Algeria under French Rule

French troops in Algeria
French troops in Algeria

France first occupied Algeria in 1830. During the Napoleonic era, France had bought Algerian wheat on credit. After the fall of Napoleon I Bonaparte, the newly reestablished French monarchy refused to pay these debts. The dey of Algiers, Husain, sought payment, and during a quarrel with the French consul Duval he allegedly hit the consul in the face with his flyswatter.

Duval reported the insult to Paris, and the French government sought revenge. King Charles X, who wanted to gain new markets and raw materials and deflect attention from an unstable domestic political situation, used the supposed insult as an excuse to attack Algeria.

As a result, a French fleet with over 30,000 men landed in Algiers in the summer of 1830 and Dey Husain was forced to sign an act of capitulation by General de Bourmont. The French pledged to maintain Islam and the customs of the people but also confiscated booty worth over 50 million francs.

The French government then debated what to do with the territory. France could keep the dey in power, destroy the forts, and leave or install an Arab prince to rule. The government also debated supporting the return of Ottoman rule, putting the Knights of Malta in power, inviting other European powers to establish some form of joint rule, or keeping the territory as part of the French empire.

By 1834 the French had decided on a policy of conquest and annexation of the Algerian territory. A French governor-general was appointed, and all Ottoman Turks were out of Algeria by 1837. The French government held that there was no such thing as an Algerian nation and that Algeria was to become an integral part of France.

Although assimilation of the predominantly Muslim and Arabic-speaking Algerian population into French society was ostensibly the policy of successive French regimes, the overwhelming majority of Algerians were never accepted as equals. Algeria became a French department, and the French educational system, with French as the primary language, was instituted.

In 1865 the French government under Napoleon III declared that Algerian Muslims and Jews could join the French military and civil service but could only become French citizens if they gave up their religious laws.

The overwhelming majority of the Muslim population refused to do so, and Algerian Muslims gradually became thirdclass citizens in their own country, behind the mainland French and the colons, or French settlers. In 1870 Algerian Jews were granted French citizenship.

Through most of the 19th century, the Algerians fought against the French occupation. Led by Emir Abdul Kader, the Algerians were initially successful in their hit-and-run attacks against the French.

Emir Abdul Kader
Emir Abdul Kader

To gain the offensive, General Thomas-Robert Bugeaud created mobile columns to attack the Algerian fighters deep inside Algerian territory. With their superior armaments, the French put Abdul Kader’s forces on the defensive, and Abdul Kader was forced to surrender in 1847, after which he was sent into exile.

In 1870 another revolt led by Mokrani broke out in the Kabyle, the mountainous district of northeastern Algeria. A woman named Lalla Fatima also championed the fighters in the Kabyle, but by 1872 the French had crushed the revolt.

In retaliation, the French expropriated more than 6.25 million acres of land. Much of the expropriated land was given to French settlers coming from the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine that the French had lost to the Germans as a result of the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871.

These punitive land expropriations made most Algerians tenant farmers and led to further impoverishment of the indigenous population. By the end of the 19th century there were approximately 200,000 French colons living in Algeria.

Indigenous Algerians were forced to pay special taxes, and limitations were placed on the numbers of Algerian children who could attend French schools. In addition, the French judicial system was implemented.

In reaction to the growing social and political chasm between the colons and the indigenous population, a few Muslim leaders in the cities of Tlemcen and Bone sent a note to the government in 1900 asking for the right to vote.

Called the Young Algerians (Jeunes Algériens), these modernizers sought to narrow the gap between the two societies and had much in common with reformers in other parts of the Arab world. Although some liberals in mainland France supported reforms, the colons remained firmly opposed to any legislation that would lessen their favored positions.