December 1960. In most of Algeria’s largest cities, a vast uprising of the “natives” shook the French colonial power. This revolutionary impulse turned the “Algerian people” into a decisive political entity.
Mathieu Rigouste has explained how in a powerful documentary, Un Seul Héros le Peuple (One hero, the people), in which the French sociologist looks at this particular episode of the Algerian War, which was a tipping point in many respects. His documentary tells the story of a general and spontaneous uprising through the eyes of people who witnessed the actual events.
The war of national liberation started on 1 November, 1954. The events of December 1960 took place in the specific context of the retreat of the independence struggle. Indeed, the French army had largely dismantled the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the major cities and reduced the National Liberation Army (ALN) guerrillas in the rest of the country. French President Charles De Gaulle, who had returned to power two years earlier, arrived in Algeria for what promised to be a tense visit.
“While no one expected it,” says Rigouste, “it was the popular classes who took the revolution in hand and took it to the cities, marching over the streets and the forbidden neighbourhoods.” It was a spontaneous movement that spread throughout Algeria.
During the uprising, the famous slogan “One hero, the people” emerged. This was put into effective action through popular resistance, which resulted, according to the official numbers, in nearly 250 people being killed. Three years after the Battle of Algiers, which was clearly a war against civilians, the Algerian people reclaimed their indigenous neighbourhoods and flocked towards the European boulevards of the White City (the name given to Algiers).
Rigouste’s documentary tries to show how December 1960 was a turning point in the Algerian war and for the colonial power. While the French colonial far-right, supported by several regiments in the army attempted a coup, the Algerian popular classes came out en masse and opposed them, then took to the streets for nearly three weeks with their demand for the liberation of the country. It was the first time in the war of liberation and, indeed, in Algeria under French domination, that something like this had happened. As one of the witnesses in the documentary says, “December 60 was bound to happen, and without this uprising, there would be no independence.”
Through a precise and meticulous examination of the struggle, Rigouste establishes a genealogy of the Algerian resistance which has never been really stifled. “This uprising broke all the codes of the colonial order: leaving the ghettos and defying the borders of forbidden neighbourhoods; carrying the flags of independence; singing and dancing; and fighting with the settlers, the police and the army.” In several cities, on several occasions, he points out, the colonised people overwhelmed the repressive apparatus and took over these streets and neighbourhoods.”
The strength of this documentary is to give a voice to eyewitnesses. It’s a “fabric of hidden stories” collected meticulously by the director who says he has “come to terms” with his “affection for the subject”. He qualifies this as a “popular investigation”, which makes sense since it was carried out by witnesses of the historic events. Indeed, it is hard not to be touched by the witnesses who are still alive and what they have to tell us. They were children at the time, teenagers at most, and they let us know on camera how this insurrection shook the French empire.
Rigouste brings us the woman who discovered that her mother, a seamstress, was secretly making the forbidden Algerian flags. A man recalls the death of his father, a fighter who was tortured for 40 days by the French army, before it was claimed that he had “committed suicide”. Another explains how French soldiers were baffled by the ululating women who wanted to force their way past the military roadblocks. Moreover, the topography of Algiers then took on another dimension, each street corner becoming a theatre of the struggle for independence.When protesting, Algerians seemed to fill the public space with their presence, bodies, and voices. Such demonstrations were subject to bloody repression. In the testimonies presented for us by Rigouste there are a number of moments described as the paralysis of the colonial order due to the fact that the protesters held the streets. The processions were so powerful that they took the forbidden streets, sometimes even those blocked by the army. The colonised people invaded the public space with Algerian flags that at the time could have cost them their lives.
Those who took part described an intense feeling of liberation and festivity, with singing, dancing and ululation. The witnesses in the film speak of intense joy, delirium and even collective trance. They say that they felt as if they were each part of a common body. The image of a river of humanity comes to mind, albeit one endowed with intelligence.
The same festivities that characterised independence began in 1960 with the liberation of colonised bodies and a reversal of the balance of power through the physical presence of Algerians in the streets and forbidden neighbourhoods from December 1960 to 1962. The originality of the documentary is that it is in line with the work of Franz Fanon, who, already at the time, questioned the body by describing the muscles of the colonised people soaking up the colonial violence.
