Thursday 26 February 2015

A potted history of French Algeria, Carol Drinkwater

Last month I wrote a little about the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris along with my reflections, observations while travelling in Algeria seven years ago. I am continuing along a similar theme today: Algeria and a broad brushstroke of the events that led to the Algerian War of Independence.

The French colonial empire constituted colonies, protectorates and mandated territories. In fact, there were two French colonial empires - the first was in decline by 1814. Its second began with the conquest of Algeria in 1830 followed soon after by territories in southeast Asia known as Indochina or Indochine. Vietnam was amongst them.

                                                                      Abd al Qadir

The French invasion of Algeria began in early July 1830 and continued through to 1847. Within a short time, the French had gained control of the coastal areas as well as Algiers, the capital city, and before long, they began infiltrating the rural areas into the mountains and desert. Algeria is a vast and diverse land which at that time was under Ottoman rule. There were rebellions and pockets of Muslim resistance led by such heroes as Abd al Qadir but, eventually, France conquered Algeria. They colonised it and Europeanised it. They ruled it as a French colony with Christian values and paid little attention to the traditions and tribal customs already in place. The Muslims and Jews lost their education systems, their lands, their rights. They were French subjects but not citizens. The countryside was taken for agriculture. Private demesnes, estates were erected. The majority of Algerians were forced to vacate the fertile lands. The colons, European settlers, moved in. Massive vineyards sprung up in a land of abstinent inhabitants. Tobacco, olives, citrus fruits, wheat, all were being produced in abundance and most of the crops were shipped back to France from ports built by the French. The cities and coastal resorts were designed along French planning lines. Some of the cities were beautiful, architecturally elegant. Ports were constructed, roads built… But the lifestyle being assembled had little to do with the Algerians' way of life. This Mediterranean land was a mixed population of predominantly Berbers and Arabs with communities of Jews who had fled Spain during the years of the Reconquista and had settled peacefully in Algeria. A few Christians were resident there before the French arrived, but they were a minuscule minority.

In 1856, Napoleon III offered the Algerians the right to French citizenship. Few accepted because they would have been obliged to renounce sharia law. Later in the nineteenth century – between 1870 and 1880 - the French offered the Jews an automatic right to citizenship. This gesture split the Muslims and resident Jews. From that time on, the Muslims began to perceive their Jewish neighbours as accomplices, friends of the colonisers.

                                                            Jews and Muslims together

Education was a privilege offered to citizens, not to subjects.
The Algerian Muslims began falling behind academically. Denying a colonised people the right to education is a very efficient weapon to keeping them under control. Without the means to read and write and therefore to learn and develop, they are rendered impotent.
Even when a basic education was on offer, it was a Christian one.

In spite of the challenges, during the first part of the twentieth century, Algerian nationalist movements were springing up and gaining ground. The most important and enduring was the National Liberation Front (FLN). By the 1930s, the FLN was protesting loudly against French rule. Even so, the Algerians fought with France during the Second World War, as they had done during the Great War. They were loyal to France and the Allies.
In a curious way, their loyalty was the straw that broke the camel's back and fed the seeds of the War of Independence. The French government had promised the Muslims, the Algerians, that if they fought with their ruling nation, they would be given a voice within the decision-making of their territory. However the colons, the settlers, who held the political power and wealth in Algeria (and many supported the Vichy government), strongly opposed this. They saw danger, perceiving all Muslim intervention as a threat against their sovereignty, their right to Algeria.

In 1943, Muslim leaders met with the French to hand over a manifesto. It demanded that Algerians be given equal rights. The request was more or less denied. Tensions rose and by the end of the war, when thousands of Algerians went out on the streets to demand their rights, they were met with violence.
On the 8th May 1945 in the city of Sétif a bloodbath occurred.

                                                         Sétif's very imposing central Mosque

During my travels for The Olive Tree, I visited the city of Sétif, which today is staunchly, exclusively Muslim. I walked its streets and was the only woman out and about in public. No restaurant opened its doors for me. Men only. Men sat in huddled groups in outdoor cafés smoking and they studied me with dark mistrusting eyes as I passed by. I have rarely felt so ill at ease, such an outsider.

I have often been asked about the locations I have most enjoyed visiting on my travels round the Med and Algeria has always been high on my list.
Here is a link to an article I wrote for the Guardian

But Sétif stands out in my mind as the exception. It was the only place where I stayed in a hotel and not with a local family. I was warmly invited, but I declined. I felt the need to be alone for a few nights, to catch up on my notes and to allow the thousands of sights and experiences I was receiving on a daily basis to sink in quietly. While I was there, using it as a base for excursions to some of the most magnificent Roman ruins in north African, I began to learn a little about the city's modern history. On 8th May 1945, while the Allies were celebrating victory, approximately 10,000 citizens from in and around Sétif also took to the streets to celebrate, but also to demonstrate. The demonstrations soon turned nasty. Scarringly nasty. Some Algerians began chanting words against their colonizers. They unfurled Algerians flags, which were banned at the time. The police began to crack down, to confiscate the flags. Crowds turned on the police, several of whom were killed. The police retaliated and began to shoot into the crowds. This, in turn, caused more violent responses and within no time not only the city but the surrounding countryside was, literally, up in flames. For days after, French planes bombarded villages, wiped out farms and homesteads while warships trained their weapons on the cities and the mountains where ‘the rebels’ had gone into hiding.

Somewhere in the region of forty thousand people lost their lives over those few days (no precise figure has ever been agreed upon). Approximately two hundred were French. The rest, Algerians. It was a massacre that was barely reported in the press. It took until 2005 for the French ambassador to Algeria to acknowledge France's responsibility.

