In February 1848, when Paris revolted against the July Monarch of King Louis-Philippe, the French had been fighting a brutal war in Algeria for eighteen years. Historian Jennifer E. Sessions argues that there is no way to separate the momentous events in France that year from French colonialism. The colony of Algeria was, in essence, a training ground, dumping ground, and political symbol. “Revolutionary politics was colonial politics, and vice versa,” writes Sessions.
To start with, the officers and foot soldiers of the genocidal colonial war in Algeria—a favored tactic was the enfumade, “in which Algerian civilians were smoked to death in caves”—dominated France’s military. The Africains, as they were called, were eager to transfer their “total war strategy” to Paris to suppress the unrest, but Louis-Philippe held them back. His forbearance cost him his reign.
A few months later, the streets were in revolt again. But during these June Days, Louis-Philippe was in exile in England. It was a republican government that unleashed Africain veteran Louis-Eugene Cavaignac on the working class insurgents of Paris. The barricades were crushed by cannon-fire. At least 1,500 were killed, and many thousands taken prisoner. Friedrich Engels wasn’t the only one to describe the fierce repression as colonial violence coming home to roost. Moderates and conservatives, meanwhile, argued that just as it was necessary to force civilization on indigenous Algerians through the barrel of a gun, it was necessary to eradicate the savagery of the working class in France through ruthless force.
Cavaignac was rewarded with the title of “Chief of the Executive Power,” at least for a few months. In the presidential election of December 1848, he was defeated by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. George Sand described the contest as a choice between the “rusty sword of the Empire” and the “bloody saber of Algeria.” (The rusty nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte would go on to stage a coup in 1852 and declare himself Napoleon III.)
But Algeria wasn’t just where a repressive military machine made its figurative and literal bones. It wasn’t just a place to send political exiles. It was also where France’s Second Republic (1848–1852) wanted to export the unemployed and turn them into settlers, thereby neutralizing dissent in the metropole.
“Colonization promised to simultaneously satisfy workers’ demands for employment and ally these worries [of the political threat of poverty and unemployment],” writes Sessions.
Workers themselves had proposed colonization as a solution to the employment crisis, on socialist grounds. The new Republic made sure that any colonial settlements would be individualist, based on family and faith. Fifty million francs were earmarked for the plan in late 1848, but the whole thing turned into a fiasco, leaving those colonists who ventured across the Mediterranean high and dry. Hundreds of them died from cholera. By late 1849, barely half of them were still there.
Algeria also provided the very vocabulary of barbarism and civilization that the two sides of the revolutionary year threw at each other. The “colonial civilizing mission” triumphed as a key term in the politics of 1848, at home in the metropole and abroad in the colony.
The Second Republic famously ended French colonial slavery. But at the same time, it fatefully cemented the French hold over Algeria by making the colony a part of French national territory. The colony was divided into a trio of Départements of the state. The debacle of settlement notwithstanding, Europeans continued to settle there in the years ahead. Expansion of male (Europeans only) suffrage and representation in the National Assembly “helped to establish settlers’ lasting republican loyalties.”
The resulting Algérie française (French Algeria) would last more than a century. Non-French settlers become French citizens; in fact, many French Algerians, called pieds-noirs, could trace their ancestry to places other than France. But the indigenous people, the vast majority of Algeria’s population, remained second-class colonial subjects.
In 1962, after a violent eight-year struggle, Algeria declared itself independent from France. Nearly a million pieds-noirs fled the place of their birth. The politics of ’48, the year of thwarted revolutions across Europe, had a long tail.