Saturday, May 7, 2016

1945 Riot on V.E. Day

The Sétif massacre refers to widespread disturbances and killings in northern Africa in and around the Algerian market town of Sétif, located to the west of Constantine, in 1945. The French police fired on local demonstrators at a protest on 8 May 1945. Then, riots in the town itself were followed by attacks on French colons (settlers) in the surrounding countryside resulting in 103 deaths. Subsequent attacks by French authorities and vigilantes are estimated to have caused much greater numbers of deaths amongst the Muslim population of the region: somewhere between 1,020 and 45,000 people (see below). Both the outbreak and the indiscriminate nature of its repression are believed to have marked a turning point in Franco-Algerian relations.


The initial outbreak occurred on the morning of May 8, 1945, the same day Nazi Germany surrendered in World War II. A parade by about 5,000 of the Muslim Algerian population of Sétif to celebrate the victory ended in clashes between the marchers and the local French gendarmerie, when the latter tried to seize banners attacking colonial rule.  There is uncertainty over who fired first but both protesters and police were shot and armed men amongst the Muslim marchers then killed Europeans caught in the streets.  A smaller scale protest in the neighboring town of Guelma was dispersed the same evening. Attacks on pieds noirs (French settlers) in the neighboring countryside then resulted in the deaths of 103 Europeans, mostly civilians, plus another hundred wounded.  The historian Alistair Horne reports that there were a number of rapes and that many of the corpses were mutilated.

French Suppression

After five days of chaos, French military and police suppressed the rebellion, and then carried out a series of reprisals for the attacks on settlers. The army, which included Foreign Legion, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Senegalese troops, carried out summary executions in the course of a ratissage ("raking-over") of Muslim rural communities suspected of involvement. 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 Kherrata. Pied noir vigilantes lynched prisoners taken from local jails 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 attacks 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 and the Muslim population under its control since 1830, when France had colonized Algeria, the closest portion of Africa to France. 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 Évian Accords.

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