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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Algerian demonstrators in central Paris on 17 October 1961

Algerian demonstrators in central Paris on 17 October 1961.

Copyright Georges Azenstarck

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The colonial and post-colonial dimensions of Algerian migration to France

Jim House, University of Leeds

The migration of colonised Arab-Berbers from Algeria to mainland France was the earliest and the most extensive of all colonial migrations to Western Europe before the 1960s. Initiated in the late nineteenth century, accelerated by the presence of Algerians in French factories and the army during World War I, male labour migration became an established component of the colonial economy from the early 1920s. Algeria was France's major settler colony: migration there from mainland France, Italy, Spain and Malta involved a policy of land expropriation of the indigenous population that slowly wore down the traditional economic, social and cultural structures of the Algerian peasantry, and existing patterns of labour migration within Algeria were extended to mainland France. (1)

Prior to Algerian independence from France in 1962, Algerian migrants were not leaving one country to enter another, since they were French nationals. However, Algerians were French subjects but not French citizens: for decades, Algerians embodied a significant exception to the established French republican 'model' that (for men at least) combined nationality and citizenship. Algeria constituted a colonial territory fully integrated into the Republic that, as politicians liked to say, ran from Dunkirk in the north to Tamanrasset in the Sahara, the Mediterranean separating France and Algeria 'like the Seine running through Paris'. Indeed, Algerian migrants arriving in Marseilles had simply left behind one colonial society to enter another, that of metropolitan France, although for many migrants there were significant social, cultural and linguistic differences to negotiate.

After 1919, economic lobbies in Algeria feared losing their colonial workforce to mainland French employers, and supported hostile press campaigns in mainland France that denounced the supposed criminality and sexual aggressiveness of Algerian men, stereotypes that largely remain. However, Algerians continued to arrive in France, reaching the 100,000 mark in 1924 and never again going below that figure except during World War II. (2) The colonial authorities' fears regarding Algerian emigration were based on the assumption that Algerians were naïve, politically immature, and hence prey to Communist or Algerian nationalist 'subversion'. Accordingly, in the 1920s, state agencies were established to politically control and police Algerians, often through the pretence of paternalistic welfare measures to combat the growing threat from Algerian nationalism in particular. (3) Indeed, the first fully structured Algerian nationalist movement, the Étoile nord-africaine (North African star) was founded in Paris in 1926. (4) However, until 1962, Algerian nationalist organizations enjoyed what Mohammed Harbi has called a 'conflictual alliance' at best with the organized French left, given the latter's suspicion of Islam and Arab nationalism and ambiguous stance on empire. (5)

Before 1945, Algerian migration was almost exclusively male. Algerians worked in coal- mining, iron, steel and in car manufacture, and were concentrated in Marseilles, Lyons, St. Étienne, Lille and the industrial east around Strasbourg in addition to Paris and its suburbs. Described by the sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad as the 'first stage' of Algerian migration to France, (6) and organised by tightly controlled networks, emigration during this period was largely temporary and provided vital economic support to the impoverished village communities in Algeria. Algerians in France had to save every centime to send home to their families, necessitating high levels of economic self-sacrifice. While for reasons of group solidarity and male honour few migrants spoke openly of the undoubted sufferings of migration, popular singers such as Cheikh El-Hasnaoui lamented exile, hence providing a conduit for such feelings. (7)

World War II changed the French imperial climate irrevocably. The defeat and then occupation of France further sapped imperial authority. This context favoured nationalist claims. However, just as Algerians were hoping for significant reform - if not outright independence - the post-war Republican consensus in Paris moved in the other direction in order to revitalise France's severely dented colonial grandeur. The limited reforms introduced under the Statute of Algeria (1947) granted Algerian men full citizenship in mainland France and instituted unregulated passage between Algeria and France. However, Arab-Berber Algerians were officially called French-Algerian Muslims (Français-musulmans d'Algérie), which introduced an ethnically-inspired sub-category of citizens that Algerians resented. (8)

In this context of famine and anti-nationalist repression, tens of thousands of Algerians seized the opportunity to emigrate, still hoping that metropolitan France would provide new economic opportunities and a different, better form of social relations. This post-1947 migration that Sayad calls the 'second stage' was not only quantitatively significant - by 1956 there were 300,000 Algerians in France - but qualitatively different. First, the Kabyle-Berbers, who had long dominated Algerian migration, were increasingly replaced by Arab migrants whose networks in France were much less well established. Secondly, entire (nuclear) families started to emigrate. All migrants tended to be less focused on communities back in Algeria, and therefore stayed longer in France, facilitating their integration into the French working class.

