Sétif and Guelma massacre

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Setif and Guelma massacre
Part of the French Algeria conflict
Département de Sétif 1962.PNG
Map of Algeria with Setif province highlighted
Date8 May 1945
Attack type
Massacre, Communal violence
DeathsHistorians:[1] 6,000 to 20,000
French claim: 1,020
Radio Cairo: 45,000[2]
PerpetratorsFrench authorities and vigilantes
MotiveRepression of demonstrations that demand Algerian independence. 102 French settlers were killed by rioters.

The Sétif and Guelma massacre was a series of terrorist attacks by French colonial authorities and Pied-noir settler militias on Algerian civilians in 1945 around the French Algerian market town of Sétif, west of Constantine, Algeria. French police fired on demonstrators at a protest on 8 May 1945.[3] Riots in the town were followed by attacks on French colons (colonizers) in the surrounding countryside, resulting in 102 deaths. Subsequent attacks by the French Colonial authorities and European settlers caused deaths among the Muslim population of the region; estimates ranged between 1,020 (contemporaneous French claim) and 45,000 (subsequent Radio Cairo claim) people killed. Both the outbreak and the indiscriminate nature of its repression are thought to have marked a turning point in Franco-Algerian relations, leading to the Algerian War of 1954–1962.[4]


The anti-colonialist movement had started organizing itself before World War II, under Messali Hadj and Ferhat Abbas. However, the participation of Algeria in the war had a major impact on the rise of nationalism. Algeria held the capital of the Free France from 1943, which created hope for many nationalists. Ferhat Abbas published in 1943 a Manifesto[5] that claimed the right for Algerians to have a constitution and a State associated with France. The lack of French response to this text inspired the creation of the "Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté" (AML) and the rise of nationalism, leading to thousand-person protests in such cities as Mostaganem in the previous weeks. Contemporary factors other than those of the emergence of Arab nationalism included widespread drought and famine in the Constantine region,[6] in a region where the European settlers were a minority: in the city of Guelma, there were 4,000 settlers for 16,500 Muslim Algerians. This situation led to the spreading of conspiracy theories among the settler community and local administration, that started creating or supporting armed militias.[1] With the end of World War II, 4,000 protesters took to the streets of Sétif, a town in northern Algeria, to press new demands for independence on the French administration.[7]


Flag of the Algerian nationalists in 1945

The initial outbreak occurred on the morning of 8 May 1945, the same day that Nazi Germany surrendered in World War II. A parade of about 5,000 people 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.[8] There is uncertainty over who fired first but both protesters and police were shot. A smaller and peaceful protest of Algerian People's Party activists in the neighboring town of Guelma was violently repressed by the colonial police the same evening. News from Sétif acted as a match on the poor and nationalist rural population, and led to attacks on pieds-noirs in the Sétif countryside (Kherrata, Chevreul) that resulted in the deaths of 102 European colonial settlers (12 in Guelma), plus another hundred wounded.[9]

French suppression[edit]

French suppression in Sétif[edit]

After five days of chaos, the French colonial military and police suppressed the rebellion, and then carried out a series of attacks on civilians for the attacks on French colonial settlers. The army, which included Foreign Legion, Moroccan 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.[10] Pied-noir terrorists lynched prisoners taken from local jails or randomly shot Muslims not wearing white arm bands (as instructed by the army) out of hand[8] It is certain that the great majority of the Muslim victims had not been implicated in the original outbreak.[11]

A "French subversive movement" in Guelma[edit]

French repression in the Guelma region differed from that in Sétif in that while only 12 pied-noirs had been killed in the countryside, attacks on civilians lasted until 26 June. The Constantine préfet, Lestrade-Carbonnel had supported the creation of European settler militias, while the Guelma sous-préfet, André Achiari, created an informal justice system (Comité de Salut Public) designed to encourage the violence of the settler terrorists against unarmed civilians, and to facilitate the identification and murder of nationalist activists.[12] He also instructed police and army intelligence agencies to assist the settler terrorist militias. Muslim victims killed in both urban and rural areas were buried in mass graves in places like Kef-el-Boumba, but the corpses were later dug up and burned in Héliopolis.[13]


