was also the case in the “French departments of Algeria,” even though they were no longer administered by the fascist Vichy regime since the Allied landings and the so-called citizen coup of November 1942.

French flags abounded, but here and there, especially in northern Constantine, green and white flags affixed with a crescent and red star competed with them. They were brandished by nationalist activists of the Algerian People’s Party (PPA) who called for the immediate release of their leader, Messali Hadj, exiled by force and imprisoned in Brazzaville.

Intoxicated by a moment that filled them with an even greater sense of their own superiority, the French authorities and the pieds-noirs saw in these Algerian flags an existential threat. They exposed the hypocrisy of those who kissed, hugged, and exulted to celebrate the end of the Nazi yoke in Europe, even as they themselves were actors in the colonial repression of Algeria.

When a few thousand Algerians seized the opportunity to march in support of independence in Sétif and Guelma, the scene was set. The local French gendarmerie stepped in against the demonstrations, seizing banners condemning colonial rule and firing upon protestors. The violence soon inspired an uprising across Algeria — which the French authorities determined to crush before it threatened their hold on the country.

The repression of these peaceful demonstrations opened a phase of unprecedented brutality not seen since the French invasion in 1830. “Take all necessary measures to repress all anti-French acts by a minority of agitators.” It was by this lapidary telegram, sent on May 11, that General Charles de Gaulle, then head of the provisional French government, gave full latitude to the colonial army to prevent the unification of an Algerian nationalist movement that had, until then, been divided by important lines of strategic fracture.

The French Communist movement itself howled with wolves, demonstrating its adherence to the theses of metropolitan national unity and its commitment to preserving the integrity of the colonial Empire. L’Humanité dated May 19 could hardly muster words strong enough to denounce the “pseudo-nationalist leaders who knowingly tried to deceive the Muslim masses, thus playing the game of the hundred lords in their attempt to break up the Algerian populations and the people of France.” The French Communist Party (PCF) went even further, calling for “measures to be taken against the leaders of this pseudo-national association, whose members participated in the tragic incidents.”

It was the towns of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata — all located on the outskirts of Constantine — that paid the heaviest price for French repression. The French Republic, keen to live up to its reputation not to discriminate, showed a true blindness, striking indiscriminately against men, women, and children.

The infamous execution of forty-five Muslim scouts of the Enoudjoum troop on May 15 was not an isolated act. It was part of a deadly terror strategy systematically deployed throughout the region. Mass graves overflowing with anonymous bodies were common. As the Nazi monster fell in Europe, Boucif Mekhaled recounts in his book Chronicles of a Massacre how the French army used a crematorium oven, in operation for ten days, to prevent loved ones from identifying the bodies of their dead.

This precipitated the arrival of the new interior minister, the socialist Édouard Depreux, and with it the end of the massacres. The unutterable brutality with which the Republic put down peaceful demonstrations betrayed the intense fear of the settlers, colossi with clay feet who knew well that their positions were endangered by the development of Algerian nationalist sentiment. They wanted to strike a blow, and to deal with the Algerian question once and for all.

But, in fact, they achieved the opposite. The massacres of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata were the tragic prologue to the Algerian War, and they acted to tip the whole population into the struggle for independence. Kateb Yacine wrote about this turning point as he experienced it as a young man: “It was in 1945 that my humanism was confronted for the first time at the most atrocious of displays. I was twenty years old. The shock I felt in front of the merciless butchery of several thousand Muslims, I have never forgotten. That’s how my nationalism developed.”

On the north shore of the Mediterranean, these mass killings in Constantine are still barely discussed, if they are at all. The ignorance — or, even more cynical, the desire to “move forward” — in which the political class wallows testifies to the embarrassment of the French Republic about its colonial past. This is not just spitting in the face of former subjects of the colonial empire and their descendants, it is the matrix of state racism that targets Arabs, blacks, and Roma to this day.

It is what makes possible the countless crimes and acts of violence perpetrated by the police with almost total impunity. Only last week, officers chased a young Arab man through the night. Fearing for his life, he preferred to jump into the river than risk arrest. A resident filmed the police’s laughter, joking that a “bicot [a racist slur against Arabs] like that does not swim.” It caused a great deal of distress to those familiar with the memory of October 1961, when Parisian police drowned dozens of Algerians in the Seine. But it is nothing more than the spasm of a Republic sick with its colonial unconscious, a Republic for which decolonization remains a matter of life and death.