Negotiating the independence of Algeria
Updated on 07 September 2022
Algeria had been conquered by France in 1830-47 and annexed as an integral part of metropolitan France. In November 1954 several Algerian groups seeking independence of their country launched an armed revolt. Over the following years an armed struggle took place between the French army and Algerian fighters. Against violent opposition, at home and in particular from the 1 million French settlers in Algeria, the French Government gradually sought contacts with the Algerian side represented by the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) established in Tunis to find an end to the violence.
Informal contacts took place in Paris in 1961 between the GPRA representative Ahmed Boumendjel and the personal advisor to President de Gaulle Georges Pompidou. These contacts were often interrupted, including by the putsch of retired French Generals in Algiers in June 1961. A complicating element was the refusal of France to offer any kind of recognition as representative of the Algerian side to the GPRA.
The Swiss Government then offered its mediation which was accepted although never formally acknowledged by France. The Swiss mission was coordinated by the head of the political division at the Foreign Ministry, Raymond Probst. Ambassador Olivier Long was designated as intermediary with the French side and Gianrico Bucher, ambassador designate to Nigeria as intermediary with the Algerian side. The GPRA had a representative in Switzerland, Mr. Taieb Boulahrouf.
At this stage it was still possible to keep the contacts and discussions secret from the public and the media. I was at the time vice-consul at the Swiss consulate general in Algiers and in that capacity was asked to meet Mr. Boulahrouf secretly in Switzerland for a briefing discussion. This was not noticed by any outsider.
Stages of the negotiation
It eventually became possible for French and Algerian negotiators to meet secretly at Les Rousses on the French-Swiss border. On the Algerian side these representatives, hosted secretly in Switzerland, were not allowed to accept anything before prior approval by 4 Algerian leaders held prisoners by France. The consultation of those leaders took place through Moroccan intermediaries acting as hosts to the Algerian prisoners in Paris.
Eventually direct discussions were agreed between two delegations at Evian. The Algerian delegation was housed in Geneva. After an interruption the negotiations were resumed again in Evian with the Algerian delegation being now hosted at the Signal de Bougy, a Swiss resort above the Lake of Geneva and flown daily across the lake.
These two stages were no longer secret, although nothing was made public regarding their progress. Only the resulting Evian Agreement of April 18th, 1962 was made public. It provided for an immediate cease-fire and an interim period, at the end of which a plebiscite was to be held in Algeria on July 1st. Previously the agreement was submitted to and accepted by a popular vote in France.
During the intermediate period the situation was complicated by the fact that France, still refusing to recognise the GPRA, set up, albeit with the consent of the latter, a Provisional Executive in Algiers, through which the two sides had to keep in contact. It was also to organise and supervise the plebiscite. Even the ensuing recognition of Algerian independence by Switzerland had to be communicated separately to the Provisional Executive and to the unofficial representation of the GPRA in Algiers.
Lessons one can draw from this process
- Where one side does not recognise the other a major problem is to provide for acceptable representatives of the latter. This may only be possible by the intervention of a mediator. Thus Israeli and Palestinian representatives could only meet as guests of the Norwegian foreign minister in Oslo in 1993.
- Where the power structure of one side is unstable, it may be difficult to get the result of negotiations properly accepted by the people the negotiators claim to represent. The outside mediator may be helpful in such a situation.
- Where at least the preliminary contacts cannot be kept confidential or even secret, the negotiation itself may be prejudiced from the outset.
It is questionable whether the equivalent of the Evian negotiations would still be feasible today. Not only are the media far more aggressive and intrusive, but social networks and other ITC facilities can nowadays infiltrate practically any relationship. I personally cannot see how it may be possible to re-create areas of discretion and secrecy, where confidential exchanges still remain possible.