Mitterrand’s War

For François Mitterrand, France's atrocities in Algeria were stepping-stones to power.

The full story of French imperialism in the twentieth century is slowly coming to light. What is particularly shocking is that so many organizations and individuals of the Left were deeply complicit in it.

François Mitterrand will be best remembered as the Socialist president of France from 1981 to 1995, but he played a leading role in French politics many years earlier, culminating in his role in the Mollet government during the Algerian War. After the end of World War II France was determined to hold on to its empire, especially in Indochina and Algeria.

This led to a bitter war in Southeast Asia, and savage repression in Madagascar in 1947 when many thousands died. Mitterrand expressed complete support for this repression.

In 1954 the Algerian struggle for national independence, spearheaded by the National Liberation Front (FLN), began. The French government characterized the FLN as criminals rather than as political activists, and sent ever more troops into Algeria to restore “order.”

One of the most appalling aspects of the Algerian War was how traditional working-class organizations abandoned any pretense to internationalism.

Guy Mollet, leader of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), was responsible for the war’s escalation while he served as prime minister, and the French Communist Party (PCF) — aiming to revive a “Popular Front”— supported his introduction of “special powers” to crush the national liberation movement in the country.

François Mitterrand’s role has been less discussed. After Algerian independence neither Mitterrand nor his supporters (some of them former leftists) were interested in combing through Mitterrand’s role during the war, but a 2010 book by historian Benjamin Stora and political journalist François Malye — based on the testimony of contemporaries and previously unused documentation — gives us a clearer picture.

When Mitterrand was elected president in 1981, one of his administration’s first acts was to abolish capital punishment. But his attitude to the death penalty had been rather different in the fifties.

In January 1956 a coalition government headed by Guy Mollet came to power. Under the multi-party system of the Fourth Republic, most governments lasted a few months at best, but Mollet’s lasted some sixteen months — a period in which the Algerian War escalated significantly.

Mollet’s second-in-command was Pierre Mendès-France, and Mitterrand was the garde des sceaux (“keeper of the seals”), or minister of justice, making him the third-most-senior minister according to cabinet protocol.

Mitterrand was only thirty-nine, but was already a veteran of ten previous coalition governments. He was not a member of the SFIO, but led the small Socialist Union of the Resistance (UDSR) which gave him a powerful bargaining position in the complex maneuvering between parties.

Mitterrand’s position on Algeria — as it was on many things — was ambiguous. He had a liberal record on colonial policy, having favored Tunisian and Moroccan independence. But Algeria was different.

At the outbreak of the 1954 FLN insurrection, Mitterrand declared that negotiation with the rebels was inconceivable and that he wanted to see social reforms in instead. Many settlers regarded his sentiments as irresponsibly liberal, but Mitterrand was also totally committed to keeping Algeria French.

Above all Mitterrand was ambitious. He had already resigned from Joseph Laniel’s government over the question of Morocco and was well aware that another resignation could fatally damage to his reputation.

He had real hopes of succeeding Mollet as prime minister within a short time; nothing — certainly not humanitarian considerations nor the long-term interests of French imperialism — was more important than his career.

The Mollet government escalated the war in five stages.

  • They voted for “special powers,” which enabled government by decree, transferred substantial powers to the resident minister, Robert Lacoste, and replaced civilian courts with military courts. (Having trained as a lawyer, Mitterrand doubtless knew that the special powers violated the constitution, but he accepted them.)
  • They kidnapped Ahmed Ben Bella and other FLN leaders. (Mitterrand initially praised the move. Although he later realized that the illegal action had harmful consequences, he did not oppose the cabinet’s decision to keep the prisoners in custody.)
  • They sent an extra two hundred thousand troops to Algeria. (Mendès-France resigned from the government in response; Mitterrand said little but did not oppose the decision.)
  • They joined the 1956 invasion of Egypt. (Mitterrand told the cabinet, “Nasser must be liquidated. It’s a duel to the death.”)
  • Finally, during the Battle of Algiers, they granted General Massu full authority to crush the FLN’s organization in the capital city. (Mitterrand was in regular telephone contact with Algiers at this time and must have been familiar with Massu’s illegal methods, which included torture.)