However, living conditions, especially housing, were often appalling: Algerians, although now French citizens, were at the bottom of the queue for social housing, and many local authority agencies openly discriminated against them. Nothing exemplified Algerians' socio-economic status better than the shanty-towns (bidonvilles) that grew around Paris, Lyons and Marseilles in the 1950s. Although no more than about one fifth of Algerians in France probably lived in shanty-towns at any one time, they were often the essential first step for newly-arrived migrants, families especially, thus many more Algerians were familiar with them. Algerians recount the social stigma of living in muddy conditions - symbolised by the shoes one changed into and out of on entering or leaving the shanty-town. (9) However, shanty-towns were small communities of their own: the largest, in Nanterre outside of Paris, was referred to by Algerians as Al-Qahira (Cairo), and allowed for social and political solidarity, becoming a key base for the independence struggle.

Indeed, the Algerian diaspora in France played a leading role in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Algerian nationalists in the National Liberation Front (FLN, Front de libération nationale) turned the structural colonial economic inequalities between colony and metropolis to their advantage by funding the majority of their military campaigns against the French state through regular taxes forcibly raised on Algerians in France. This was only possible once a bloody internecine war amongst rival Algerian nationalist groups had been waged in Paris, Lyons and Lille during 1957-58. In response to the nationalists, huge police identity-check operations - that had started in the early 1950s - rounded up literally thousands of people on the street whom officers judged to be of 'Algerian' appearance. Repressive policing tactics in France and news of atrocities in Algeria, structural discrimination in the workplace, and a sustained attempt to forcibly assimilate migrants all reinforced Algerians' resistance to colonial rule and led to their support for the FLN. (10)

In response to the FLN, leading civil servant Maurice Papon was brought over from Algeria to police Paris in March 1958, which resulted in a deepening of repression designed to intimidate all Algerians into submission. Papon brought over Algerians (harkis) from Algeria to fight with the FLN alongside the Paris police. The FLN responded to Maurice Papon's curfew on Algerians in October 1961 by organising a boycott, in the form of peaceful pro-independence demonstrations involving at least 30,000 Algerians marching through the streets of the capital on 17 October 1961 (see image at top of place). The traditional anti-Algerian hostility of the Paris police had been exacerbated by armed FLN attacks that had killed many of their colleagues. Many police officers therefore seized on the occasion to attack the Algerian protestors who had dared to challenge their ethnic and spatial segregation. Security forces killed over fifty Algerians on 17 October and over the next few days in detention centres. Algerians were shot, clubbed, and drowned, their bodies often thrown into the Seine. Over one thousand were injured, hundreds seriously. Both the violence, and the relatively small-scale reactions from the French left, revealed the way in which, with some notable exceptions, Algerians were ostracized within France during this period.

Decolonization would have many legacies for Algerian migration. Under the terms of the Évian Accord settling Algerian independence in 1962, Algerians enjoyed relative freedom of movement between Algeria and France, and by 1965 there were over 500,000 Algerian nationals in France. Ever since, French governments have sought to restrict access to France for economic migrants. (11) The main restrictions began in the early 1970s and were envisaged prior to the end of France's so-called Glorious Thirty Years of post-war economic modernization and expansion to which Algerians contributed in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Algerian migration - and Algerians - remained extremely problematic from a state perspective: France had always looked to encourage European migration, judging Algerians to be ethnically distinct and undesirable on that basis since harder to 'integrate'. The 'duty' France had as a colonial power had left governments with no choice but to accept greater Algerian migration to ease the increasingly tense political situation in Algeria itself. With fewer 'obligations' after 1962, French governments continued to see Algerians' presence in France as temporary, as did the independent Algerian state under Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-1965) and Houari Boumediene (1965-1978), since for Algeria, the persistence of large numbers of Algerians in France characterised a neo-colonial situation.