“These events truly are fascinating,” explains Rigouste. “There is a multiplicity of upsetting stories tangled up in them.” He doesn’t fall into revolutionary romanticism, however, because he also details how “the figure of the ‘Algerian people’ has masked deep contradictions between people who were for or against independence, wait-and-see, opportunists, volunteers…”Both “spontaneous and not spontaneous,” as one of the witnesses put it, the movement started without the FLN. “The FLN’s governing bodies did not call for these uprisings, they did not trigger them and did not organise them, even if some tried to make people believe otherwise later,” the director points out. “An autonomous FLN zone in Algiers was certainly at work, but was still far from ready in December 1960. It did not have the means to unleash such uprisings. However, it tried to frame them, depending on the districts. In other cities where there were also large demonstrations, the FLN was sometimes completely absent. But this does not mean that the FLN had no influence. At this point in the war of liberation, the FLN had governing bodies whose many factions were already fighting for its control.”
It was, though, “FLN” and “GPRA” (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic) that were chanted and written on walls and banners by Algerian demonstrators. Nevertheless, when Ferhat Abbas, the GPRA president, asked the protesters to go home and let the new Algerian government manage independence affairs, he was not listened to. Everywhere, people continued to demonstrate. In some regions, people only started to go out after his call to stay at home.
“For the inhabitants of the cities, the everyday-life-FLN activist is often a grassroots activist completely integrated into the life of the neighbourhood” says Rigouste. “And from this point of view, the FLN was indeed a forum for the formation of independence activism.”
The FLN had a clear influence in the engagement and politicisation of the popular classes, he adds, but it was not the only one. “Other independent organisations played a role in the politicisation of the popular classes and in the conquest of independence. And this investigation shows that it is necessary to consider the legacy of ideas and practices accumulated by popular resistance movements throughout the ages as well as an autonomous dynamic in the revolutionary future of the colonised proletariat.”
Un seul héros le peuple also shows the militarised forms of repression to which the Algerian working classes were subjected throughout the colonial period and against which they had to organise themselves collectively to stay alive. The history of the daily life of the colonised masses is replete with examples of how they developed ways to avoid and trick the occupiers, and sometimes confront the colonial power.
According to Rigouste, December 1960 contradicts the mythology of the French counterinsurgency. This mystification of the “Battle of Algiers” narrative is based on the idea that the French army, with its counterinsurgency model called the “doctrine of counter-revolutionary war”, would have succeeded in eliminating the political-military organisations — the FLN and ALN — and any resistance on the Algerian side. In fact, political cells in the city and guerrilla units were quickly reconstituted.
“As this investigation and the history of women in the Algerian war show, popular resistance has never ceased. They succeeded in making themselves elusive by the counterinsurgency and went through all the repressive operations, until December 1960 and then beyond. They had to change form after Independence, but they still resurfaced, in the form of a people on the march in February 2019.”
It also demonstrates how the colonial condition is particular because it is “the conjugation of capitalist, racist and patriarchal powers of relationships, resulting in a system of segregation and privileges in relation to the popular classes considered “Western”. The colonial fault line set white and indigenous proletarians in opposition across all sectors of imperialist society: in housing, health, education, culture, access to rights, their dealings with the police, justice, prison, army and administrations. It was on this line that the social and historical explosion of December 1960 took place.
This story is almost unknown in France because it has been concealed, especially through the amnesty laws that allowed the French state to absolve itself of responsibility and thus make most of the crimes simply disappear. Yet as Rigouste records, “At least 250 Algerians died during these three weeks; it was a massacre committed by the French government. One should question its disappearance from the memories of the struggles and popular culture in the same way that 17 October, 1961 had disappeared before witnesses, activists and researchers cooperated to make it exist in contemporary collective memories.”
In Algeria, this history is better known, but mainly by the older generations. “Until February 2019, young people knew little about it. They heard about it briefly at school and through official commemorations, which led to a general mistrust. But there are still living traces of it in the bodies of the witnesses.”
Is it the same dynamic that can be detected in the hirak protests of 2019? Rigouste, who followed the hirak events in the field, points out that at the beginning of the protests, he had the impression of seeing this “common body” that had been dismembered, now being re-formed. “But we must listen to what the Algerians say. They have resurrected the slogan ‘One hero, the people’ and are using it again and again in various ways. The demonstrators of 2019 have begun to build a collective memory of the uprisings of December 1960 that weaves together the links between revolutionary generations.”