In each case Mitterrand publicly supported his government’s policy, sometimes with an enthusiasm beyond that required by ministerial solidarity.

While he seems to have had reservations on some points, he remained silent. In an interview after the Mollet government’s collapse, he insisted that he approved the main lines of government policy to “restore order” and ensure that Algeria remained French.

Mitterrand was clearly to the right of his own very moderate party’s policy, which at its 1956 congress voted unanimously for a federal solution in Algeria. Not until March 1957, just two months before the fall of the government, did Mitterrand address a private letter to Mollet rather timidly expressing his reservations about what was being done in Algeria.

Much of what was going on in Algeria was out of the French government’s control, as the army had effectively took the law into its own hands. Torture was systematic, and many Algerian prisoners were killed without any judicial process. (This often took the form of the notorious corvées de bois, when prisoners were sent in a party to collect wood, then shot during alleged “escape attempts.”)

There was a simple logic to this brutality. The court system would have collapsed under the sheer number of prisoners awaiting trial.

And since officially there was no “war,” there could be no prisoners of war. Army officers and politicians — including Mitterrand — understood this well and tacitly accepted it.

Just how much Mitterrand knew is difficult to assess, but it seems clear that he had a very good idea of what was happening. In fact, he was far better informed about Algeria than most of his fellow ministers, including Mollet, and kept in regular contact with informants. When the lawyer Gisèle Halimi told him in 1956 that her clients were being tortured, Mitterrand accused her of exaggerating.

Mitterrand appointed Jean Reliquet as the Algerian procureur général (equivalent of attorney general). Reliquet seems to have been an honest liberal who respected legal procedures, but he was effectively powerless. For a time Lacoste refused to meet with him, and the army authorities effectively ignored him as well.

We must put Reliquet’s administrative impotence in the context of the executions — a matter Mitterrand had special responsibility for. Of the 222 executions over the course of the war, the first forty-five took place under the Mollet government.

The Algiers executioner, Fernand Meyssonnier, hardly a bleeding heart himself, compared the wave of executions to the Terror of the 1790s.

In terms of the total casualties of the war, this is a small figure, but the political implications of the use of capital punishment were significant. The French government steadfastly refused to recognize that there even was a war, which criminalized the whole national-independence movement.

Lacoste even denied the existence of the FLN, saying it was merely a gang of hooligans and a myth created by Parisian lawyers. As such, those prisoners lucky enough to get a trial were effectively treated not as combatants but as criminals, and in some cases were not allowed to see their lawyers. (The German occupiers, as many could remember, had taken a similar attitude to the French Resistance.)

For the FLN the guillotine, rather than shooting, was seen as an expression of contempt. They would have preferred to face death from a firing squad, standing up, than suffer the indignity of beheading.

For the defenders of French rule, capital punishment had a different significance. Everyone knew that sooner or later, one way or the other, the war would end, and that combatants would be granted amnesty. So execution became the only means of punishment.

Some of the executed FLN militants were guilty of killing policemen or civilians. In the light of the legal fiction that there was no war going on, they were charged with murder.

But some were executed for more minor offences: Mohamed Belkhiria threw a disarmed grenade into a bar in Constantine. No one was killed or injured, but he was sentenced to death (with Mitterrand’s approval).

When the Mollet government came to power in 1956, 253 death sentences had been passed on Algerian nationalists (163 in absentia), but none had been executed; there were ninety prisoners on death row.

A cabinet decision had to be made on whether or not to carry out the executions. There are no formal meeting minutes, but an unofficial record kept by one of the ministers shows that Mitterrand voted in favor of the executions.

Clemency decisions were made by the president of the republic, René Coty, after consideration by the twelve-member Higher Council of the Magistracy.

