Algerian immigration into France
The Algerian presence in France spans over a century of unique history. Algerians fuelled an early and large migratory flow of colonials to mainland France from the second half of the 19th century. Neither French nor foreign until 1962, Algerians were in turn "indigenous", "French subjects" then "Muslim French from Algeria". This undeclared form of immigration nevertheless encountered all the difficulties of exile and, something new, drove the fight for independence from the mainland.
The origins of Algerian immigration
Algerian emigration did not coincide with the colonial conquest of 1830. On the contrary, Algeria became a settlement colony and a land that hundreds of thousands of Europeans (French, Spanish, Italians, Maltese) immigrated to. The implementation of the colonial system in the country, administered in the same way as French departments from 1848, considerably worsened the situation of the native populations. Impoverishment (exacerbated in rural areas), the soaring demographic growth, real estate pressure, dispossessions and lack of resources led to a dual phenomenon of rural exodus and emigration in the late 19th century.
Mostly Kabyle, men in the prime of life supplied labour in the towns and farms of the Mediterranean coast of mainland France, their first anchor point being the city of Marseille. They were employed as day labourers on farms, road workers, peddlers or unskilled workers.
Kabylia, a particularly poor region, was the main source of candidates for emigration. A veritable migration project was developed collectively by the family or the village assembly (djema’a). Men alone in France but not single, they were often married by their families before leaving, as a way to ensure their return to the village. Their wage only enabled them to survive in France, since the sums they worked so hard to save were needed to provide for their families. These young, active men were chosen to leave for a predetermined period, usually a few months, which explains the frequency of rotations between French mainland and Algerian departments (on average every two years). Once back home, they were often replaced by other young men from their village who took over their housing and even their job. Migrant workers from Algeria formed a real community hub in France. Based on the extended family, village or region of origin, these men joined forces and set up a network of solidarity and social interaction that facilitated access to a roof over their heads, work, news from the homeland, and the keeping of cultural or religious traditions.
The eve of World War 1 revealed the establishment of a real Algerian community in France. But due to their specific status, neither French nor foreign, they were not easy to count. During the 1901 census, they were not distinguished from the French but were described as "travailleurs originaires d’Algérie" (workers originating from Algeria). Their numbers remained far lower than the European migrants. A survey in 1912 counted 4 to 5,000 Algerians in metropolitan France, including 1,000 in the capital and the region around it. They were no longer just part of the agricultural workforce, but also belonged to the industrial and urban proletariat.
For example, they worked at the Say refinery, the Compagnie des Omnibus and on the metro construction sites in Paris, the Michelin factories, mines in Pas-de-Calais, industries in Lyon, and at the docks in the port of Marseille. Management appreciated the supply of a cheap, submissive workforce, making a considerable contribution to the heavy needs of industry, and also wanted to use them to break workers’ strikes.
But it was the Great War that initiated a representative migratory movement in the direction of France. Almost 100,000 workers from Algeria, joined by 175,000 colonial soldiers, were recruited between 1914 and 1918. After the Armistice, the authorities sent all these workers and soldiers back to the colonies they came from, although a few managed to stay in France.
The interwar period or the birth of Algerian nationalism and the acceleration of immigration
In the strict sense of the term, this is not an immigration matter since Algerians have French nationality and therefore are not foreigners, while at the same time not benefiting from the rights of French citizens.
The influx of immigrants was subject to severe regulation. Arrival in mainland France was subject to presentation of a work contract, some savings as a guarantee, a health inspection certificate then an ID card with photograph.