Accompanying the ever more restrictive French labour immigration measures, a policy of family re-grouping allowed the spouses and children of Algerian workers to come to live in France, subject to often exacting housing criteria. This process significantly transformed the profile of Algerian migration, marking the third 'stage' of migration described by Sayad, as many Algerian migrants decided to stay in France. However, Algerians continued to have severe difficulties regarding housing provision. The last shanty-towns were only demolished in 1977: during the 1960s, 1970s and into early 1980s, many Algerians spent years in segregated temporary accommodation in prefabricated buildings (cités de transit) since the authorities judged Algerians insufficiently 'developed' to accede immediately to council housing. Public housing agencies continued to prioritise housing for nationals, European immigrants, and the hundreds of thousands of European settlers who had left Algeria in 1962-3. Furthermore, former colonial police and welfare officers from Algeria or Morocco were employed to 'oversee' the Algerian community, bringing with them attitudes and practices that prolonged policies initiated in the 1930s and that had been intensified during the Algerian War. (12) Only by studying these policies can we understand the origins of the social and ethnic segregation in France's poor outer suburbs (banlieues) today.

The period between 1975 and 1985 also represented a key transitional decade that established the way in which many official and media discourses continue to represent Algerian migrants and their descendants. Such discourses singled out a 'second generation', the sons and daughters of migrants, over-simplifying the complexity of age groups and profile of Algerian migration by portraying one standardized migrant trajectory of male migrants 'followed' by wife and children in the 1960s and 1970s. This distorted the reality of migrant trajectories and histories, hiding the presence of migrant families during the Algerian War. Secondly, such discourses presented young people as a 'problem': in a highly gendered discourse, post-colonial stereotyping of young Algerian males centred on criminalization, and alleged their refusal to 'integrate', whereas young women of Algerian descent were represented as 'passive' and 'submissive', and, in theory, more predisposed to 'integrate'. The negative targeting of young males had spatial dynamics since it now focused on the public housing estates and run-down banlieues where many Algerians and their families lived by the late 1970s, areas and their inhabitants presented as a source of problems. Algerians and their descendants were always the main targets of such representations, even if these were couched within the euphemism of 'immigrant', 'immigration' or 'young people'. Young people of Algerian descent were singled out by state exhortations to assimilate or 'integrate', and by the Front national's insistence that they could not assimilate. They also had to contend with widespread discrimination within state institutions (in particular the police and judicial system), and throughout sectors of French society. 'Immigration' became a major, if not the major political issue in France in the 1980s, as the electoral successes of the Front national encouraged a shift to the right on immigration policy across the political spectrum.

Social movements led by those from Algerian communities challenged the fact that, while most descendants of Algerian migrants had French nationality (and hence citizenship), they were not being treated equally within French society. Antiracist movements in 1983 and 1984 produced a new collective political actor, the beurs, a term derived from the French word arabe and altered using the urban slang of the French working class. For those of Algerian (and Moroccan and Tunisian) descent, self-identifying as beur was a way of expressing being French and having North African heritage. Since then, in the context of socio-economic crisis, high unemployment, and widespread discrimination, many people of Algerian heritage have continued to feel excluded. Consequently, the counter-cultural aspects of trans-national Islamic identity have achieved wider appeal, although the media often focus on the tiny fringe of radical Islam. Nonetheless, a growing middle class has also emerged - the so-called beurgeoisie - and cultural production (notably film and fiction, but also music), associations and the media have flourished. (13)

While young people were keen to show their rootedness in France, elements of their parents' generation, and newer arrivals from Algeria, have continued to be active challenging the regime in Algiers that was a one-party state until 1989. Political opposition in France has flourished amongst the Berber communities who argue for a definition of Algerian nationhood that is more mindful of Algeria's linguistic and cultural diversity and less centred on Arab-Muslim identity. (14) More generally, key political developments in Algeria are closely followed amongst the Algerian diaspora in France: both the older and younger generations mobilized against the violence used to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations in Algiers in 1988, and during the 1990s Algerians in France supported those exiled by the quasi-civil war in Algeria between the state and radical Islamist groups. (15)

