A Question of Self-Esteem: The United States and the Cold War Choices in France and Italy, 1944-1958

By Alessandro Brogi | Go to book overview
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5

Mediterranean “Missions”

At Dien Bien Phu, the French Armée lost more than ten thousand men. * It was the worst defeat a Western regular army ever suffered at the hands of a colonial resistance movement. The Algerian revolt, latent for several years and an open war after November 1, 1954, was to be just as devastating for France, its empire, and even more for the institutions of the Fourth Republic. But the French were not ready to surrender Algeria the same way they surrendered Vietnam. For they believed that their mission civilisatrice had reached its zenith in North Africa, transmitting institutions and culture to a population of bedouins. Further, the French unyielding gospel was that Algeria, with over one million European “colons” was France. These myths were compounded by France's realization that North Africa was the last bastion of the empire (significantly, French resurrection in World War II had started from Algiers) and that the Algerian rebellion was the ultimate challenge to its status as a world power. Consequently this was also what many French saw as their last chance to preserve the nation's true identity, for, as Pierre Nora has put it, “the often denounced introversion of the traditional French system of identity depended on a capacity for extroversion on a world scale.”

Considerations of rank and prestige molded France's efforts to retain Algeria more than they influenced its conduct in Southeast Asia. In the summer of 1954 François Mitterand, then minister of Interior, blamed the “dirty war” in Indochina for making France “miss her European rendezvous and

* The figure includes allied indigenous troops, as well as prisoners who died in Vietminh prision camps: see www.dienbienphu.org.

-171-

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