These attacks killed between 1,020 (the official French figure given in the Tubert Report shortly after the massacre) and 45,000 Algerian Muslims (as claimed by Radio Cairo at the time).[11][14] Horne notes that 6,000 was the figure finally settled on by moderate historians, while Jean-Pierre Peyroulou, crossing Allies' statistics and Marcel Reggui's testimony concludes that a range from 15,000 to 20,000 is likely, contesting Jean-Louis Planche's 20,000 to 30,000 deaths estimation.[1] The identity of the Muslim Algerian victims differed in Sétif and Guelma. In the countryside outside Sétif, some victims were actual nationalists who had taken part in the insurrection but the majority were uninvolved civilians who had only lived in the same area. However, in Guelma nationalist activists were specifically targeted by French settler terrorists. Most were male (13% of the men in Guelma were killed),[15] either members of the AML, the Muslim scouts or the local CGT.[13]


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. 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.[16] Nine years later, a general uprising began in Algeria, leading to independence from France in March 1962 with the signing of the Évian Accords.[17]

Legacy in Algeria[edit]

From 1954 to 1988, the massacres of Sétif and Guelma were commemorated in Algeria, but it was considered as a minor event compared to November 1, 1954, the beginning of the Algerian war for independence, which legitimized the one-party regime. The members of the FLN, as rebels and as State members did not want to emphasize the importance of May 1945: it would have involved remembering that there were other contradictory currents of nationalism,[18] such as Messali Hadj's Algerian National Movement that opposed the FLN. With the democratization movement of 1988, Algerians "rediscovered"[18] a History different from the one told by the regime, as the regime itself was questioned. Research about the massacres of May 1945 was conducted, as well as a memorial will to remember these events. The presidency of Liamine Zéroual and Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and also the Fondation du 8 Mai 1945 also started using the memories of the massacres as a political tool[18] to discuss the consequences of the "colonial genocide"[19] with France:

Semantic debates: genocide, massacre or politicide[edit]

The words used to refer to the events are often instrumentalized or carry a memorial connotation. The word massacre, currently applied in historical research to the Muslim Algerian victims of May 1945, was first used in French propaganda in reference to the 102 European colonial settler victims; apparently to justify the French suppression.[20] The word genocide, used by Bouteflika[21] for example, does not apply to the events in Guelma, since the Algerian victims there were reportedly targeted because of their nationalist activism; which might make the Guelma massacre a politicide according to B. Harff and Ted R. Gurr's definition.[22] The term massacre is, according to Jacques Sémelin a more useful methodological tool for historians to study an event whose definition is debated.[23]

Impact on modern Algerian–French relations[edit]

French officials during a remembrance ceremony for victims of the Setif massacre, held in Aubervilliers on 9 May 2010

In February 2005, Hubert Colin de Verdière, France's ambassador to Algeria, formally apologized for the massacre, calling it an "inexcusable tragedy",[24] in what was described as "the most explicit comments by the French state on the massacre".[25]

In popular culture[edit]

