By Samuel Jaberg
Fifty years ago French and Algerian representatives signed a series of peace accords in the French town of Evian, ending Algeria’s brutal eight-year war of independence.
By offering its good offices under a policy of active neutrality, which helped resolve the conflict, historian Marc Perrenoud tells swissinfo.ch.
Perrenoud specialises in Swiss foreign policy for the research centre Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland, and is the author of an article on the Evian accords for the Swiss foreign ministry’s Politorbis journal.
swissinfo.ch: How important were the Evian accords for Swiss diplomacy?
Marc Perrenoud: This treaty is a particularly brilliant example of the policy of active neutrality developed by Swiss cabinet minister Max Petitpierre after the Second World War.
Switzerland was keen to express its solidarity with the rest of the world and to try to end conflicts when it had the opportunity.
This is exactly what happened at the end of 1960 when Switzerland was approached after the failure of direct talks between France and Algeria. The two parties asked the Swiss to facilitate negotiations, which had become particularly difficult given the brutal war that had been taking place in Algeria since 1954. Switzerland made a crucial contribution towards resolving the conflict.
swissinfo.ch: What were the Swiss government’s feelings about this policy of active neutrality applied to the Algerian context?
M.P.: At the start only Petitpierre and his close officials held secret contacts and steered the negotiations. It’s not clear whether the government would have given its immediate go-ahead for Swiss diplomats to get involved.
Some feared that an independent Algeria would favour the Communists. Others worried that the French would criticise the Swiss for being too supportive of the independence movement, especially as numerous actions in support of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) on Swiss soil annoyed the French. Another fear was linked to the possible influx of Algerians in the event of independence, at a time when Switzerland was trying to limit the numbers of foreign workers.
swissinfo.ch: Was this conflict resolution strategy an attempt by Switzerland to improve its international reputation?
M.P. : Exactly. Whereas Switzerland didn’t want to join the European Common Market, it showed its usefulness as a neutral power by allowing France to exit the Algerian drama and concentrate on its modernisation and European construction.
But Switzerland was also looking to confirm its unique status compared with its neighbour. During the decolonisation period, it wanted to appear a credible partner for new third world countries.
swissinfo.ch: Several years before Switzerland had not really questioned the French presence in Algeria. What caused things to change?
M.P.: At the start of the conflict the vast majority of the Swiss political class and population supported the idea of “French Algeria”. Numerous Swiss emigrated to Algeria at the end of the 19th century and were not particularly enthusiastic about their government taking part in the negotiations. Atrocities committed in Algeria changed the situation, however. Former French legionnaires and other public figures published information about torture. People then realised that it was impossible for France to maintain its colonial empire.
From 1956 onwards Petitpierre stated that independence was the only solution. The suicide of federal prosecutor René Dubois in 1957 following revelations that he was spying on the Egyptian embassy in Bern for the French also caused shockwaves in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: FLN leaders took the decision in Bern on November 1, 1954 to start an armed uprising. Were they sure of Swiss support?
M.P. : The FLN leaders quickly understood that their struggle had to be international as they had no chance of defeating the French army on military terms. In this respect, Switzerland, as with other conflicts, was a place of contacts, and a crossroads for people, finance, certain arms trafficking and information. The Algerians knowingly used Switzerland’s international position.
swissinfo.ch: What were the consequences of the Evian accords for Switzerland?
M.P. : As a result of changes inside newly independent Algeria, marked by the 1965 military coup d’état by Colonel Houari Boumediène who rejected the Evian accords, Swiss diplomats’ Algerian contacts were no longer in charge.
It was therefore unable to seize all the economic opportunities it hoped for. But relations with Algeria remained good and the Algerians today thank the Swiss for their role at the end of the conflict.
swissinfo.ch: What are the lessons learned by Swiss diplomats from this page of history?
M.P. : Switzerland continues to offer its good offices and mediation services but the Evian accords remain the best-known example of a cease-fire sealed with the major involvement of Switzerland.
Switzerland currently tries to play a mediating role in several different conflicts but these are all quite distant. The geographical proximity, which allowed Swiss diplomats to be on the frontline to resolve the Algerian war, no longer applies.
(With input from Mohamed Cherif)