France Can’t Erase Algeria From Its History

Europe’s past isn’t as white as right-wing politicians pretend.

By , an assistant professor of history at Swarthmore College.
A black-and-white photo of men marching on a boulevard with the sign "PAIX EN ALGERIE."
A black-and-white photo of men marching on a boulevard with the sign "PAIX EN ALGERIE."
Demonstrators shout slogans in favor of independence and peace in Algeria on the Grands Boulevards in Paris on Nov. 18, 1961. -/AFP via Getty Images

In January, a French court convicted far-right political pundit Éric Zemmour of hate speech. Zemmour, a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round will take place on April 10, had claimed that unaccompanied child migrants were “thieves,” “murderers,” and “rapists.” As in so many recent elections in Europe and the United States, rhetoric like Zemmour’s about allegedly dangerous outsiders and their threat to so-called Western civilization has become a common refrain across a large swath of French candidates. In this case, the unwelcome “foreigners” are often French citizens whose parents or grandparents were born in France’s former colonies, such as Algeria, Mali, and Senegal.

Two French candidates in particular, Zemmour himself and center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, have invoked the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which predicts that Europe’s white population—and its culture—will be subsumed by invaders from Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen recently tweeted a photograph of a woman wearing a hijab with the slogan: “To enshrine the fight against communautarisme in the constitution: President Marine.” The implication is that France’s diversity is a menace.

Moves to exclude non-white populations, however, are not limited to the right. Last year, incumbent Emmanuel Macron announced that France would drastically reduce the number of visas available to North African citizens, citing, among other reasons, Algeria’s failure to assist in repatriating its citizens found to be living in France without proper paperwork.

In January, a French court convicted far-right political pundit Éric Zemmour of hate speech. Zemmour, a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round will take place on April 10, had claimed that unaccompanied child migrants were “thieves,” “murderers,” and “rapists.” As in so many recent elections in Europe and the United States, rhetoric like Zemmour’s about allegedly dangerous outsiders and their threat to so-called Western civilization has become a common refrain across a large swath of French candidates. In this case, the unwelcome “foreigners” are often French citizens whose parents or grandparents were born in France’s former colonies, such as Algeria, Mali, and Senegal.

Two French candidates in particular, Zemmour himself and center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse, have invoked the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which predicts that Europe’s white population—and its culture—will be subsumed by invaders from Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen recently tweeted a photograph of a woman wearing a hijab with the slogan: “To enshrine the fight against communautarisme in the constitution: President Marine.” The implication is that France’s diversity is a menace.

Moves to exclude non-white populations, however, are not limited to the right. Last year, incumbent Emmanuel Macron announced that France would drastically reduce the number of visas available to North African citizens, citing, among other reasons, Algeria’s failure to assist in repatriating its citizens found to be living in France without proper paperwork.

These are deliberate attempts to erase or excise Algerians and others from France’s past and present—a revisionist history that’s far removed from reality. Such narratives ignore more than a century of French imperialism and, importantly, gloss over the lengths to which French authorities once went to retain ties to their colonies, particularly Algeria. Indeed, in the twilight years of the empire, the French even sought to portray Algeria as a European territory to secure their reign there.

For decades, France administered Algeria’s most populous regions like metropolitan départements, signaling that the majority-Muslim country was not a colony but a part of France itself. Algeria’s peculiar status within the French empire laid the groundwork for one of the boldest—yet most forgotten—ways in which French authorities tried to maintain their grip on North Africa: by ensuring Algeria’s inclusion in the European Union’s precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC).

After World War II, officials in Paris insisted that because Algeria was part of France, it was logically also part of Europe, even though its colonial arrangement rarely translated into citizenship rights for Algerian Muslims. At the time, French leaders were consumed by anxieties about their imperial authority. Colonial subjects across much of the global south were threatening European rule, and on the heels of the loss of Indochina in 1954 and the launch of the Algerian War of Independence that same year, French authorities came to see European integration as a means to maintain their status as an imperial power.

They believed integration would both help to secure more development aid in Algeria and force other states to acknowledge France’s legitimate claim to Algerian territory. The success of Algerian anti-imperial nationalists gaining international attention and sympathy only amplified these desires.

Officials in Paris insisted that because Algeria was part of France, it was logically also part of Europe.

Less than a week after the United Nations General Assembly debated what was known as the “Algerian question” for the first time in early 1957, French officials demanded that the EEC treaty include Algeria. They viewed the supranational agreement as a way to answer the diplomatic challenge coming from Algerian liberation fighters and their international supporters. The EEC’s other founding members—Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany—acquiesced. Although they had considerable reservations, they knew that without French backing, any move toward European integration would have been doomed.

