Hilary Smith

Dr. Leslie Dwyer

CONF 601

16 October 2013


The film The Battle of Algiers can be analyzed using at least four different conflict theories. The theories used here include Realism, Greed vs. Grievance, Structural Violence, and Basic Human Needs.


Realism is one theory through which to understand the conflict between the FLN and the French in The Battle of Algiers. Realism’s basic tenet is actors are rational and act to maximize their own self-interest, where their self-interest is defined in terms of power relative to others. Realism is applied to political questions and assumes that politics are governed by objective laws. Morality also plays a role in Realism. In a Realist Theory of International Politics, Morgenthau states that universal morality cannot be ascribed nor confused with the system of morality states must adopt (2006). Universal morality may proscribe a different course of action than state morality. Because a state is responsible for its citizens, if a state’s self-sacrifice hurts the members of that state, it would be considered an immoral act from a Realist perspective. Where an act of self-sacrifice may be moral for an individual, it is not moral for a state if that act harms its citizens. Realism also concedes that its theory applies to political questions. Where legal, economic, or other moral questions exist, other theories must be applied and then integrated together with the understanding realism brings.

In The Battle of Algiers, the French expansion into Algeria can be understood from as Realist perspective. Their expansion into Algeria may be seen as seeking to maximize French political power and thereby its self-interest. The French were a major world power. In order to keep its status in such a rapidly decolonizing, post-colonial world, the French government may have felt it necessary to occupy and annex Algeria. This cannot be judged by a system of universal morality, but may be termed moral from a Realist perspective if, by doing so, France acted in the self-interest of its citizens.

The FLN’s actions can be interpreted through a realist lens as well. The FLN’s utility or prerogative was accomplished through gaining political control over its own people as it fomented a revolution against the French. This revolution was moral in the sense that it acted to maximize the self-interest or power of its constituents. Realism deals in terms of state actors and as a non-state actor, the FLN may not be fully explained by the realist perspective. However, its aspiration to start a revolution and then govern Algeria, as well as the FLN’s ability to appeal to the UN, a supra-nation-state organization, allows the tenets of Realism to apply to FLN’s case.

Greed vs. Grievance

In addition to Realism, Greed vs. Grievance may be used to understand this conflict. The film The Battle of Algiers does not, however, provide enough information to adequately conclude Collier and Cramer’s argument over greed vs. grievance. First, I will briefly review Collier and Cramer’s arguments and then apply them to the film.

In Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War, Collier, Hoeffler, and Rohner contend that civil war is likely to emerge, not necessarily where grievances occur, but where it is economically possible to revolt (2008). Cramer, in Homo Economicus goes to War: Methodological Individualism, Rational Choice and the Political Economy of War, offers an opposing viewpoint, contending that boiling indicators for revolt down to just economic terms, as well as applying trends of the individual to the society, is misleading and over-simplified. He contends that causes and explanations for the emergence of conflict remain complex, influenced by outside interests and systems, and can best be explained through a combination of economics, resource availability, national and international relations, and societal perspectives on violence and other important issues (2002).

In The Battle of Algiers, grievance is seemingly the cause of both the initial outbreak of rebellion as well as the follow-up rebellion two years after the FLN is dismantled. Algerians, under an oppressive, colonial regime, experience grievances in the form of economic inequality, political marginalization, injustice, and cultural suppression. Ali La Pointe’s experience with incarceration is a good example of these grievances. He receives heavy sentences not commensurate with the crimes he committed, including serving two years for simple disorderly conduct. La Pointe’s entrance into the FLN also seems to be motivated by these grievances rather than economics.

Despite the apparent grievance motivation depicted in this film, a closer inspection reveals a consideration for economic feasibility and ultimately exposes enough unanswered questions to label this theory inconclusive for explaining the conflict between the French and the FLN in The Battle of Algiers. One tactic used to resist the French was the week-long strike. The FLN encouraged Algerians to gather enough supplies to last a week so the strike could be sustained. Algerians were economically well-off enough to participate in such a strike. It was feasible to revolt in that way. For those the strike was not economically feasible for, such as the homeless or beggars, the FLN assigned to families or homes for whom it was economically feasible to take care of an extra person or two for that week. This tool of revolt could be utilized because it was economically feasible. In this case, economics may not have driven the conflict, but it certainly made it feasible.

