Victims of decolonisation? The French settlers of Algeria
For over a century, the French settlers of Algeria were regarded as benefiting from France’s colonising presence. But when Algeria achieved independence in 1962, almost a million dispossessed people were forced across the Mediterranean in just a few months.
The ceasefire of 19 March 1962 marked the official end of the Algerian War, a conflict characterised by bitter violence from both the FLN nationalist rebels, and the French army. Despite the ceasefire, the violence towards civilians continued and even increased in the months leading up to the official declaration of Algeria’s independence on 5 June 1962.
With an agreement reached between the Algerian nationalists and the French administration in Paris, the conflict became a civil war, as the pro-colonial paramilitary group known as the OAS stepped up its desperate efforts at disruption, targeting the French army and gendarmes, Muslim civilians, and pro-independence settlers. The result was the stifling of everyday life in the cities of Algiers, Oran and Constantine: cinemas, schools and universities were closed, post went undelivered, and residents endured frequent power cuts.
As the atmosphere worsened, many of the million-strong community of European settlers quietly began making arrangements to leave Algeria, booking passage on ships bound for France. The numbers increased from March onwards, peaking in June with around 350,000 passages. By the end of the summer, only around 150,000 Europeans remained in independent Algeria. Most would leave within five years.
Migrants or refugees?
The mass displacement of Europeans caused consternation in France, where the huge numbers of arrivals took the authorities by surprise. Yet if the settlers were traumatised and largely dispossessed, they were nonetheless in possession of rights which differentiated their experience from that of stateless refugees. Whereas contemporary migration across the Mediterranean has been strongly rebuffed by certain European governments, there was no question about the right of the Europeans to enter France. As settlers in French Algeria they held full French citizenship, and many who worked for French state services were able to seek redeployment on the mainland. The French government hastily passed legislation making available limited benefits to the repatriates, and allocated housing in the blocks of flats newly erected as part of France’s post-war modernisation programme.
Officially, the repatriates (or pieds-noirs, as they came to be known) were simply moving from one region of France to another, albeit in unanticipated numbers. Yet for the pieds-noirs their displacement was experienced as a traumatic uprooting which left them as refugees from their vanished homeland. The causes of these different interpretations lie in the colonial relationship between the settlers and the French motherland, and in the reception which they received upon arrival. Both factors contributed to the pied-noir campaign of political activism, which has helped to shape the French political landscape in the decades since independence.
An ambivalent history
As in many colonies, the settlers of Algeria had an ambivalent relationship with France. Admiration, resentment and detachment combined with a deep-seated anxiety borne of the colony’s demographic imbalance, thanks to the large Muslim majority. The relationship fluctuated according to the historical moment, with the settlers drawing near to France at moments of crisis. The World Wars, in which large numbers of settlers fought and died for France, eased the settlers’ sense of inferiority and bolstered the belief that France stretched ‘from Dunkirk to Tamanrasset’.
When the Algerian War broke out in 1954, the settlers were confident in the territorial integrity of the French republic. However, by 1960 de Gaulle’s policy of self-determination and the growing demographic imbalance meant that independence was the inevitable outcome. In mainland France, support for the war had all but vanished. The settlers were left feeling isolated and betrayed.
A hostile welcome
Of the 600,000 pieds-noirs who joined the exodus to France in the spring of 1962, a significant proportion arrived in Marseille. Despite best efforts, a city of 600,000 residents could not hope to adequately welcome the huge numbers of exhausted arrivals, and compassion fatigue quickly set in. Decades later, pieds-noirs recount the hostility which they encountered – belongings ruined when crates were dipped into the Marseille port; extortionate rates demanded by taxi drivers; rentals refused by landlords. The attitude of the French public was symbolically summed up by Gaston Defferre, the Mayor of Marseille, in his widely reported exclamation, ‘The pieds-noirs should go and settle elsewhere!’ (‘Que les pieds-noirs aillent se réadapter ailleurs!’).
As Claire Eldridge and Jean-Jacques Jordi have argued, the exodus has served as the founding myth of the repatriate community. It compounded the pieds-noirs’ feeling of betrayal at the outcome of the war, and their sense that they were not fully accepted by their French compatriots, and it laid the foundations for a narrative of victimhood which portrayed them as the victims of decolonization, and colonial Algeria as a lost paradise. Following the exodus of 1962, the pieds-noirs have become associated with a colonialist nostalgia (‘nostalgérie’) allied to demands for a rethinking of their presence in colonial Algeria. Pied-noir activist groups have been an important influence on the French political landscape, campaigning firstly for indemnification legislation, and then for a public acceptance of the benefits of colonization. In the process they have succeeded in being treated as a ‘community’ by a republican political system which has traditionally been fiercely resistant to the notion of collective identity politics. Over fifty years after independence, their activism continues to shape France’s attitude towards its colonial past.
As colonial settlers, the pieds-noirs were widely regarded as having benefited from the colonial system. The abrupt manner of their departure from Algeria enabled them to challenge the view that they were the perpetrators of colonization, replacing it with a narrative which positions them as the victims of history. Through emphasizing their displacement and their experiences as putative refugees, their activism demonstrates the unstable nature of the perpetrator/victim categories associated with colonialism.
Claire Eldridge, ‘Returning to the “return”’, Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 29, 3 (2013), 121-140.
Fiona Barclay, ‘Reporting on 1962: the evolution of pied-noir identity across 50 years of print media’, Modern and Contemporary France, 23.2 (2015), pp. 197-211.
Jean-Jacques Jordi, ‘The Creation of the pieds-noirs: Arrival and Settlement in Marseille, 1962’, in Europe’s Invisible Migrants, ed. Andrea L. Smith (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003), 61-74.