Immigration during the interwar period was still work-motivated, male and young, punctuated by frequent back and forths (the migration balance was even negative at the start of the economic crisis of the 1930s). This strong migration trend generated much criticism in Algeria, essentially from the authorities, entrepreneurs or colons worried about the workforce being drained out of the country.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Algerian population was the subject of special treatment. The inauguration of the Grand Mosque in Paris (1926), then the Franco-Muslim hospital (1935) and the Muslim cemetery (1937) in Bobigny testified to an intention on the part of the authorities to assist and protect its "Muslim subjects". However, these initiatives were not devoid of a desire to control and monitor the immigrant community. A specific department was even created in 1925 to meet that goal: the Service des Affaires Indigènes Nord-Africaines (SAINA) with a North-African Brigade. This was because, within the Algerian community, nationalist and anti-colonialist ideas were spreading…
Messali Hadj founded the Étoile Nord-Africaine in Paris in June 1926. His activists were deeply implanted within the Algerian community, supported by the network of cafés-restaurants, cheap rented rooms and workers’ hostels. The nationalist party denounced the colonial system and proclaimed the independence of Algeria and all the countries of the Maghreb. Meetings, distribution of flyers, posters, party newspaper: nationalist activities amplified around the Zaïm (guide) and its 3600 activists. The Étoile Nord-Africaine was dissolved on January 26th 1937 by a decree issued by the Popular Front government. It reappeared on March 11th that same year under the name Parti du Peuple Algérien, which was banned in turn on September 26th 1939.
1954-1962: Algerian immigrants in the war of independence
Word War 2 saw the influx of workers come to a halt while Algerian troops paid a heavy price in the struggle against Nazism and the Liberation of France.
Departures for mainland France began again in 1946, facilitated by the freedom of circulation instituted by the law of September 20th 1947.
Although it slowed new arrivals down somewhat initially, the war of independence did not bring about a pause in Algerian migrations. Over the eight years of the conflict, the number of Algerians present in mainland France went from 211,000 in 1954 to 350,000 in 1962.
This phenomenon may seem contradictory at first: voluntary, massive emigration to France leading to repression and conflict against independence. But the misery and colonial violence inflicted upon the so-called Muslim population were obviously exacerbated. That was the case notably with the policy of “camps de regroupement” (relocation camps). The French army defined no-go zones, emptied of their inhabitants who were living in camps under military surveillance. These brought millions of Algerians together in the same place.
While Algerian immigration was still an economic migration, with men doing the toughest and lowest-paid jobs (mainly in the building trade and metallurgy), the context highlighted new trends: they stayed on the mainland for longer (four years on average, instead of the previous two), the regions they were leaving from diversified (Kabylia was still at the top of the list, followed by the departments of Oran, Constantine, les Aurès, Tlemcen…), and men were increasingly emigrating with their families (7,000 families in 1954, 30,000 in 1962).
The establishment of this large Algerian community in mainland France became an issue of primary importance for the two rival nationalist parties: the MNA (Mouvement National Algérien) led by the father of nationalism Messali Hadj, who had to confront the vague goals of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) which triggered the Toussaint rouge insurrection on November 1st 1954. The clash between them degenerated into a bloody fratricidal struggle by the end of which the FLN was rooted within the immigrant community. It became an essential source of support, orchestrating the war of independence through its financial support (membership dues were obligatory), its ideological weight and symbolised political pressure. Indeed, the authorities were worried about the emergence in the heart of mainland France of an Algerian counter-society controlled by the FLN’s Fédération de France.
The French authorities therefore decided to set up specific social services ensuring targeted treatment of Algerians while unofficially carrying out a mission of information-gathering, associated with severe repression.
In the capital, from 1958 on, these responsibilities were entrusted to Maurice Papon, who had been appointed as Prefect of Police after being posted to Algeria. He drew inspiration from the strategy he had observed in the department of Constantine. The specialised services simultaneously maintained dialogue with and surveillance of the Algerian population, while the repression intensified through massive arrests, detentions in administrative centres (like the Centre d’Identification in Vincennes, which was opened at his request 1959), file-keeping; including the use of back-up forces, in this case the auxiliary police force created in late 1959 and nicknamed the "Harkis de Paris".
The repression peaked on October 17th 1961, on the night of a protest by 22,000 Algerians organised by the FLN in Paris, during which 11,538 people were arrested and more than a hundred killed.
On July 5th 1962, independence was celebrated by Algerian immigrants in France with much singing and flag-waving. A page had been turned to reveal a brand new historical situation: a colonial war "with no name", which spread to mainland France where the immigrant community mobilised behind the cause of independence.
Nevertheless, the hope of a return was by no means consolidated. Independent Algeria saw an increasing number of young working-age men leave for France. They helped to change societies in the two countries both lastingly and radically.
Peggy Derder, historian, author of the review on: Immigration algérienne et guerre d'indépendance, October 2012