In April 1956 the 22 year old Georges Mattéi received his call up papers to go and fight in Algeria, just like thousands of young men across France. Corsican in origin, and on holiday in Italy, Mattéi agonised about what to do.
Instinctively anti-authoritarian and anti-militarist, he was paradoxically, as he admitted many years later, fascinated by war. Guilty that he had been too young for the anti-Nazi French resistance movement, he wanted to test himself in the heat of battle. He wanted to see if he was manly enough to stand the intensity of actual combat.
Making his way back to France, Mattéi rejoined his unit – an Alpine regiment from the Grenoble region – at Dreux just outside of Paris. There in the barracks he was amazed to encounter widespread anti-war feeling, even if the reservists’ motives did not generally stem from any automatic identification with the Algerian liberation struggle.
Yes, a minority were politicised. But most had no desire to go and fight in what had already become known as a “dirty war”, because they had jobs and families. The mood of protest and insubordination was, therefore, endemic.
Men went absent without leave for days. Officers were attacked, including one general who was kidnapped. Orders were ignored. Military discipline was non-existent. On the troop trains down to Marseille soldiers pulled the brake cord on numerous occasions to stop them.
This movement had begun the previous September after the government had recalled its reservists. Under French law, all men who had completed military service were on standby for the next three years to fight at a moment’s notice.
At Lyon station there were violent clashes between reservists and the riot police, as soldiers refused to be herded into trains taking them to Marseille. The following month reservists would not leave the Richepanse barracks, openly flouting officers’ orders. This rebellion was only finally overcome when riot police forced the soldiers onto waiting lorries.
Such protests were repeated with even greater intensity in the spring of 1956. The most violent incident took place at Grenoble railway station on 18 May. Opponents of the war had called for a large scale demonstration to prevent the troops’ departure.
Supported by hundreds of local communists and trade unionists, the prolonged clashes were not broken up until midnight. People lay across the tracks chanting “they must not go”, a scenario replicated in Saint-Nazaire, Angers, Port-de-Bouc, Voiron and Brive.
This was a huge anti-war movement involving over 20,000 men – but within the press these events went unreported. The journalist Jean-Marie Boeglin covered the reservists’ rebellion for the Union de Reims, a leading provincial daily.
He witnessed the anti-war protests in Rouen and Grenoble at first hand. Yet his editor was not interested. The paper did everything it could to minimise coverage. Boeglin’s articles were cut because they were seen to be sabotaging the war on “Algerian terrorism”.
The road to the reservists’ protest movement began on 1 November 1954 with a nationalist insurrection in Algeria led by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).
The FLN, led by the likes of Ahmed Ben Bella and Mohamed Boudiaf, saw violence as the only way to end colonial rule. Their strategy was simple – by creating a climate of insecurity through terrorism they wanted to bring the Algerian question to the attention of the world and thereby isolate France diplomatically.
For the French army, the Algerian uprising was the latest in a series of bloody colonial wars that had begun with Indochina, and had continued with Morocco and Tunisia. However, while in the latter cases the French had eventually been forced to withdraw, Algeria was a case apart.
Invaded in 1830, it was annexed not as a colony but as an integral part of France. In theory France was divided by the Mediterranean, just as Paris was divided by the river Seine. Generations of French school children were told that Algeria was made up of three French departments, no different to Brittany or Normandy.
On top of this was the presence of one million settlers out of a population of ten million – poor whites for the most part who came from France, and also from Malta, Italy and Spain.
For all these reasons the reaction of François Mitterrand, France’s interior minister at the time and later the president of France, to the FLN uprising was typical. For him the revolt threatened the unity of the republic – and the only possible response was war.
Such attitudes explain why news from Algeria during the course of 1955 became depressingly familiar. The cycle of violence and counter-violence went from bad to worse. On 3 April, the government declared a state of emergency.
Algeria was a major issue during the general election that took place on 2 January 1956, which was narrowly won by the Republican Front, a coalition led by the Socialist Party.
The new prime minister, Guy Mollet, himself a resistance veteran, had called the Algerian conflict a stupid war without an obvious exit. “Peace in Algeria” was the Republican Front’s slogan, which although general and vague certainly did not suggest any intensification of the conflict.
But when Mollet went to Algiers on 6 February he got a very rough reception from the settlers. They manhandled him and bombarded him with tomatoes and rotten eggs. Funny though this image was, in truth the whole experience traumatised Mollet. Immediately he saw Algeria in a new light – through the prism of appeasement.
Unlike the Czechs in 1938, the settlers were not going to be sold down the river to the FLN, a “fanatical minority who were being manipulated by general Nasser in Egypt, the new Hitler”.
Moreover, Mollet claimed, French republicanism was playing a progressive role in Algeria. This civilising mission, conjured as a liberal colonial humanism miles away from nasty right wing imperialism, was allegedly bringing the values of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment to a backward native population.
On these grounds, abandoning Algeria was out of the question. To this end, 12 March saw 455 deputies, including the Communists, vote for special powers that gave the Socialist administration the licence to use whatever means necessary to snuff out the FLN.
Added to this, on 11 April Mollet recalled conscripts of 1951-4 and extended military service from 18 to 27 months. The result was that by the end of 1956, some 450,000 soldiers were in Algeria.
In the meantime the French media endlessly recycled stock images whereby wanton FLN destruction was contrasted with the good work of the French in aiding the local population through the building of roads and hospitals.
Few now doubted that France was at war, even if what was taking place was referred to as a law and order problem.
So what was the stance of the Communist Party? With one in four of the electorate voting for it, the party was unquestionably the largest force on the left. Previously the party had opposed the Indochina war and in theory it adhered to Russian revolutionary Lenin’s dictum about supporting anti-colonial struggles.
Yet its leadership felt ambivalent about the FLN which was not Communist. It was a nationalist organisation that was deemed potentially too pro-US.
Allied to this, the Communist Party did not want to be seen as anti-patriotic and give anti-Communists the pretext for dissolving the party, as had been done in 1939 after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The party opposed any illegal opposition to the war and did not support the reservists’ revolt.
Nobody must desert was the line. Communists called up to fight were told that they had to go to Algeria and try, if possible, to organise opposition over there.
Yet, as Georges Mattéi found out, this was impossible. Once in Algeria, the army ruthlessly conditioned the reservists. Inevitably too, Mattéi recalled, the war against the FLN had a brutalising effect, creating an “us and them” situation where soldiers were fighting not to defend colonialism, but to save their own skins.
The reservists served for six months in Algeria. Most returned in early 1957, at which point accounts of atrocities began to filter out. A group of priests published letters from reservists that catalogued the reality of the dirty war – torture, summary executions, the burning of villages.
Mattéi himself was introspective and aggressive. What saved him was writing an eyewitness account for the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s review, Les Temps Modernes.
In contrast to most reservists, who continued to turn in on themselves, this allowed him to purge his anger. Thereafter he was determined to make a stand, forming a veterans’ anti-war organisation before eventually working with the FLN in France, crossing over to side with the very people he had been shooting at in 1956.
By any standards this was an extraordinary story of political commitment. But it was one that was underpinned by betrayals by the French government and the Communist Party.
In this specific way, the reservists’ revolt in France was crucial to the genesis of an anti-Stalinist left in the country – one that was no longer mesmerised by the power of the Communist Party, but determined to break it.
Martin Evans is professor in contemporary European history at the University of Portsmouth and author of The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the Algerian War 1954-62.