The Algerian cinema, an industry where war movies are popular, depicted the massacres more than once. When Outside the Law by Rachid Bouchareb was nominated for Best Picture in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, French pieds-noirs, harkis and war veterans demonstrated against the film being shown in French cinemas, accusing it of distorting reality.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Peyroulou, Jean-Pierre (March 21, 2008). "Le cas de Sétif-Kherrata-Guelma (Mai 1945)". Violence de masse et Résistance - Réseau de recherche.
  2. ^ Cairo Conference 1958, p. 115
  3. ^ "Témoins des massacres du 8 Mai 1945 en Algérie".
  4. ^ Morgan, Ted (2006-01-31). My Battle of Algiers. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-06-085224-5.
  5. ^ "10 février 1943 – Le Manifeste du peuple algérien". Textures du temps (in French). Retrieved 2018-04-08.
  6. ^ Gunther, John (1955). Inside Africa. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. p. 121.
  7. ^ Planche, Jean Louis. Sétif 1945, histoire d'un massacre annoncé. p. 137.
  8. ^ a b Morgan, Ted (2006-01-31). My Battle of Algiers. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-06-085224-5.
  9. ^ Horne, Alistair (1977). A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962. New York: The Viking Press. p. 26.
  10. ^ "Le cas de Sétif-Kherrata-Guelma (Mai 1945) | Sciences Po Violence de masse et Résistance - Réseau de recherche". www.sciencespo.fr (in French). Retrieved 2019-08-03.
  11. ^ a b Horne, p. 27.
  12. ^ Peyroulou, Jean-Pierre (2009). "6. La mise en place d'un ordre subversif, le 9 mai 1945". Guelma, 1945 : une subversion française dans l'Algérie coloniale. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. ISBN 9782707154644. OCLC 436981240.
  13. ^ a b Peyroulou, Jean-Pierre (2009). "8. La légitimation et l'essor de la subversion 13-19 mai 1945". Guelma, 1945 : une subversion française dans l'Algérie coloniale. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. ISBN 9782707154644. OCLC 436981240.
  14. ^ Bouaricha, Nadjia (7 May 2015). "70 ans de déni". El Watan.
  15. ^ Peyroulou, Jean-Pierre (2009). "11. Les morts". Guelma, 1945 : une subversion française dans l'Algérie coloniale. Paris: Éditions La Découverte. ISBN 9782707154644. OCLC 436981240.
  16. ^ Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion. p. 569. ISBN 978-0-333-58500-9.
  17. ^ Edgar O'Ballance, pages 39 and 195 "The Algerian Insurrection 1954-62", Faber and Faber London 1867
  18. ^ a b c Peyroulou, Jean-Pierre (2014-12-18). "Les métamorphoses du martyrologe algérien du 8 mai 1945". In Branche, Raphaëlle; Picaudou, Nadine; Vermeren, Pierre (eds.). Autour des morts de guerre : Maghreb - Moyen-Orient. Internationale. Paris: Éditions de la Sorbonne. pp. 97–118. doi:10.4000/books.psorbonne.850. ISBN 9782859448745.
  19. ^ "Numéro spécial 8 mai 1945 : Combattre l'amnésie". El Watan. 8 May 2005.
  20. ^ Mehana., Amrani (2010). Le 8 mai 1945 en Algérie : les discours français sur les massacres de Sétif, Kherrata et Guelma. Paris: Harmattan. ISBN 9782296120730. OCLC 672222819.
  21. ^ "Boutéflika réclame "des excuses publiques"". L'Obs. 8 May 2006.
  22. ^ Harff, Barbara; Gurr, Ted Robert (1988-09-01). "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945". International Studies Quarterly. 32 (3): 359–371. doi:10.2307/2600447. ISSN 0020-8833. JSTOR 2600447.
  23. ^ Sémelin, Jacques (2005). Purifier et détruire usages politiques des massacres et génocides. Paris: Éditions du Seuil. ISBN 9782021008746. OCLC 936677982.
  24. ^ "Algeria Marks WWII Anniversary with Call for French Apology". VOA News. 9 May 2005. Archived from the original on 11 May 2005. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  25. ^ "France urged to admit 1945 massacre".


  • Courrière, Yves, La guerre d'Algérie, tome 1 (Les fils de la Toussaint), Fayard, Paris 1969, ISBN 2-213-61118-1.
  • Horne, Alistair, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962, New York 1978, Viking Press, ISBN 0-670-61964-7.
  • Planche, Jean Louis, Sétif 1945, histoire d'un massacre annoncé, Perrin, Paris 2006, ISBN 2262024332.
  • Vallet, Eugène, Un drame algérien. La vérité sur les émeutes de mai 1945, éd. Grandes éditions françaises, 1948, OCLC 458334748.
  • Vétillard, Roger, Sétif. Mai 1945. Massacres en Algérie, éd. de Paris, 2008, ISBN 978-2-85162-213-6.
  • Cairo Conference (1958), Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Conference, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House

External links[edit]