The Algerian question and the Pieds-Noirs

La questione algerina e i Pied-Noir (Leggi versione in italiano)

In the early ‘60s, the Algerian War of Independence had its crucial moments. In 1962 De Gaulle retired troops and the North African country became independent. Residents of French, Italian and Spanish origin, together with the Algerian Jews, fled to France. They were badly welcomed and they were called “Pieds-Noirs”.

In 1830 the French occupied Algeria, conquered from the Turks, transforming it into a colony. In those years the presence of foreigners was minimal in the country. No more than 2000 Europeans were counted. The Jewish community was very numerous. The two populations, the European one and the Jewish one, were considered by the Turks as a single community, dhimmi, the “protected”. Many other Europeans moved to Algeria with the French colonization to take advantage of the favorable conditions granted by the colonial government, which aimed to create a homogeneous non-Arab group to dilute the national identity of Algerians of Islamic religion. After a few decades, non-Muslim people became a considerable component of the overall population of Algeria.

In 1870 the French government granted French citizenship to all the “dhimmi” on the Algerian soil. This decision was taken to create a common identity between Algerians of European origin, namely French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, but also German and English, to counter the aspirations of independence in the local Arab-Muslim and Berber-Muslim population. Among French naturalized citizens there was also the Jewish population of Algeria, native to the place. The Jews were resident in that country for centuries. They had always distinguished themselves from the Arabs and when they had the opportunity to apply for French citizenship, they joined in mass, feeling more European than Algerian, by language and traditions. During the centuries of sojourn in the Sahara, they often suffered from the persecution of Muslims. The norms of 1870 were then confirmed by the laws of 1889 and 1893 which provided for automatic French citizenship for the children of all Algerian of European origin and the subdivision of the population into metropolitan citizens with French citizenship and subjects of Algerian Muslims. Metropolitan citizens were called by the French “Pieds-Noirs” because they were often employed as charcoal on the ships that shuttling between Algiers and Marseilles.

France in the fifties of the twentieth century had granted independence to many of its territories in northern Africa. The Paris government, on the contrary, felt that Algeria should remain under the control of France because of the numerous residents of French citizenship. They were about 10 percent of the total population, but in large coastal cities represented the majority of the population. The Algerian independent movement was born in the late nineteenth century. In 1950 it was divided into several factions. The most determined and violent was the National Liberation Front. Other members, more moderate, adhered to the Algerian National Movement. The various movements, in addition to opposing, more or less violently, the French presence, were busy facing each other, for dominance of the future independent Algerian state.

The motherland French was absolutely opposed to the Algerian French, who, for the most part, considered usurpers of citizenship, since in fact they had no French origin. In Algeria there were about 60,000 “evolved”, Arabs and Berbers that had been French naturalized. There were the “French” Jews whose origin was absolutely Algerian, given the centuries of stay on that land. There were also all citizens of European origin, but not French, who were also naturalized with French citizenship, in addition to the French who had relocated to Algeria in the past, and who were only considered as legitimate metropolitan citizens in their motherland. This combination of situations, from both sides of the dispute, made the colony’s government extremely difficult and to choose the right solutions to military controversy against nationalist rebels or negotiations to seek shared solutions. In 1961, the O.A.S. Organization of the Armée Secrète, a paramilitary organization constituted by “Pieds-Noirs”, was opposed to the liberation of Algeria. The OAS expressed its ideas with terrorist attacks directed against the Arab factions that sought liberation, and in France, with attacks aimed at countering government decisions regarding the independence of the African country.

The National Liberation Front, led by Ahmed Ben Bella, was weakened by the presence of other independent organizations. Not everyone was pursuing the armed struggle. An important step was the membership of the communist leader Ferhat Abbas. FLN was supported by Nasser, who aimed at a panarabic policy of contrast to colonialist countries. On November 1, 1954, hostilities began against the French with coordinated attacks at barracks and police stations. French Prime Minister Mendes-France, already weakened by the defeats suffered by the French army in Indochina, proclaimed the defense of the Algerian soil as the country’s motherland. It was more than a century that France occupied Algeria and a large number of its citizens lived in the African country.

On August 20, 1955, armed groups of the Front attacked several cities of the Northeast of Algeria simultaneously. There were many victims: 71 citizens of European origin, 31 soldiers and 21 Arabs. The repression of the “Foreign Legion” was terrible. There were 1273 rebels killed. Some historians have suggested a total of 7500 victims among Arabs and Berberis. The war was total and spread throughout all the Algerian cities. The “Pieds-Noirs”, for their part, objected to any initiative aimed at peace, fearing that it would eventually brought to the independence the country, with lethal consequences for their community. In August 1956 the CNRA was founded. It was the political level in which the nationalists were re-affirmed. Albert Camus, the famous French writer of Algerian origin (he was a Pied-Noir), proposed himself as an intermediary in talks that led to independence in a peaceful manner, getting the only result of being refuted by the Arabs and considered a traitor to his fellow citizens.