A final key dimension of the Franco-Algerian migratory dynamic is directly linked to colonial legacies. In 1962, up to 100,000 Algerians (harkis) who had served - often against their will - in the French security forces, arrived in France fleeing massacre in Algeria by nationalist sympathisers. (16) Although having French nationality, they and their descendants have often grown up in isolated camps in rural areas, and have experienced the same forms of discrimination as Algerian economic migrants. Additionally, their presence in France has constituted a source of tension between them and those migrants having actively supported Algerian independence: in some small French towns, these hostilities pervade social relations. More generally, as sociologist Saïd Bouamama has argued, the descendants of Algerian migrants have often become the 'involuntary inheritors of the Algerian War', unwittingly caught up in the lasting conflicts of their parents' and now grandparents' generations. (17)

As the political philosopher Étienne Balibar has provocatively put it, since 1962, France and Algeria have been two separate states, but they both constitute one-and-a-half nations, the French imbricated in the Algerian, and the Algerian in the French. (18) The history of Algerian migration to France reflects the complexity, intensity and longevity of the Franco-Algerian colonial encounter.

  1. See Neil MacMaster, Colonial Migrants and Racism. Algerians in France, 1900-62 (Basingstoke, 1997). Back to (1)
  2. Ibid., p.224. Back to (2)
  3. See Clifford Rosenberg, Policing Paris. The Origins of Modern Immigration Control between the Wars (Ithaca and London, 2006), Part II. Back to (3)
  4. See Benjamin Stora, Ils venaient d'Algérie. L'immigration algérienne en France 1912-1992 (Paris, 1992), Part I. Back to (4)
  5. Mohammed Harbi, 'Entre mémoire et histoire: un témoignage sur la politisation de l'immigration maghrébine en France', in Mémoires algériennes, ed. Aïssa Kadri and Gérard Prévost (Paris, 2004), pp. 49-57, p.53. Back to (5)
  6. Sayad, who died in 1999, is widely recognised as the finest sociologist of Algerian migration, and his interdisciplinary work including anthropology and oral history is of great relevance to historians of colonial and post-colonial migration. See the English translation by David Macey of Sayad's La Double absence (Paris, 1999) - The Suffering of the Immigrant (Cambridge, 2004). Back to (6)
  7. See Rachid Mokhtari, La Chanson de l'exil. Les voix natales (1939-1969) (Algiers, 2001). Back to (7)
  8. See Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization. The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca and London, 2006). Back to (8)
  9. See Monique Hervo and Marie-Ange Charras, Bidonvilles, l'enlisement (Paris, 1971). Back to (9)
  10. The material in this and the next two paragraphs comes from Jim House and Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror and Memory (Oxford, 2006). Back to (10)
  11. See Vincent Viet, La France immigrée. Construction d'une politique 1914-1997 (Paris, 1997). Back to (11)
  12. Alexis Spire, Étrangers à la carte. L'administration de l'immigration en France (1945-1975) (Paris, 2005), Chapter 6. Back to (12)
  13. Alec G. Hargreaves and Mark McKinney ed. Post-colonial cultures in France (London, 1997). Back to (13)
  14. Paul A. Silverstein, Algeria in France. Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Bloomington, 2004). Back to (14)
  15. See Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield. Algeria 1988-2002. Studies in a Broken Polity (London, 2003). Back to 15)
  16. See Tom Charbit, Les Harkis (Paris, 2006). Back to (16)
  17. Saïd Bouamama, Héritiers involontaires de la guerre d'Algérie: jeunes Manosquins issus de l'immigration algérienne (Manosque, 2003). Back to (17)
  18. Étienne Balibar, 'Algérie, France: une ou deux nations?', in Étienne Balibar ed. Droit de cité. Culture et politique en démocratie (Paris, 1998) pp.73-88. Back to (18)

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