French troops massacre thousands in Algeria after demonstration at Setif leads to violence

Aliases for this event: (The Setif massacre)

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French troops massacre thousands in Algeria after demonstration at Setif leads to violence

Start Date: Tuesday, 8 May 1945
End Date: Tuesday, 22 May 1945
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The Sétif massacre refers to widespread disturbances in and around the Algerian market town of Sétif located to the west of Constantine in 1945. The initial outbreak occurred on the morning of 8 May 1945, the same day that Germany surrendered in World War II. A parade by the Muslim Algerian population of Sétif to celebrate VE day ended in clashes between the marchers and the local French gendarmerie. Attacks on pied noirs (French settlers) in the neighbouring countryside then resulted in the deaths of 103 Europeans, mostly civilians, plus another hundred wounded. The historian Alistair Horne records that there were a number of rapes and that many of the corpses were mutilated.

After five days of chaos French military and police restored order but then carried out a series of reprisals which far exceeded in scale the killings that had provoked them. Senegalese colonial troops led by French officers carried out summary executions. Less accessible mechtas (Muslim villages) were bombed by French aircraft and the cruiser Duguay-Trouin standing off the coast, in the Gulf of Bougie, shelled Kerrata. Pied noir vigilantes lynched prisoners taken from local gaols or randomly shot Muslims not wearing white arm bands (as instructed by the Army) out of hand. It is certain that the great majority of the Muslim victims had not been implicated in the original outbreak.

These reprisals killed anywhere between 1,020 (the official French figure given in the Tubert Report shortly after the massacre) and 45,000 people (as claimed by Radio Cairo at the time). Alistair Horne notes that 6,000 was the figure finally settled on by moderate historians but acknowledges that this remains only an estimate. The Sétif outbreak and the repression that followed marked a turning point in the relations between France, which had colonized Algeria since 1830, and the Muslim population. While the details of the Sétif killings were largely overlooked in metropolitan France the impact on the Algerian Muslim population was traumatic, especially on the large numbers of Muslim soldiers in the French Army who were then returning from the War in Europe. Nine years later a general uprising began in Algeria leading to independence from France in March 1962 with the signing of the Evian Accords.

The anti-colonialist movement had started organizing itself before World War II, under Messali Hadj and Ferhat Abbas. Anti-French sentiment had been building across Algeria for months, leading to thousand-person protests in such cities as Mostaganem in the previous weeks. With the end of World War II, 4,000 protesters took to the streets of Sétif, a town in northern Algeria, to press new demands for independence on the colonial government.

The French Army responded with overwhelming force. At around 9 am on May 8, a crowd chanting "Vive l'indépendance!" marched on the French military forces, mainly composed of colonial forces, after the same forces had shot at the flag-carriers. French commander General Duval gave the order to fire on the largely unarmed crowds, using machine guns, killing thousands. Saal Bouzid, a young boy carrying the Algerian flag, was among the first to fall, making him an instant martyr to the resistance movement.

The French troops moved swiftly to contain the protests, attacking the neighborhoods and surrounding villages of both Sétif and nearby Guelma with artillery and air force bombers. Arbitrary murder and rape by the French forces ensued. The attacks continued until the formal surrender of the tribes on 22 May. The ultimate death toll remains contentious, with Algeria claiming more than 45,000 dead, while initial French estimates claimed only 1,500 casualties – France later revised its estimate up to 20,000 dead. In a series of reprisal assassinations following the violence, 104 Europeans were massacred, of whom more than half were women or children.

In February 2005, Hubert Colin de Verdière, France's ambassador to Algeria, formally apologized for the massacre, calling it an "inexcusable tragedy." It was the most explicit comments by the French state on the massacre.

President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika has called the Sétif massacre the beginning of a "genocide" perpetrated during the Algerian War by the French occupation forces. This accusation of a "genocide" has been swiftly denounced by the French state and various French historians, although the perpetration of various massacres, the use of torture and others human rights abuses are not questioned. All in all, the Algerian War and its consequences remains an important memory stake in both countries.

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