La battaglia Algeri (Fotogramma tratto dall'omonimo film) 1966
La battaglia Algeri (Fotogramma tratto dall’omonimo film) 1966

On September 30, 1956 three bombs exploded in the capital Algiers. Governor Lacoste, who had replaced Jacques Soustelle, removed for deep divergence with Paris, ordered the military to enter the city. 7500 paras took a stand in the capital where Air France’s offices were hit. The “Battle of Algiers” began, it was the subject of the homonymous movie by Gillo Pontecorvo. More than 800 attacks struck the capital of the Sahrawian country. The paras, strong in the experience gained in the Indochinese guerrillas, forced FLN into defensive. The leaders of the Front were forced to leave Algiers and take refuge in the desert or Egypt. The French army to resume control of coastal cities did not even hesitate to use torture against members of the National Front caught. More than two million Algerians were forcibly moved from guerrilla-controlled areas to areas under the jurisdiction of French troops. Approximately 170,000 moderate Muslim Arabs and Berbers were hired by the French Army (Harkis) and used to counter revolt. In Algeria, despite the fact that the French government was trying to hide reality, there was a bloody colonial war whose outcomes seemed uncertain.

Jacques Soustelle, who, after his removal, had returned to Paris, organized with the support of the military a coup aimed to bring General De Gaulle to power. The French military feared a new defeat in Algeria after the one suffered in Indochina. This, according to their thoughts, would definitely compromise the honor of the army. The leaders of the coup had identified General De Gaulle, the national hero, as the right person to avoid the withdraw of the troops from Algeria. May 25 began the coup d’etat with the operation “Corsica”. A large group of French paras occupied Corsica without clashes and bloodshed. They were ready to intervene on Paris if De Gaulle had not been appointed Prime Minister. Fortunately, on May 29, the day before the date for the raid in Paris, the parliament appointed the De Gaulle as prime minister.

Appointing De Gaulle was a mistake. The General turned out a master politician, he had intercepted the desire of the French public to leave Algeria whose defense had a significant economic cost and in terms of human lives that France was not prepared to pay. The “Pieds-Noirs”, the French Algerians and the “Harkis“, Arabs engaged in the French army, on the contrary, pressed because France did not abandon Algeria. They knew that in the case of the independence of the African country, they had no other way out except moving to French soil. This was the context in which the appointment occurred of Prime Minister Charles De Gaulle, the famous general who was head of the French troops which, with the allies, liberated France from the Germans in World War II. De Gaulle was inclined to grant independence to Algeria based on the principle of self-determination of peoples. In 1959 General De Gaulle was appointed President of the French Republic.

Charles De Gaulle tried to include moderate Islamic forces among Algerian contenders, to diminish the popularity enjoyed by the FLP. Algeria was no longer considered a French territory, but a territory associated with France in the new constitution of the Fifth Republic, meaning the broad autonomy that the government intended to grant. This perspective was, however, unloved to the Liberation Front, because in a situation of autonomy its presence would have been totally frustrated. The Front sought alliances between the friendly countries proclaiming the republic of Algeria that was recognized by Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. On the opposite side, also the “Pieds-Noirs”, suspecting the next departure of the Algerian game from France, began their war on two fronts. On the one hand, the Muslims, on the other hand, the more favorable French to the independence of Algeria. The OAS, Organization Armée Secrète, was formed, to which the most extreme civilian and military personalities, among the “Pieds-Noirs” and the French military in Algeria, joined.

In 1961, following the negotiations opened by the De Gaulle government with moderate nationalists, the French generals in Algeria Raoul Salan, André Zeller, Maurice Challe and Edmond Jouhaud organized a second coup d’etat. On the night of April 21, they occupied the key nodes of Algeria: airports, municipals, barracks. On the morning of 22, when the news of the putsch became public, President Charles De Gaulle made a statement, broadcast through radio and television, ordering all French soldiers not to obey the orders of rebels. On April 26, the coup could be said to have failed. The generals and officers involved were extradited by the army, 114 of them were arrested.

