Bab Azzoun (Algeria) July 1962 {Mohamed Kouaci}

Ghosts of Algiers

In 1954 Algeria held a unique place in France’s national psyche being both part of France and something totally barbarous or alien. Considered French territory, yet filled with Arabs who in their eyes were not French. Those not of the Gallic ethnicity were the majority Arab population. According to the elite in Paris, they were what was holding Algeria back from being fully integrated into the French Republic. Deeply popular President De Gaulle who evoked the spirit of French resistance in the second world war, described the Algerians, who had also fought to free France from Nazi occupation as unequivocally alien; “French – those people? With their turbans and djellabas!” (al jazeera). Being seen as incompatible with the French, Algerians were and are actively discriminated against. Discrimination by the ilk of De Gaulle disenfranchised generations of Algerians.

Capitalizing on French disdain and discrimination of the indigenous population, in 1954 the FLN rose in rebellion. In this brutal war the French were deeply reliant on their Algerian allies who flocked to their side due to National Liberation Front (FLN) violence. These Algerians came to be known as Harkis which in Arabic means “movement”. Harkis became renown for their skills in navigating tough terrain and countering hidden FLN guerrillas. Despite sacrificing life and limb for France, the French would turn their back on the Harkis and their ancestors. General De Gaulle and eventual President of France described the Harkis as “soldiers
of fortune” and his words were emblematic of subsequent French administrations and their treatment of the 150,000 Harkis and 500,000 Algerian immigrants who would seek shelter on French shores (Foreign Policy). The Harkis did not only suffer at the hands of the FLN but at those of the French government.

The ancestors of those who fought for France in Algeria now use the term of “Harki” as a slur, which has come to mean traitor, against their fellow French Algerian brethren. How could this be? To answer this question one needs to ponder France’s decades of discrimination and failed assimilation policies. Met by disdain on French shores, Algerians were disenfranchised by the state in their new home. Thousands of Harkis and Algerians were forced into “transit” camps where living conditions were dire. Eventually the camps were dismantled but outside their rusted ruins, many Algerians found it hard to fully integrate into French society exactly because of the Gallic distaste of this people with “turbans and djellabas”. Attitudes such as De Gaulle’s are still prevalent in France which urges a secular society, but discriminates against those who wear Muslim dress in public. Today, many Muslim French Algerians feel that their religion and idenity is not respected in a society that prides itself as a secular bastion. This feeling is bolstered by thousands of French Algerians who are profiled and stopped by the police, are hounded by xenophobic media detailing their non French character, and corralled into housing estates they likely will not escape from. Even if there is some aid to circumvent the dire straits of the relationship between Algerians and the state, it is too little.

France since its departure from Algeria has shown a cold shoulder to its own population and those who fought for it. When Emannuel Macron gave a speech on National Harki day in front of a crowd of Harki veterans, he apologized for his predecessor’s behavior stating “We will not forget. To the abandoned combatants, to their families who suffered the camps, the prison, the denial, I ask forgiveness, we will not forget.” Yet serving as a reminder of the state’s forgetfulness about the harkis one protestor later shouting that the state’s promises were hollow (BBC news). To the tens of thousands of Harkis and their descendants he promised a $50 million dollar reparations fund which would seek to compensate the community for the inhumane treatment they suffered by the state after arriving in a place in which they sought sanctuary (BBC News). 50 million dollars could not repair the deep wounds inflicted upon what Paris used to call its prized subjects. Many French citizens of Algerian descent such as the descendants of the
Harkis feel neglected or even targeted because of their ethnicity.

France’s historical neglect and discrimination of its largest minority has lead many in the community to discard the nation of their birth and embrace the nationality of their ancestors. If one is born in France yet of Algerian descent, they are likely to be Algerian first – not French. Sabrina Kalem, a then 14 year old girl interviewed by Al Jazeera, occupies one side of the spectrum “France does mean something for me, certainly. Algeria is the priority, but France is still on my mind.”(al jazeera) The acknowledgment that France has given her a home but seemingly not a belonging is a palpable feeling for many French Algerians.

Yet Sabrina Kalem’s modes of identification is tamer than ones displayed in years past. One can identify as vehemently anti-French as seen in the 2001 French-Algeria football match when many French Algerians cheered for Osama Bin laden and booed the La Marseillaise (The New Yorker). While some may have cheered for Al Qaeda to spite their country of birth other French Algerians take concrete actions. Omar Ismail Mostefai, a French Algerian, best encapsulates this phenomenon. Remarking upon Mostefai and the Charlie Hebdo Attackers, Myriam Benraad, a research fellow specializing in Iraq and the Middle East at the Foundation for
Strategic Research in Paris, observed that none of the attackers found themselves to be French. They lived with the legacy of the Algerian war and the discrimination that followed. Acting upon the calls of ISIS, Mostefai was one of three gunmen who killed 89 innocent people at the Bataclan concert hall in 2015, Mostefai was also one of many Frenchmen who traveled to
Syria to join ISIS. Facing dim job prospects many French Algerians like Mostefai run into the law, although Mostefai was never imprisoned, he was involved in petty crime. Those swept up for less serious offenses can be twisted by radical Islamists who lay waiting in prisons. Out of the prison yards on the streets of France, those of Algerian descent yield little respite with the
specter of an encounter with the brutal police force ever on many minds. French police have gained a reputation for being particularly violent, gained after several people lost limbs or eyes in street demonstrations in 2018, 2019, and this past summer when a boy was killed by police after a traffic stop.

Despite having a large minority community, a sense of unease is palpable about the supposed identity of a French person. Despite having a vast empire like the British, French identity isn’t seen as welcoming as its neighbor across the channel. One can be Indian of origin and embraced by the British elite to the point where one can become Prime minister. Whether one Algerian can be embraced by the French elite, time will tell.