Why did the French colonize Algeria?

TOPSHOT-FRANCE-POLITICS-CONGRESS-PARTY-FNEvery now and then I have to write a ‘business case’ at work.  It’s usually for something boring or trivial, like a new laptop for a member of my team, or on one surreal occasion, for permission for one of them to access Youtube. This week, I have come across a much more important ‘business case’, and one that actually led to something; the French colonisation of Algeria.

It’s in a publication that I found hidden away in the catalogue of the British Library when researching the book on Algeria that I’m writing.  It rejoices in the prosaic title of De l’Algérie et de sa Colonisation’ (Of Algeria and its Colonisation).  It was written in 1834 by an anonymous but clearly influential member of the French establishment who is simply referred to as ‘M. le Comte de B’.

The book tells you everything you need to know why France persisted with colonising a country that proved to be such a costly and bloody exercise, and which still influences much of what France is and does today.

When the book was written, the French had already been in Algeria for four years.  However, the process of occupying in the country had got bogged down and was costing a fortune.  There were those who were beginning to say it was not worth it and they should get out.

The author gives a concise and ‘business case’ for why France should persist with this project:


  • France, like Britain, had a rapidly growing population and needed more space.
  • France had been stripped of most of its colonies (by Britain) and left with ‘dross’  such as Senegal.   So she needs to find new ones.
  • Moreover, the colonies that had been left to her had been made unprofitable through Britain’s self-interested abolition of slavery.  Britain knew perfectly well what she was doing when slavery was abolished.  Slaves were unnecessary to the British in India, as the people there were prepared to work for them.  So getting rid of slavery only hurt Britain’s rivals such as the French with their large sugar plantations in the Carribean.
  • Britain did not need Algeria, though she had toyed with the idea of taking it over for herself because she had enough colonies.  Moreover, the author reasons,  “The two  peoples for so long rivals have come to an understanding  (and) they stride out together to civilise the world.”
  • Britain did the right thing sending its felons to Australia where they became honest men buying manufactured goods from the mother country.  France could do the same in Algeria, settling criminals in the harsh interior, and allowing a better class of settlers to take over coastal areas.

The author was clearly an intelligent and very well informed man.  There is an excellent section on the lucrative and productive agriculture of Algeria, and he goes into considerable and specific detail about what this was worth financially and how it could benefit France.  He had clearly done extensive studies into the geology, flora, and fauna of the country.  Some of his description shows real expert knowledge and an admiration for this wonderful country.

But not once does the author consider the ethics of marching into another country and taking it over, as if it were some sort of company merger or take-over.  He contents himself with the bald statement

“France owns Algiers through right of conquest.”


The book intriguingly and quite prophetically urges the conversion of Algeria into part of metropolitan France as three départements.  Clearly he had the ear of powerful people because this is what happened in 1847.

He shows the signs of the mawkish obsession that many French people had, sometimes still have, with Algeria.  However, the book shows quite astonishing prescience.  For example, it recognises that the Berber people of Kabylie will never be overcome.  With equal perceptiveness, he says


“The Arabs only offer moral resistance.  This will cease the moment they get a firm guarantee of our respect for their religion, customs, habits, laws and their women.”

Of course, that never happened.  The French colonisers, with some very notable but rare exceptions, regarded Arab culture and religion as second class and reserved the best the country for themselves.  In 1962 this finally led to the end of French Algeria.

This book has I think some important lessons for both France and Britain today.   I write this as the French presidential elections are about to happen.  One candidate, Emmanuel Macron, has attracted much criticism in France for saying she needs to own up to crimes against humanity that were committed in Algeria.  He wants France to make peace with its important neighbour and peace with itself.  Another candidate, Marine Le Pen, wants to build a wall to keep Algerians out.

However, we Brits don’t quite get off scot free in all this.  The book makes a telling remark about some of the self-interest that may have lain behind our abolition of slavery.  We like to think we were so much cleverer than the French, getting out of colonies while the going was good, and establishing our wonderful commonwealth. I think that if it weren’t for the popularity of our wonderful Queen, we would not have been given such an easy ride by countries that were ruled by us.



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