Looking for a Country

French_Algeria_evolution_1830-1962 Sémhur Wiki Commons
A map charting French Algeria’s expansion. Note the more or less continual timeline. Photo Credit: Semhur Wikimedia Commons.

As time rolled on and France traded a monarchy for a republic, and a republic for an empire, the policy towards Algeria remained consistent. Still under military rule, the French would expand their reach outwards, dividing and conquering the neighbors. This or that pretext was used to launch another round of Razzia into another community, and the military bureaucracy would move in and establish control through a network of compliant local figures. Aware of their functional apartheid style of governance, the French continued to practice enforced disunity in their territories. Preferential treatment was given to the French Colons, or settlers first and foremost. After 1870, the French issued the Cremieux Decree, recognizing the Jewish community as French citizens in Algeria in spite of a strong current of anti-Semitism in the Colons, ostensibly to increase the number of loyal French subjects in the territory. At the bottom of this tiered system was the majority of Arab and Berber Muslims, who faced oppression and discrimination as a fact of life. However, somewhat understandably the French could never really give more than half an eye towards Algeria, given their habit of changing governance structures like hat styles. That would change in the tumult of the Franco-Prussian War.


Algerie_trois_enfants_et_un_cocher_charette_mulets New York Zoological Society
A Pieds noir family, circa 1905. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Following the loss of the Franco-German war in 1873 and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine[1] thousands of French citizens had fled to Algeria to start again. The influx was coupled by another major revolt in the territory, and an 1873 land law that rewrote ownership into private and individual terms, as opposed to tribal. In practice both the revolt and the land law created a similar result: more than 5,000 square kilometers of lands shifted from Algerian hands to European settlers. Flush with land and in need of European hands to till it, the French threw open Algeria’s doors to continental settlement. For those who got queasy at the thought of traveling all the way to the United States to start a new life, Algeria was just an enticingly short boat ride away. The promise of cheap land wooed many Europeans to Algeria, especially Italians and Spaniards. Known as the pieds noirs[2], or Black Feet, they slowly integrated into the middle of an economic system where the Colons sat atop the political hierarchy and an explosively growing population of non-Europeans rested on the bottom.

Arabs_before_a_cafe,_Algiers,_Algeria- photocrom print
Arab Algerians pass the time in front of a cafe in 1899. Still a time honored tradition in the region today. Photo Credit Photocrom Collections.

This isn’t to say that there was no means of advancement for Muslims in French Algeria, but it was a harsh road. French citizenship for members of the Arab and Berber communities were restricted to those who converted to Christianity, a life of apostasy and exile that few were willing to take. Combined with the fact that the regressive tax structure fell disproportionately on Muslims, but the revenue was controlled by the pieds noir, and it was understandable that violence flared up on a regular basis.

For the pieds noir, an awareness of their apartheid status engendered a siege mentality that was hostile to any attempt at enfranchising or reforming the situation for Berber and Arab Algerians. Every story of robberies or the occasional murder on some isolated farm was also treated as further proof that there was no trusting the native Algerians, though as with any group of people this opinion was not universal. It also left them permanently dependent on Paris for security, but resenting and distrustful of whatever the French government had in mind for them.

In the following decades these institutional problems continued to stew untreated as France was infected with colonial fever. Morocco, Tunisia, portions of the Congo, Madagascar, Indochina (modern day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), were all snapped into the French sphere of orbit as part of the Third Republic’s policy of global conquest. While they could never fill the hole in France’s cultural heart left by missing Alsace-Lorraine, colonial acquisitions did let the French feel more like an empire. Yet while small populations of French colonists would leave their cultural stamp on each of these countries, none of them were like Algeria. In 1881 Algeria was officially integrated into France’s administrative structures. Algeria was now a part of France, though one where the majority had no say in governance or budgetary matters. By 1889 immigration was enshrined by a new law that granted foreign nationals French citizenship. Promises of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were reserved mostly for those of European ancestry.

Algerian soldiers on parade in France, 1914. Honoring or even discussing the sacrifices these men made for their “country” is still a challenge in France today. Photo Credit: Gervais Courtellemont, Sudddeutsche Zeitung

Whether they wanted it or not, there was space to be found for Algerians in the French army. 173,000 soldiers were conscripted to fight in the trenches of World War I, with 25,000 dying to save a country most had never visited in peacetime. The end of the war did bring some acknowledgement from French leaders that the situation in Algeria needed to change. Recognizing the sacrifice made by many Algerians the government offered a faster path to French citizenship for Muslim veterans, and made a vague stab at a more reformed and equitable system. The war itself had also given many socialists and liberals a chance to actually mingle with people from the colonies, and vice versa. Communists began to build ties for their class war, and while opinion wasn’t universal, many socialists began to feel the time had come to change how Algeria was managed. Naturally the French settler population hated all of this. When the socialist administrator Maurice Violette attempted to reach out with an offer of citizenship for the 100,000 or so upper class Algerian Muslims, he found himself facing a wall of opposition from the settler block. Upon resigning Violette fired off a rhetorical parting shot: “The natives of Algeria, because of your errors, do not have a country. They are looking for one. They are asking to become part of the French patrie. Give it to them quickly or without that they will make another.”[3]

Just three years later in 1930, amidst the pomp and self congratulatory commemoration of 100 colonial years, a common Algerian phrase emerged, “The French celebrate the centenary of French Algeria. They will not celebrate a second.”[4]

[1] Another story for another day. Apparently when it comes to Napoleons, the 3rd time is not the charm, and anyone with the title von Bismarck should be treated with extreme caution.

[2] For practical reasons we will mostly refer to the European community as pieds noir from now on. While they’re often conflated with the Colons, it’s worth remembering that the two were initially distinct.

[3] Evans. E. 2013. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War.

[4] Ibid.


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