De Gaulle continued talks to find shared solutions. The Evian Agreements, so called by the name of the French city where the talks took place, established the independence of Algeria, with a transition period of three years during which the French citizens of Algeria would have the opportunity to acquire Local citizenship or opting to retain the French one. The OAS, which did not accept Algerian independence, organized dozens of terrorist attacks both in Algeria and France, in order to break the agreements and prevent the independence referendum.

On July 1, 1962, a referendum on independence was held in the African country. On July 3, President Charles De Gaulle proclaimed independent Algeria.

Already in the months before the proclamation of independence, the Pieds-Noirs began exodus, which, for the most part, reached France. The exodus concerned French citizens of origin, citizen of European origin, Algerian Jews who had obtained French citizenship, and the Hatis, the Muslims who had militated in the French army and also the so-called “Evolved” Muslims, Islamists who had been with the French side and feared for their future. 1,500,000 people were leaving.

Dramatic moments were for the fear of retaliation by the Arabs. Whole families were trying to leave. They came mainly from the coastal cities: Algiers, Bone and Oran, which for centuries was a maritime base under the control of Europeans. The French Government had underestimated the phenomenon and had not get ready means of transport and houses to accommodation. For several days thousands of refugees were camped in the Algerian ports, waiting the ships, that were carrying from Algeria to France, embarked them. In the port cities of southern France, refugee families slept in the streets. Few had relatives in France who could accommodate them at least for the first few days.

These people were not well received. The Pieds-Noirs were considered fascists and the French saw them invaders in their public housing and job. The mayor of Marseilles declared that he could not accommodate them because, he said, he already had 150,000 more people than the city’s maximum capacity. Many Pieds-Noirs were moved to Corsica, where they were considered the new invaders. Nevertheless, most of these people, accustomed to sacrifices and renunciations, soon adapted to the new living conditions, becoming profitable in French society.

OAS continued his terrorist activity in France for some years. On August 22, 1962, General De Gaulle was moving from his residence in Colombey les Deux Eglises, near Paris, to the Villacoublay military airport. In the presidential car, a Citroen DS, his wife Yvonne also found. He was escorted by some motorcycle policemen and another police car. An OAS terrorist group was waiting on the Avenue de la Liberation. At about 20 o’clock, on the arrival of the presidential car, some bursts of machine gun were fired in the direction of the presidential car from a yellow station wagon parked on the street side. The chauffeur of presidential Citroen accelerated to the maximum. The President and his wife lowered between the front and rear seats. Slightly further another Citroen DS, with terrorists, intruded between the presidential and escort car. The terrorists shot a hundred bulletts from this car in the direction of the car that hosted the president. Only six bullets hit the Citroen of De Gaulle. The assailants’ car went away in the direction of Paris. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Upon arrival at airport, De Gaulle exclaimed: “They fired like pigs!” His wife Yvonne replied: “I hope the chickens have not done anything.” She had put two live chickens on the luggage rack for the next day’s lunch before leaving her country house. Attackers were arrested. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, the organizer of the attack, was sentenced to death and shot.

Two Pieds-Noirs have become famous in Italy: Claudia Cardinale and Edvige Fenech.

Claudia Cardinale, 1960
Claudia Cardinale, 1960

Claudia Cardinale was born in Tunis. Cardinale’s grandparents were of Sicilian origin. They had found accommodations in the Tunisian town of La Golette where many Italians lived. Claudia’s father, Engineer Francesco, despite studying in French schools, refused French citizenship, preserving the Italian one, for the sake of the motherland. Claudia Cardinale came to Italy in the second half of the 50’s. She spoke only of Sicilian, learned from her grandparents, in addition to French and Tunisian Arabic. She is living in France for many years, but she has retained Italian citizenship in respect of her father’s decision to stay Italian.

Edwige Fenech vince Lady France (maggio 1967)
Edwige Fenech vince Lady France (maggio 1967)

Edvige Fenech was born in Bone, Algeria. Father was of Malta and mother was of Italian origin (Acate in Sicily). At the time of Algerian independence, she moved with her mother to Nice, having French citizenship, where she attended high school. She began studying medicine at the local university, but she was noticed by director Norbert Carbonnaux who hired her as an actress in the movie “Toute folles de lui”. In 1967 she won the “Lady France” competition. Noticed by an Italian filmmaker, she was hired for the movie “Samoa, Queen of the Jungle” where she obtained the Samoa part. She moved definitively to Italy where she continued to act as an actress.

Bibliography:
Alistair Horne, La guerra d’Algeria, Rizzoli 2007
Andrea Brazzoduro, Soldati senza causa. Memorie della guerra d’Algeria, laterza, 2012
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerra d’Algeria
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles de Gaulle
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudia Cardinale
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieds-noirs
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwige_Fenech

 

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