In cementing Algeria’s inclusion as part of France in the EEC treaty, French officials scored both a semantic victory and a promise of European funds directed to its colony. Of particular note, France would be able to tap into a European-wide development fund to pay for Algerian infrastructure and agriculture projects. The treaty would also allow for some agricultural and commercial policies to extend to Algeria. However, the French were deliberately vague during treaty negotiations about whether they believed EEC stipulations over free movement for laborers would actually extend to Algerians. By not pushing the point, they avoided antagonizing their European partners further.

French authorities hoped EEC funds would resolve the issues that sparked unrest in Algeria—they did not use the word “war”—in the first place. Yet delays built into the treaty meant that few of its regulations would apply to Algeria immediately. More significantly, Paris vastly underestimated its opponents in Algeria.

Indeed, France’s new diplomatic weapon had little impact on the war. In July 1962, Algeria won its independence, following a cease-fire agreement whose 60th anniversary was marked earlier this year. Algerians took to the streets to celebrate the end of more than 130 years of French rule. Yet the split from its European past was far from complete. Although Algeria was no longer a part of France, it was still named in the EEC’s treaty. Now an independent state, Algeria remained within the bounds of integrated Europe. Although one French official opined that it was “obviously absurd” to consider Algeria an EEC member state, its inclusion in the treaty rendered its actual status uncertain.

Mere months after Algeria’s independence, its first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, sent a representative to Brussels to work out the future relationship between his state and the EEC. Over the next 14 years, Algerian and EEC officials sporadically engaged in discussions about their relationship. Rather than resolving the question of how post-independence Algeria fit within Europe, they opted instead for the prolongation of the status quo, meaning that the tariff rates and development funds secured by the EEC treaty would, for the most part, continue to apply in Algeria. Some member states, particularly West Germany, continued to recruit guest workers from North Africa and elsewhere. And due to its long relationship with France and the state of Algeria’s economy after the war, Algerians continued to migrate to France, either temporarily or for good. By 1965, more than half a million Algerian nationals lived in France.

Algeria’s leaders—the same men who waged a war against France’s claim to their homeland—pursued the continuation of the EEC’s policies, including customs regulations and social security rights. They did so not because they agreed that Algeria was European (or had ever belonged to France) but rather because the status quo had the potential to bolster the Algerian economy and support their citizens, particularly migrant laborers working in EEC member states. French officials were incentivized to maintain the relationship because France relied on Algeria as one of its most important export markets. They also did not yet realize that nearly all of the French settlers who fled Algeria would never return to reclaim their properties and businesses.

As the years passed, however, the close relationship between Algeria and the EEC became increasingly untenable for all parties. Algerian officials pursued closer ties with Arab states and nonaligned countries. EEC officials disdained setting aside money for Algerian projects that could support their own populations and questioned why the North African country should enjoy a special customs regime. With the 1973 oil shock, member states froze migration rights for Algerians and others, hardening the divide between Europe and the territory it once purportedly included.

Only in 1976 did Algeria and the EEC finally mark a formal break, with an accord that made no mention of Algeria’s nearly two decadeslong relationship with the EEC. By then, French memory had been rewritten to cast Algeria as a colony like any other. Given concerns like the oil shock and a general lack of public interest in European integration—largely the purview of bureaucrats—perhaps it is little wonder that despite the agreement’s significance, the news garnered only two lines in Le Monde.

Recovering this glaring hole in the continent’s history lays bare the erroneous, white-washed version of the past promoted by candidates like Zemmour (whose own parents were born in Algeria). Racing to woo white voters and eager to keep out refugees and migrants, these candidates denigrate the same populations from whom the French empire exploited labor, resources, and military service for decades.

When it served integrated Europe’s interests, its borders could be molded to include (or exclude) a vastly more diverse population—the very people who are terrorized today by migration patrols or maligned by racist laws. Algeria’s years within the EEC challenge visions of a fortressed Europe that needs to protect itself from the infiltration of dangerous outsiders. Europeans themselves once forced Algerians and others to count within Europe’s borders, a reality France’s presidential candidates—and voters—would do well to remember.

Megan Brown is an assistant professor of history at Swarthmore College. Her upcoming book, The Seventh Member State: Algeria, France, and the European Community, interrogates the role of the empire in the formation of integrated post-1945 European institutions.

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