Additionally, the people-driven uprising that happened two years after the FLN was dismantled provides too little information to determine if greed or grievance were the main indicators of the re-emergence of the conflict. The people demanded their rights, showing that grievance was playing a role. However, there is not enough information given in the film to understand whether or not economic feasibility played a part as well. It is my opinion that greed and grievance need not be mutually exclusive, that feasibility is more an indicator of where conflict is likely to arise while grievances and other systems-based factors seem to fuel that rising. In any case, the film The Battle of Algiers does not provide sufficient evidence to determine whether the uprising in Algiers against the French was greed-based or grievance-based.

Structural Violence

Johan Galtung’s theory of Structural Violence sheds light on understanding the emergence and escalation of the conflict between the FLN and the French in The Battle of Algiers. In his article, Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, Galtung expands the definition of violence from physical violence to structural violence, as well as introduces the ideas of positive and negative peace (1969). Physical violence is self-explanatory. Structural violence is based on the idea that human institutions or structures will always tend toward inequality and injustice. The inequalities and injustices people experience as a result of these institutions is structural violence. It is the gap between services and just actions that could be provided for the people and the actual services and just actions provided. The wider this gap, the more structurally violent the system.

Despite Galtung’s Hobbesian view of humanity, he also believed societies can actively recognize and prevent structural injustices and inequalities. This is the difference between positive and negative peace. Negative peace is the standard definition of peace as an absence of physical violence. Positive peace is an absence of both physical and structural violence and is achieved through institutions and societies actively building into their institutions safe-guards for the well-being, justice, and equal treatment of its citizens (1969).

In The Battle of Algiers, structural deprivations led to structural violence that helped precipitate and sustain the conflict between the FLN and the French. After the French annexed Algeria, they did not take active measures to ensure that the just and equitable integration of the French political system over Algerian society. Social, political, economic, and some educational advantages were enjoyed by the French but not the Algerians. Penal sentences on Algerians seemed harsh and Algerian suspects seemed to be taken into custody much more than French suspects, from the viewpoints the movie provided.

As the conflict progressed, structural violence worsened. The unchecked French power used their advantage to further suppress Algerians with new social constructs. Their version of Apartheid was set up, with Algerians in the Casbah hedged in by barricades and checkpoints. The checkpoints themselves offer a clarifying microcosm into how structural violence helped perpetuate this conflict. The French policed the entrances and exits of the Casbah in order to control the movement of Algerians. These checkpoints were set up to limit the movement of or catch FLN terrorists. Algerians at random were taken out of line and frisked or more harshly treated simply because they were Algerian. Because French citizens were allowed to pass through the checkpoints unmolested, the FLN used this unequal standard to its advantage by sending three female Algerian terrorists through the checkpoints who remained undetected because they passed for French citizens. The structural violence visible at the checkpoints shows how a social inequality (viewing Algerians as threats and French as allies simply based on their nationality) can lead to physical violence (mistreatment given to Algerians pulled out of line and FLN terrorists carrying out their missions). Interestingly, it also shows how, in one case, structural violence was used to the advantage of the disadvantaged party (the FLN getting their operatives through the checkpoint because French individuals would not be stopped and discriminated against).

Additionally, because of the structural inequalities and the exhausted avenues for reprieve, particularly in appealing to the French government and to the UN, the FLN resorted to extreme measures of physical violence to change the system of structural violence around them. The asymmetric power distribution between the FLN and the French led the FLN to adopt guerrilla and terrorist tactics. In response to FLN’s response, the French resorted to counterterrorism tactics that used torture as a form of interrogation. These tactics might have been avoided if the institutions the FLN applied to for reprieve had been better set up to provide for just and equal dealings with parties served by that institution.

Basic Human Needs

John Burton’s Basic Human Needs theory builds on Galtung’s theory and further elucidates the causes and progression of the conflict in The Battle of Algiers. As a brief summary of basic human needs, Burton builds on Galtung’s theories of structural violence. He affirms that every system or institution has some form of structural violence present in it. However, Burton adds that while some deprivations occur because of these institutions, people will not be able to sustain certain deprivations of what he categorizes as basic human needs. These needs are identity, recognition, personal development, and security. When these basic needs are not met, individuals or groups will act until they are met, which may often lead to conflict. Burton emphasizes that these needs are non-negotiable; they cannot be bartered for, winnowed down, traded for, or diminished. As a whole, these needs must be satisfied. His suggested method for resolution lay in face-to-face, problem-solving workshops, where victims and representatives of the political, social, economic, or structural norms that threaten the basic human needs of the victims meet together. These workshops allow all sides to hear one another and work together toward a resolution that meets the needs of the parties (1997).

