National Identity Paradox of Franco-Algerians
Theodora Broyd | King's College London
* This article contains violent and discriminatory images that some readers may find upsetting.
First of February 2022. Fatima smokes on the terrace of a Parisian café. She tells me of a similar day like today, last summer – much warmer! - when a complete stranger, zigzagging from too much drink by his girlfriend’s side, shouted at her: “What are you looking at me for? Are you about to shoot me, you little jihadist?” His girlfriend rushed to apologise on her boyfriend’s behalf. “Sorry, he doesn’t understand. I grew up in the Paris banlieues (poor urban outskirts); I’m used to people like you, he isn’t.”
The eyes of Fatima - leather jacket, short curly hair, cigarette in hand - shine with a hidden fire directly at me. “Having lived in the banlieue cannot begin to help them understand what the expression ‘people like me’ does to me.” Fatima is twenty-seven years old, born in France Franco-Algerian, grown up in the poor Parisian racialised area of Clichy-sous-Bois, the starting point of the 2005 nationwide riots.
She also just published a book, The Last One, translated (already) into nineteen languages, and immediately awarded prizes in Italy, Germany, and France.
Her face bears the imprint of her immigrant identity but not of her identity as a recognised author, LGBTQ+ intellectual, and mould-breaker. It is easy to guess by which identities Fatima prefers to be known.
Fatima’s two older sisters choose to wear headscarves. She does not, but still identifies (among other things) as a devout Muslim. The last visible trait of her ethnicity – her skin colour – may have triggered the discrimination she described to me. But race, especially in Muslims, becomes visible in France and elsewhere through multiple other symbols.
Thus Franco-Algerians self-identify in conditions of double trauma generated from their home society (France) and their society of origin (Algeria).
A recent peaceful street movement of young Algerians (2019-2021) called Hirak (Revolution of Smiles) brought down the corrupt regime of President Bouteflika. Soon, however, there was disillusionment with the restrictive powers of the new government under President Tebboune. Young people started looking to leave Algeria, most often to France. This episode added to the much heavier memory of the civil war (1992-2002), where 200,000 people are thought to have been killed, and many thousands of families emigrated, mainly to France. The emigration to France carries a much older burden. It started at the turn of the twentieth century, under French colonial rule that used Algerian men in its army during the two world wars and in its post-war industries. The French state treated them and their families as ‘colonial subjects’ whose inferiority to Frenchness was codified in law (Code Indigénat, 1881-1947). Such state attitudes often translated into repression even after the Code was abandoned. During the ‘Paris Massacre’ (17 October 1961), silent, unarmed Algerians demonstrating against a curfew were viciously beaten, and bodies were thrown in the Seine.
Traumatic self-identification in France
If Fatima’s visible identity invites societal discrimination, how important is it for French society to respect her chosen identities?
Nowadays, the French Republic encourages universalist citizenship and does not like the visible use of the ethnic or cultural symbols of one’s origins. The French Revolution sought to reduce and even eradicate (1794) the influence of the Catholic Church in France. In 1905 The Law of Separation Between Church and State guaranteed both the secular character of the Republic, but also the freedom of worship for all religions. The growing immigration of Muslims to France, as well as the terrorist attacks (such as those of 1995) on French soil spilling from Algeria’s civil war, revived the old colonial mistrust and engendered stronger assimilatory discourse from the French state. In 2004 Parliament voted on a law banning the wearing of the hijab at school. Islamic veils, but also shalwars, thobes, kufi hats and halal shops have been at the centre of political and legal polemics since 1989 – the year of the first ‘head-scarf affair’- and most recently, during the campaign prior to the French presidential election (April 2022).
How traumatic is it for Franco-Algerians to develop a unique and balanced identity while required to keep their culture and ethnicity invisible?
Fatima’s story shows that all attempts at such invisibility (conscious or unconscious) – termed by psychiatrist Frantz Fanon as ‘white masks on black skin’ - are often futile.
In 2018, interviewed on the street about the student protests against the reform in higher education, a Sorbonne Student Union leader, Maryam Pougetoux, was criticised by politicians such as the Minister of the Interior for wearing a veil during the interview. The content of her words was overshadowed by the way she looked. In his reaction of ‘shock’, the minister linked the hijab-wearing student to Al-Qaida’s radicalisation of young people. The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published an ‘ape-like’ caricature of her. The Islamic veil may have been forbidden in schools in 2004, but not in universities, on the street, or public spaces. Behind such personal attacks, officially claiming to be protecting secularism, peeped thinly veiled institutional racism. Today, offensive cartoons are addressed to Muslim women in France who wouldn’t take off their hijab on the street, opposing them to the protesters against its compulsory use in Iran.
The effort to impose a compulsory ‘emancipation’ on Muslim women in France - a lot of them Franco-Algerian - fails to recognise that it thus neglects their legal right to choose whether to wear a veil or not, be it in Iran or France. An avowed wish to protect secularism, freedom of speech, and republicanism as crafted by the 1789 Revolution may be at the heart of such cartoons, but for French Muslims, they carry echoes from history. Muslims were targeted specifically in the French colonies after 1865, the implementation of the first Code Indigénat in Algeria was introduced in 1881. The Code was later extended in most French colonies (1887), and de facto required any Algerian Muslim who wanted to become a French national to give up their religion. The research of French sociologist Abdellali Hajjat (2010) discovered instances where French nationality was refused to women who wore a veil. In July 2008 the French State Council confirmed the decision of the Ministry of Immigration who refused to grant French nationality through marriage to a woman wearing the veil. Because of the veil she was considered inassimilable (unable to assimilate). The French legal vernacular used a derivative of the colonial term ‘assimilation’ instead of ‘integration’.