Coty was an old man (seventy-four), often tired, and on one occasion confused two separate cases. Another member of the committee, a lawyer, slept through sessions. Mitterrand’s influence as committee vice-chair was extremely important.

From his position, Mitterrand backed measures to speed up the execution process, so that in February 1956 there were seventeen executions (Mitterrand opposed the sentence in only two cases). He also shortened the period allowed for clemency appeals.

In this way the Algerian procedures contrasted sharply with those used in France. Emile Buisson, a Parisian gangster and serial killer, was also guillotined in February 1956. But his execution took place three full years after his arrest, and he had been given time to get numerous psychiatric reports to support his appeal.

Mitterrand thus established himself as a hard-liner on the question of capital punishment. Of the forty-five executions carried out during his period in office, he opposed clemency in at least thirty-two cases.

The remaining, incomplete records show that he voted for clemency less often than Lacoste, who was generally seen as a right-wing defender of European settlers and army officers.

Lacoste’s position was not based simply on humanitarian considerations. The FLN had started as a small organization, but French repression pushed large sections of the Algerian population into its arms.

The executions gave the FLN martyrs. They took revenge in a wave of violent attacks in Algiers, expanding a war had originally been mainly confined to the countryside.

After the first executions the FLN ordered its supporters to shoot down any European male aged between eighteen and fifty-four. This in turn provoked settlers to form racist lynch mobs, further polarizing the situation.

One of the cases that drew most attention was Fernand Iveton’s, the only European civilian to be executed in the course of the war. Iveton, a member of the Algerian Communist Party, belonged to the wing of the party that wished to engage in active solidarity with the Algerian revolution.

He decided to plant a small bomb in his workplace, the Algiers gasworks. It was timed to go off when the plant was empty so that it would damage property but not cause any injuries. Ultimately the bomb was discovered before it exploded.

Iveton was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death. The prospect of any significant number of settlers siding with the FLN was an alarming one, and the French government thought decisive action was necessary.

The fact that Iveton was a Communist made it easier to denounce an alleged Communist influence on the FLN in the fiercely anticommunist atmosphere following the Russian invasion of Hungary.

The trial took place within weeks of his arrest. On February 6, 1957 the Higher Council of the Magistracy heard his appeal. His lawyers had little time to prepare his case and even less to present it; the council considered twenty-one appeals in ninety minutes. Mitterrand voted to reject Iveton’s appeal.

Generally only rank-and-file activists were tried and executed. More senior figures faced death without trial.

In February 1957, French forces captured Larbi Ben M’Hidi, one of the six FLN founders. Army leaders were determined that Ben M’Hidi should not have the opportunity to use a public trial as an international platform.

Eight days later Commandant Paul Aussaresses (who admitted this in his memoirs forty years later) and his men hanged Ben M’Hidi and presented it as a suicide.

When Mitterrand’s office sought more information, the army stonewalled him, saying that since it was a suicide and there was nothing more to say. How much Mitterrand really knew is hard to establish.

When the Mollet government collapsed in 1957 because of internal divisions and tensions caused by the war, it was replaced by a government under Maurice Bourgès–Manoury, a hard-liner on Algeria and a major rival of Mitterrand. Mitterrand was not in the new cabinet and did not hold governmental office again until he was elected president in 1981.

With nowhere else to go, Mitterrand moved to the left. When SFIO members who had broken with their party over its Algerian policy and support for de Gaulle formed the Unified Socialist Party (PSU) in 1960, Mitterrand applied for membership.

He was refused three times — his record in office was undoubtedly a major factor.

The SFIO, weakened by Algeria and the general strike of 1968, was on the road to collapse. Mitterrand, never a SFIO member, rebuilt the new Socialist Party on the ruins, drawing in many PSU members and allying with the PCF.

This was his stepping-stone to power. That his conduct during the Algerian war did not come back to haunt him, that he was able to create his own myths and ensure that much of the past remained hidden, is testament to his guile.