The people have spoken

In its first few years, the magazine 'Révolution Africaine' opened possibilities for Franco-Algerian cooperation. It was then co-opted by the state.

From the cover of Révolution Africaine.

Less than one year after the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) signed peace accords with the French government to end the Algerian War for Independence, a small cadre of militants joined to draft the first edition of a new magazine: Révolution Africaine. The publication promised to serve the new nation and the African continent. It sought to “make known the struggles of [African] peoples… and call on all men enamored with liberty and progress to fight at their side.” In the 1960s, Révolution Africaine developed from a site of Franco-Algerian anticolonial solidarity to an organ of official policy, reflecting a broader transformation in Algerian popular media.

Founded by French-Vietnamese Trotskyist Jacques Vergès and FLN fighter Zohra Drif, the weekly publication presented itself as proof of Algeria’s commitment to popular democracy, African liberation, and global anti-colonialism. They featured articles about anti-colonial struggles in Angola, Nigeria, and South Africa and interviewed Mao Tsetung and Julius Nyerere. As they wrote in April 1963, the goal was to promote “socialist revolution in Africa.”

In its first few years, Révolution Africaine modeled a possibility of Franco-Algerian collaboration. Vergès and Drif hoped to use this civic institution to encourage cooperation, despite the recent violence of the war. The magazine’s original staff was primarily composed of anticolonial French militants, including political scientist Gérard Chaliand and sociologist Juliette Minces, photographer Elie Kagan, cartoonist Maurice Sinet (Siné), and Georges Châtain—the only professional journalist of the group. Each was shadowed by an aspiring Algerian who joined them on reporting trips and learned the ins and outs of print production. Kagan, for instance, was in charge of “training Algerian professionals in (photo)journalism.” This built local expertise in the absence of formal state institutions (the Algerian École Nationale Supérieure de Journalisme et des Sciences de l’Information was established in 1964). Informal Franco-Algerian collaboration was a channel for the rapid transmission of expertise.

Sold at an “affordable price” in Algeria, France, Tanzania, Cuba, Switzerland, England, and the US, readers were kept abreast of ongoing affairs and invited to participate by sending in their own news through telegrams and letters, by which the magazine perceived that readers were “expressing their agreement” with their ideology. Moreover, the “Dialogue with Our Readers” provided information about émigré Algerians, Moroccan challenges to the Banque de Paris, and violence against black Americans. By consuming these stories, readers—albeit a small group of French-literate Algerians—participated in a continental experiment in post-colonial governance.

Under Vergès, Révolution Africaine presented itself as engaging the Algerian population in national development. It was unique, the editorial team wrote, for being “anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, and anti-bureaucratic,” as they sought to provide readers informed critiques of the new government through debates and discussion. For instance, one issue contained three perspectives on Algerian agriculture: poet and militant Noureddine Tidafi defended the first AGTA congress, an editorial entitled “The People have Spoken” praised popular protests for pushing the government to nationalize large landholdings, and Gérard Chaliand argued that the government’s new reforms did not go far enough to transform agriculture. Readers could see in this critique a model of popular debate and democratic engagement that the magazine’s editors envisioned as a benefit of decolonization. The content and structure of the magazine encouraged readers to see Algeria as a nation built “for the people, by the people.”

The fact that the magazine was entirely staffed by French journalists did, of course, have an impact on the publication’s content and ideals. French articles, for instance, pushed a Europeanized vision of women’s liberation and highlighted the problems of Amazigh peoples in Kabylia—topics that were largely abandoned in favor of discussions of Arabic culture and history and religious reform under later staff. If the magazine’s content reflected in part the ideas of its employees, it also reflected the changing politics of the nation. Local political divisions soon took precedence over the ideal of Franco-Algerian cooperation. In 1963, Vergès clashed with then-President Ahmed Ben Bella and left for France. After Vergès’ departure, FLN member and historian Mohamed Harbi was appointed the new editor of Révolution Africaine. Bringing in sympathetic political allies, this also constituted an institutional change. Harbi “Algerianized” the magazine’s staff, replacing nearly all the French militants with Algerians by 1965. Chaliand and Minces, two original reporters, saw this as a largely positive outcome of their cooperation, though Minces was less convinced that some reporters, like Mohamed Bekkouche who had shadowed them, were qualified replacements.

Under Harbi, Vergès’ performance of popular debate gave way to that of popular unity. An editorial noting the new leadership in June explained that “the goals set upon its creation remain the same.” Nevertheless, Harbi critiqued what he saw as the previous editor’s tendency to substitute the interests of the people for “careerism,” reflecting a frustration with the patronizing approach French “coopérants” sometimes took with their Algerian compatriots. In the following editions, Révolution Africaine insisted on the powerful relationship between the people and government while continuing to write about Algeria’s relationship to Africa and the Third World—a pillar of early Algerian foreign policy.

Révolution Africaine’s transformation became more pronounced after Houari Boumédienne’s June 1965 coup d’état. Harbi was unceremoniously removed and placed under house arrest. Along with all other media institutions, Révolution Africaine was shuttered for several months. When it reopened, the publication had a much reduced capacity for critique. By the late 1960s, the editors and staff were no longer listed and articles were as likely to be unsigned as signed. Those Algerian reporters who had replaced the original French journalists were themselves largely replaced with more sympathetic cadres, facing the real threat of arrest and imprisonment as happened to a half dozen reporters from Alger Republican. Though it remained a source of information about the Third World, it no longer sought to foment popular debate or encouraged institutional critique. Though individual relationships remained, Révolution Africaine’s development marked a turning point: away from opportunities for Franco-Algerian collaboration in civil society and towards a state-based approach to coordinating transnational cooperation that also discouraged public critique of the state.

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