Traumatic memory in self-identification with Algeria
History has always played a major role in the conflictual process of ‘othering’, especially to Franco-Algerians. Algeria won independence between 1954-62 despite institutionalised French army torture and massacres perpetrated by both sides. A lot of the shameful history of this anti-colonial war was hidden or reported one-sidedly in both countries. Later, the civil war in Algeria (1992-2002) spilt new immigration and a series of terror attacks.
French public opinion and state institutions had to realise that the immigrant families they had invited from across the Mediterranean during the colonial period and after the two world wars, as well as the post-colonial immigrants, were not ‘in transit’ anymore: they were there to stay. However, the ascription of immigrant identity persists through second, third, and further generations, as sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad finds in his research on Franco-Algerians. Through a process of ‘othering’, the out-group (French state universalism) makes immigrant identity salient even in those children of immigration who had chosen to become French nationals. The process of ‘othering’ pushes to the fore the visible differences in Franco-Algerians, indirectly implying that they are different from the ‘Français de souche’ (French born and bred), that they don’t quite ‘belong’. It revives in them the transitory status of their immigrant ancestors. Thus, the process of ‘othering’ ends with the ascription of immigrant identity on settled French nationals of Algerian origin.
Fatima’s parents were among those who fled Algeria in the 1990s during the Algerian civil war known as the Black Decade. What pushed them to escape was the trauma their compatriots caused, adding to the ancestral trauma from French colonial rule.
An independent nation-state of barely thirty years, Algeria descended into chaos on the eve of a certain FIS election victory (December 1991) and the possible installation of an Islamic state. However devoted the Front of Islamic Salvation may have been to Shari’ah law, its birth on the Algerian political scene came as a reaction to the corrupt government of President Chadli Benjedid (1979-1992). The military intervened to prevent the FIS from coming to power. The army and the DTS – the Algerian Security Services – fought against a multitude of pro-Islamist groups. The ensuing civil war had traumatic consequences for the country, its people, and its diaspora. Ten years of massacres and indiscriminate intrusion in the private lives of ordinary people undermined the national pride that many generations of French Algerians felt towards their nation of origin. Moreover, the attempts at finding the truth about the disappearances and achieving reconciliation have not been particularly successful to this day.
“We don’t talk in our family”, Fatima tells me. She explains that silence stops the spreading of trauma. Apart from identifying as French and Algerian, she is also a practising Muslim and a lesbian. According to her mosque’s imam, the latter two identities could never go together, but Fatima combines emotional resilience and intelligence to reconcile all her identities.
Fatima speaks with warmth of her family in Algeria. “I feel truly loved there”, she says, admitting, with her next breath, that at each visit to Algeria, she must bring many gifts. The émigré (of any origin) often feels a sublimated guilt for abandoning one’s country. Both émigré and society of origin enter a unique, often unspoken, negotiation for a monetary contribution the émigré should make to compensate for feelings of betrayal or being betrayed. Those who did not stay in Algeria during the national suffering, or those who accepted French naturalisation, occasionally are made to feel like the weaklings of the ‘djansiya’ (nation). Such was the attitude towards Algerians working in mainland France since the beginning of the twentieth century, even if they did send every penny of their salaries back to their Algerian communities. This traditional ‘duty’ weighs on the shoulders of children and grandchildren of immigration.
As Abdelmalek Sayad reminds us, the word ‘djansiya’ in Algerian-Arabic surat (dialect) means both ‘nation’ and ‘race’. The ‘othering’ coming from the ‘djansiya’ compromises, in turn, a smooth identification with the Algerian nation of origin.
Resistance as identity
A great number of Franco-Algerians refuse to be defined by the trauma of the anti-colonial war (1954-1962), civil war (1992-2002), and the generational burden of the immigrant spanning over two centuries. They identify with the tradition and the community support their ethnic origins, including their religion, bring to their lives. They also identify with the creative freedom and sense of modernity that France wants to represent for its citizens. The slang of the banlieues, sometimes created to make them stand out on French streets, very visibly and freely is adopted by mainstream French language.
Some of their protests against French police brutality represent an extreme burst of visibility, but such resistance also, by default, achieves a partially restored collective identity that has been crumbling under French state secularism.
Despite regular and historic disillusionments with their two nations, most of them already holding dual nationality on paper, Franco-Algerians try to forge their own, almost nationless, brand of dual national identity.
Begag, Azouz, Ethnicity & equality: France in the balance (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2007)
Daas, Fatima, trans. L. Vergnaud, The last one (London, Small Axes, 2022)
Roberts, Hugh. The battlefield: Algeria, 1988-2002: Studies in a broken polity (London, Verso, 2017)
Sayad, Abdelmalek, trans. D. Macey, ed. P. Bourdieu, The suffering of the immigrant (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012)
Wolfreys, Jim, Republic of Islamophobia: the rise of respectable racism in France (London, Hurst Et Company, 2018)
Theodora Broyd is a second-year PhD Research Student with the History Department of King’s College London. Her research thesis is provisionally titled Self-Identification of Franco-Algerians in today’s France. Her research interests include how the tools of ‘othering’ impact the immigrants themselves. Theodora holds an MA in French Surrealist Literature, has worked as a journalist (BBC) and a teacher of French.