THOSE OF US who were in France in the 1950s experienced the Algerian war as an ever-present preoccupation of students, professors and French people of all ages. John Talbott presents a lucid and compact account of the course of this "war without a name" from the May Day demonstrations in Oran and Algiers in 1945 to the Evian Accords in March, 1962.

Occupied by the French since 1830, Algeria was the only part of the French Empire where there were a substantial number of settlers. By 1954, these European colons , most of whom were French, numbered about 1 million and lived alongside a rapidly growing Moslem Algerian population of at least 9 million. The two populations had coexisted in separate economic, social, religious and cultural systems since the 1870s when the Europeans first began to arrive in large numbers. After 1930 the Algerians began to leave the countryside in a mass exodus so that by 1950 the four major cities -- Algiers, Oran, Constantine, Bone -- had been transformed from predominately European into Moslem cities. Yet apart from residential mixing in the cities, contact between the two cultures was almost nonexistent. Neither school, nor army, nor any political or social institution served to bring the two peoples together. Even sexual encounters were rare, and the absence of intermarriage between the Europeans and Algerians was almost total. The contrast in wealth between the two communities was striking. By 1950 almost one-third of Algerian males lived in shanty towns, most of them without regular employment, while all the Europeans had jobs, though only one in a hundred worked as an unskilled laborer.

Presumably, the cultural dualism and blatant inequality in the standard of living would have continued indefinitely were it not for the heavy blows dealt to French national prestige by World War II and by the loss of Indochina in 1954. The Algerian national movement, divided and ineffective for more than a generation, now took on new life and launched a series of "disturbances" all across Algeria in November, 1954. The recent defeat in the Far East and the gradual dismantling of the empire in Africa under the bold initiatives of the Mendes-France government in Paris raised an immediate cry of alarm among the settlers and in the professional army, and a demand for quick repression of any move toward Algerian independence. An unyielding resistance by these two elements, especially as the Army of Africa grew to 400,000 troops by 1957, made it impossible for the government of the Fourth Republic, already beset by acute economic and financial problems at home, to steer a middle course or even hint at "autonomy" for Algeria.

The development and denouement of an agonizing confrontation between the French settlers and the professional army on one side, and an increasingly self-conscious Algerian national movement on the other, with the French government in Paris attempting to combine military repression with economic aid, is the central theme of John Talbott's book. The story is replete with tragic irony. The French paratroopers actually "won" the Battle of Algiers, uprooting the Algerian underground organization by house-to-house, ending the plastic bombings of street cafes, but at the unacceptable price -- for the French public at home at least -- of secret military torture. The French press rose to the occasion. The "pacification" of the countryside also appeared to succeed militarily , but at a political cost of sending a quarter-million draftees to North Africa and thereby threatening every French family, once again, with a youth "mort pour le Patrie ".

In the end, the Fourth Republic could not cut the Gordian Knot, and the "Providential Man on Horseback" came back on stage. Charles de Gaulle cleverly -- many said fraudulently -- but nonetheless successfully made the surgical incision and removed the cancer from the economy, society, and even consicence of France. It required pushing "the regime of the Parties" to the side, establishing a strong executive, hoodwinking and then isolating the "colonels" and the settlers, and reassuring the French public that the "real interests" and "true destiny" of the Nation lay elsewhere than in North Africa. Talbott is especially effective in his treatment of "the General," that remarkable politician, adroit tactician and, above all, master of rhetorical masks. When he finally reached the last mile in his negotiations with the Algerian nationalists (FLN), De Gaulle might have elicited respect even from his Moslem adversaries when he said:

"It is entirely natural that we [French] feel nostalgia for what the Empire was, as we can miss the softness of oil lamps, the splendor of the sailing navy, the charm of the time of horse-drawn carriages."

Perhaps this was the best way to soften the tragedy of this now forgotten war and to help bind the wounds suffered by 10 million people in Algeria and 50 million in France -- only 20 years ago.