In the film The Battle of Algiers, the basic human needs of both the Algerians and the French are threatened. These unmet needs led to both the emergence and escalation of the conflict. French rule led to French oppression of Algerians. Asserting control over a foreign country and culture likely threatened the French sense of security, leading to a harsh penal system and palpable oppression. Influenced by their own history and possibly by their European peers in international politics, it is possible the French felt their development as a nation hinged on maintaining colonial control or territorial expansion. Outside pressures may have influenced a French need to develop into enlightened benefactors for less powerful countries, as well as enrich and enable the French at home and abroad.

The basic human needs of Algerians were threatened in similar ways but for different reasons. Their security was threatened as they were permitted to exercise less and less control over their lives and remained dependent on the edicts of a government they viewed as invaders. Their security situation deteriorated and became more threatened as the conflict escalated. Likewise, the Algerian sense of personal development, recognition, and identity were all placed under threat in the French governing system. Economic deprivations combined with limited personal freedoms gave Algerians little hope for satisfying their personal development. This lack of hope for development was compounded by the constant sight of their French counterparts and the greater freedoms and opportunities they experienced. Though Algeria was annexed into France, Algerians felt that their rights and opinions were not equally recognized before their government, leading to the formation of the FLN. Additionally, Algerian customs, including wedding traditions and cultural differences, were either suppressed or threatened by French rule.

The conflict between the French and the FLN in The Battle of Algiers, from the perspective of Needs Theory, emerged at an impasse for each side satisfying their needs. The French sense of security and personal development was threatened while Algerians faced threats to all four of their basic needs identified by Burton. As national and UN political resolutions failed, more crime broke out, leading to more violence perpetuated by both sides, which escalated into terrorism and counter terrorism. This escalation threatened the security of each side until the FLN was dismantled. However, even with this set back, the people of Algiers rose up just two years later. This indicates that the conflict did not end with the dissolution of the FLN. It likely suggests that the basic needs of Algerians simmered below the surface, only to reemerge in an effort to have those needs met.

A Compelling Theory Describing the Conflict in The Battle of Algiers

The theory that best analyzes and explains this conflict in The Battle of Algiers is Burton’s Theory for Basic Human Needs. Realism provides some perspective but limits itself to political questions. The revolution portrayed in The Battle of Algiers offered too many other factors that Realism is not prepared to explain. Greed vs. Grievance could not sufficiently describe the conflict between the FLN and the French because The Battle of Algiers does not give enough detail to determine if an underlying economic feasibility made the manifestation of grievance possible or if grievances were manifest regardless of economic feasibility. Galtung’s Structural Violence theory thoroughly describes this conflict, elucidating deeper causes of violence inherent in the structural make-up of this society. It also helps make sense of the escalation of the conflict and the inherent perpetuation of structural violence. However, Burton’s Needs Theory build’s on Galtung’s model by describing the underlying causes of this conflict, explicating that when those basic needs are not met, whether because of structural violence or because of some other factor, conflict will re-emerge in order to restore those needs. Basic Human Needs explains the driving, compelling force behind the conflict in The Battle of Algiers and helps students of conflict analysis and resolution better understand the root of the problem which allows for more skilled resolution.



Works Cited

Burton, James W. “Needs Theory.” Violence Explained: the sources of conflict, violence and crime and their prevention. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 32-40

Cramer, C. “Homo Economicus Goes to War: Methodological Individualism, Rational Choice and the Political Economy of War.” World Development 30 (2002), http://www.elsevier.com/locate/worlddev (accessed October 16, 2013).

Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler and Dominic Rohner and Dominic Rohner. “Beyond greed and grievance: feasibility and civil war.” Oxford Economic Papers61 (2009): 1-27.

Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.”Journal of Peace Research 6 (1969), http://www.jstor.org/stable/422690 (accessed October 16, 2013).

Morgenthau, Hans J. ” Ch 1: A Realist Theory of International Politics.” Politics among nations: the struggle for power and peace / Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, (2006): 3-16.

Pontecorvo, Gillo and Franco Solinas. The Battle of Algiers. DVD. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Milan: Rizzoli, Rialto Pictures, 1966.