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History and memory within the pied-noir and harki communities, 1962–2012
Author: Claire Eldridge

French rule in Algeria ended in 1962 following almost eight years of intensely violent conflict, producing one of the largest migratory waves of the post-1945 era. Almost a million French settlers - pieds-noirs - and tens of thousands of harkis - native auxiliaries who had fought with the French army - felt compelled to leave their homeland and cross the Mediterranean to France. Tracing the history of these two communities, From Empire to Exile explores the legacies of the Algerian War of Independence in France. It uses the long-standing grassroots collective mobilisation and memory activism undertaken by both groups to challenge the idea that this was a ‘forgotten’ war that only returned to public attention in the 1990s. Revealing the rich and dynamic interactions produced as pieds-noirs, harkis and other groups engaged with each other and with state-sanctioned narratives, this study demonstrates the fundamental ways in which postcolonial minorities have shaped the landscapes of French politics, society and culture since 1962. It also helps place the current ‘memory wars’ deemed to be sweeping France in their wider historical context, proving that the current competition for control over the representation of the past in the public sphere is not a recent development, but the culmination of long-running processes. By reconceptualising the ways in which the Algerian War has been debated, evaluated and commemorated in the five decades since it ended, this book makes an original contribution to important discussions surrounding the contentious issues of memory, migration and empire in contemporary France.

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Claire Eldridge
in From empire to exile
Claire Eldridge

Today the pied-noir community are known for their vocal mobilisation in the fields of memory and commemoration. But when the former settlers first arrived in France in 1962, their concerns were more practical in orientation. Preoccupied with rebuilding their lives following their abrupt and traumatic departure from French Algeria, they looked to the small number of newly founded rapatrié [repatriate] associations to press the government on their behalf for assistance with integration and compensation for what they had lost. The lynchpin of such demands was the rapatriés’ French citizenship which, associations argued, entitled them to a particular kind and level of support. Framed as statements about the ‘Frenchness’ of the former settlers and the extent to which the state was willing to recognise this through their actions, this chapter shows how these material demands enabled associations to define a set of common interests and goals which, in turn, fostered a sense of community and identity among the displaced settlers.

in From empire to exile
Claire Eldridge

Pieds-noirs were offered extensive assistance by the French state on the basis of their status as citizens. In contrast, harkis found their Frenchness repeatedly questioned, not just in cultural and social terms, but also at the political and legal level. The consequences of this were far-reaching as harkis were subjected to an all-encompassing process of state control. This included placing many harkis and their families into camps and other institutional environments upon their arrival in France thus initiating a pattern of collectivisation, isolation and exceptional treatment that would continue for years. Lacking the necessary resources – both material and cultural - to mobilise against this treatment, the harki community sought refuge in silence. This left a space into which stepped a series of actors, including the French and Algerian governments, Muslim elites, French veterans and pied-noir activists, all of whom offered their own representations of the harkis. Collectively, these discourses created a simplified, essentialised and politicised portrait of the harki community that would endure until the mid-1970s.

in From empire to exile
Claire Eldridge

This chapter traces the expansion of pied-noir activism in the 1970s and 1980s. Utilising a particular visual and rhetorical grammar, associations defined and defended the existence of a specific community structured around a set of shared narratives about the past. Although often dismissed as ‘nostalgérie’, the cultural output of associations during the period is valuable because it reveals the strategic choices being made by activists concerning what they wished to emphasise or obscure as they sought to consolidate a shared historical lexicon. By establishing a ‘commemorative calendar’, associations also ensured that disparate pieds-noirs were provided with a stable set of dates and event through which to reaffirm their historical and cultural roots and to feel part of a community. Complementing these efforts were attempts to physically anchor the pieds-noirs in France by erecting physical monuments and even building a pied-noir town in Carnoux-en-Provence. The vision of the past formulated across these different spaces is central to understanding pied-noir behaviour in the postcolonial period.

in From empire to exile
Claire Eldridge

This chapter outlines the emergence and consolidation of activism within the harki community. Focusing on the period 1975-1991, it demonstrates how the increasing sense of frustration among children of harkis at the government’s failure to ensure their integration was channelled into new forms of collective mobilisation. It shows how harki activism was extended beyond demands for material support into historical and commemorative arenas. This involved a conscious effort by activists to challenge existing representations of their community and to reclaim the histories of their parents. Exploring the composition of the collective discourses that were constructed by these activists, this chapter considers the ways in which they were influenced by pre-existing narratives about the harki community but also by the broader social and political climate in France. In particular, this chapter sheds light on the interactions of harki children with beur activists during the anti-racism campaigns of the early 1980s.

in From empire to exile
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Claire Eldridge

As more public and official attention was devoted to the War of Independence, pied-noir associations were left feeling that they had to actively ‘compete’ against alternative narratives and memory carrying groups in order to secure a place within this newly opened up commemorative space. Over the course of the 1990s this produced a progressively more combative and extreme form of pied-noir activism. The most obvious manifestation of this hardening of attitudes was the 1993 murder of the prominent pied-noir spokesperson Jacques Roseau by three members of his own community. However, the decade also witnessed concerted attempts to establish alternative pied-noir positions that were more tolerant of the plurality of memories and committed to forming alliances with other memory carriers in spite of differing historical understandings. Although such endeavours did not garner the same levels of visibility, they merit attention to avoid an over-simplified presentation of pied-noir activism in this decade.

in From empire to exile
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Claire Eldridge

The 1990s-2000s witnessed the consolidation of harki activism as new grassroots associations emerged alongside a series of prominent community spokespeople and the history of the harkis began garnering increasing media coverage. These developments raised the public profile of the community while simultaneously replacing ideologically driven interpretations of the harkis with a more nuanced historical picture. This fostered a willingness among harkis and their spouses to speak publicly about their past, which was further nurtured by efforts from both activists and academics, many of whom were harki descendants, to collect and disseminate these voices. However, as this chapter will show, these evolutions brought forth a range of issues: the lack of unity among associations; the balance between individuality and cohesion within collective narratives; and questions about who possessed the legitimacy to speak for the wider community.

in From empire to exile
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Claire Eldridge

As more narratives about the War of Independence entered the public domain in the new millennium, the greater the potential became for contradictions and conflicts between them leading to a state of ‘memory wars’. In a war one is obliged to choose a side causing groups to view each other as ‘allies’ to be courted or ‘enemies’ to be defeated. As this chapter will argue, this climate has led pied-noir and harki activists to re-evaluate and sometimes reformulate their relationships with each other and with prominent groups connected to the war including veterans and Algerians in France. The present environment has also influenced the ways in which these two communities interact with key vectors of transmission such as the media and academia. Tracing evolutions in the nature of these relationships provides an insight into the identity struggles and power dynamics that have underpinned the surface manifestations of the ‘memory wars’ phenomenon over the past decade.

in From empire to exile
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Claire Eldridge

This chapter focuses on the different arenas through which claims for moral and material recognition have been pursued by pied-noir and harki activists in the last decade, focusing particularly on the courtroom, memory laws, monuments and museums. It demonstrates how campaigns have increasingly gravitated around the themes of victimhood, responsibility and repentance, all of which have experienced a heightened visibility both in France and globally. Exploring the champs de bataille, or ‘battlefields’, on which the ‘memory wars’ are currently being ‘fought’ this chapter illuminates the interplay between these domestic and international contexts. It also highlights debates surrounding the role the state does and should play in the commemoration of the War of Independence. Binding together these different elements is a preoccupation with the question of transmission as both pied-noir and harki activists consider how best to pass on the past to subsequent generations and thus ensure the longevity of their respective collective memories.

in From empire to exile