Although the Sétif Massacres were barely reported, it was a turning point. The French began to implement changes: they passed school reforms, they offered limited opportunities for Algerians to enter politics but, tragically, it was too little, too late. The relationship between France and Algeria and the French colonials living on this amazing territory was deteriorating fast. By 1954, the war for independence was underway. It was a long and savage war. Both sides have much to answer for. To this day, the history of the French occupation of Algeria with its cruel colonial legacy is a blight on the French psyche. It is unusual to find anyone who will talk about it although that is slowly changing.

President François Hollande made a state visit to the country in December 2012. While there, he acknowledged that France’s occupation was brutal and he called for a new relationship between the two countries. “For 132 years, Algeria was subject to a profoundly unjust and brutal system of colonization,” he said. Hollande listed several sites of massacres including Sétif where seven years ago, the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, compared French war strategies to those used by the Nazis. He begged France to “make a gesture.. to erase this black stain.”
Hollande’s visit was the first step towards a rapprochement. A gesture towards turning a page in what many consider the darkest chapter in France’s modern history.

The Franco/Algerian story is a very complex one. I have been fascinated by this chapter in French history for a long while, but more so now because I have just delivered my new novel, The Lost Domain, which centres around a family of Pieds-Noirs and their relocation into France from Algeria. Pieds-Noirs, which translates as Black Feet, are Europeans, French citizens, who were born on the continent of Africa. The name comes from the idea that they took their first steps on the soil of the Black Continent. Hence, black feet.
During and after the Algerian War of Independence (1952 - 1964), nearly one million Algerian-born French citizens were forced to leave the only homeland they had ever known, to make a new start in France. Their arrival was not greeted with warmth. The Pieds-Noirs were not popular in France. Many mainland French still hold them largely responsible for the war that tore Algeria apart and almost bankrupted the motherland.

Living in France today are upwards of four to five million French-Algerians, including (but not exclusively) the Harkis. Harkis are Algerians who collaborated with France, who fought against the Resistance during the War of Independence. When Algeria won its independence, the Harkis fled their native land and settled in France.
They were traitors in Algeria, but they were certainly not greeted as heroes in France. Most live their lives, now with their children and grandchildren, as second-class citizens. For decades they have been struggling to find employment, war pensions, decent living conditions, respect. They live in the banlieus, the suburbs, in ghettos riddled with poverty and tensions. They live in a narrow, dispiriting interstice, neither members of one society nor the other. How easy then for those seeking the next batch of jihadists to find their material: young men with an uncomfortable identity, with little to hope for....

Of course, I am not suggesting that every son or grandson of a Harki or French-Algerian is a sure target for the Jihadists, but I do believe that there is a lack of support and opportunities for the majority of these French residents. Life is very exacting for them.

By contrast, here is an exception. This photograph is of the brilliant footballer, Zineddine Zidane, born of Algerians in the banlieus of Marseille. This is very tough Le Pen country and Zidane struggled as a youth to make his way.

And here a Nobel laureate, (who also loved and played football), born into a poverty-stricken Pied-Noir family, Albert Camus, whose monument, headstone, I visited at the Roman seaside ruined city of Tipasa.

                   …."this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow"….

Blue and yellow. Vibrant Mediterranean colours. The sun and the sea. In Algeria, it is also the sky and the desert.

My new novel, The Lost Domain, uses some of the historical material written about here as an almost silent background, a haunting of the past. It is the story of two women. One, a Pied-Noir, who escapes to France in 1962 as the war is ending, with her small son and her sister-in-law. They have lost everything in Algeria and are obliged to begin again in the mother country where they find themselves most unwelcome… and then a small girl is pitched into their lives and befriends the son….

Coincidentally, while I was writing this blog I received an email from a woman who had read my last month's History Girls post. She lived in Algeria during the seventies, over a decade after the country had won its independence. She told me that her cleaner, a woman called Fatima, missed the French. She "lamented their departure and felt that they had taken good care of the local people". I thought I would add this because every story has so many layers, every history page a thousand footnotes. I will post more about The Lost Domain at a later date.


Lydia Syson said...

Thank you Carol for such a fascinating account - I also really enjoyed your Charlie Hebdo piece last month. There is so much hidden history at the heart of what's happening today, and a lot of it is very nuanced and complicated and hard for an 'outsider' to get their head round. Did you see this, by any chance:

It's also interesting on the history of integration in France, comparing the treatment of Jews and Muslims from North Africa.

Clare Mulley said...

Fascinating history, Incredible to think of France - so freshly liberated - bombing Algeria in 1945. And the threads stretching forward to today, while the history so much forgotten or ignored. I'm looking forward to The Lost Domain.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating, Carol - and love the sound of the new novel. Such tangled history.

Unknown said...

So well written...we need this insight into what is happening right many layers, as you say, Carol. The more facts we learn must surely make a difference, however small the steps might be. Certainly looking forward to the new book!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Lydia, I hadn't seen that particular article. Thank you sending it to me, Carol

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Carol, for sharing your valuable knowledge of the history of this area and people. The recent events are never as simple as newspaper & media like to present. This is why it always amazes me when someone says that history doesn't matter.

Good wishes to your "Lost Domain" too.

Unknown said...

Absolutely fascinating. A period of French History of which I, and I suspect many others, know very little. I was aware of it as the background to'Day Of The Jackal'and that's about all. Thanks Carol. x

Madeleine said...

My ex mother in law and her husband, (Emmanuel's step father), are both 'Pied Noirs'. They are so full of hatred for the Algerian Muslims it used to make me SO uncomfortable to listen to them. I have a very limited knowledge of the history and have really enjoyed this article and am looking forward to your book xx