French Algerians on identity, discrimination, protests at ‘home’

Individuals of three generations question sense of belonging in France as they watch protests continuing in Algeria.

Outside image [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]
Despite lack of official data, it is estimated that French-Algerians comprise the largest minority in France [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – A long and bloody history ties Algeria and France together.

A French colony for 132 years until 1962, Algeria was known as “the country of martyrs” across the Arab world as the resistance movement cost an estimated one million Algerian lives.

Under secularist laws, the French state cannot collect data on ethnicity and race, but it is estimated that French-Algerians comprise the largest minority, mainly centred in Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon.

Migration began at the turn of the 20th century, described by the late sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad as the “first stage”. 

Algerians back then were considered as French subjects, not citizens, and their work in the industrial sector provided vital economic support to impoverished rural communities in Algeria.

The second stage, according to Sayad, took place after World War II where Algerian men – and others from France’s colonies – were recruited to rebuild the country’s damaged industry, working menial jobs and living in shanty towns on the outskirts of cities.

Tens of thousands immigrated, bolstered by limited reforms in 1947 under the Statute of Algeria, which granted Algerian men full French citizenship and established unrestricted passage between Algeria and France.

The third stage was based around the policy of family reunification following Algeria’s independence, a development which permitted the wives and children of Algerian workers in France to settle.

The diaspora has closely followed key political developments in Algeria.

“Both the older and younger generations mobilised against the violence used to crush the pro-democracy demonstrations in Algiers in 1988,” wrote Jim House, a senior lecturer in French and Francophone history at the University of Leeds. “And during the 1990s, Algerians in France supported those exiled by the quasi-civil war in Algeria between the state and radical Islamist groups.”

Last month, thousands of French-Algerians protested weekly in Place de la Republique in solidarity with the Algerian demonstrations calling for the removal of Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

While the ailing president has since stepped down, protesters continue to demand the removal of the political system Bouteflika installed.

In Paris, Algerian flags were proudly waved and songs and slogans were chanted in Algeria’s distinct Arabic dialect.

The rallies in France have underlined their identity.

How French do Algerian-French people feel? 

Al Jazeera spoke with individuals from three generations currently living in Paris about identity, discrimination, and what it means to be French. 

‘If there’s a football game between Algeria and France, I will totally support Algeria’

Sabrina Kalem, 14, student 

[Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]
‘Algeria is the priority, but France is still on my mind,’ says Sabrina Kalem [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera] 

I see myself as a 100 percent Algerian, as it’s a huge part of who I am. In my head I feel like I’m more Algerian with a French nationality. For instance, if there’s a football game between Algeria and France, I will totally support Algeria, without even thinking twice. Maybe for the more joyful atmosphere. 

“My parents have been speaking to me in Arabic since I was a baby. I go to Algeria at least once a year during summer holidays.

“Maybe because I live in a really diverse community, but I’ve always been seen as French. And thank God. I never experienced any remarks about it. But when I go on holidays for instance, in the south of France, my family does get strange looks from the locals there, especially because my older sister wears a hijab. We definitely feel like they’re judging us. 

“I do feel French because it’s the country where I was born in, where I grew up, where I go to school. It gave me a lot for sure, and I acknowledge that. France does mean something for me, certainly. Algeria is the priority, but France is still on my mind. 

“Being Algerian in France means representing a different country within a country … When I represent Algeria, I represent something that is in my DNA, in my blood. When I represent France, I represent the country where I was born, where I live currently. 

“I’m still following what is happening in Algeria. The [Algerian] protests in Paris were something I followed carefully more than the Yellow Vest protests, because it meant something to me. It affected me.”

‘There will always be this unbearable question: But where are you really from?’

M’hamed Bouhjar, 35, bank employee

[Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]
M’hamed Bouhjar he feels Algerian but acknowledges’ what France has given him [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera] 

I was in born in Oran, in Algeria. I came to France to live with my aunt when I was four after my mother passed away. 

“I’ve always felt some measure of hostile attitude regarding minorities here in France, but that has increased since the 2015 attacks. 

“I see myself as Algerian, totally Algerian. I was born there. In our communities, Algeria is sacred. It’s in our heart. It’s like a mother to us. I don’t have an identity crisis. I feel like I’m deeply Algerian but I totally acknowledge what France has given me. 

“France deserves my loyalty because it gave me a lot. It gave me a chance. I’d find [it] bizarre to work in France, and send all my salary back to Algeria. Imagine all the big French fortunes like Gerard Depardieu, who earn millions, and don’t even pay taxes here. They aren’t loyal to their own countries, yet we, the ‘foreigners’, are loyal. We have more values and principles than these people, when it is our Frenchness that is denied every time. 

“My friends are from diverse cultural backgrounds. I’d say that even if you succeed in adjusting into this society, and you feel like you are a part of this nation, there is always someone to make you remember that you are not. 

“You can show them your identity card, prove to them that you are French, but there will always be this unbearable question: But where are you really from? They’ll judge you according to the way you look, the way your name sounds.

“In France, if you’re from a minority, they’ll push you towards sport no matter what. Look, even the minister of sports is always from a minority. You’ll never see a minister of interior from an Arab background.   

“Look at Zinedine Zidane. In 1998, he became a world champion. He scored twice during the final. He becomes France’s biggest pride. Everyone started saying, minorities are integrating in the nation: La France, black, blanc, beur. In 2006, he buttheads an Italian player in the final and he becomes the suburb’s Arab.

Even if you feel like you are part of this nation, there is always someone to make you remember that you are not

by M’hamed Bouhjar

“I believe the future of Europe is in the hands of politicians and media controlled by them. We don’t decide. I can fight on a daily basis to give the best image of myself, but if it’s not shown on television or through any other platform, it won’t work. 

“The politicians are the ones who can truly decide whether they want to cast us out or include us. We need proper public representation because it’s the only way we can change the actual perception. This would make the future brighter for us. 

“But if we are continued to be portrayed on national television as terrorists, this would not lead to anything constructive.” 

‘We shouldn’t erase who we are to fit in a certain mould’

Messaoud D, 59, nurse in a psychiatric facility 

[Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]
Culture, by way of French literature, influenced Messaoud Djemai’s first impression of France [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera] 

I came to Paris 35 years ago, when I was 24. I had a scholarship to study biology but after a year I dropped out and decided to stay. 

“In April, I visited Algeria after an absence of 10 years for a wedding. Seeing the mass protests on the streets made me want to be part of the mature and political movement. It’s really great that things are evolving there. 

“When I’m in Algeria I feel like I’m from a different country, and vice versa when I’m here in France. It’s really hard when you’re leaving a culture to come back to it, because you feel like you don’t fit in anymore. 

“My first approach of France was through culture. French literature was a huge part of my childhood in Algeria. My idea of French society had nothing to do with the war. I loved the culture, and that was all that mattered.

“It took few years to get the French nationality. For me, it was just a piece of paper, purely administrative. It made easier a lot of things in my life, such as travelling around … but I have no such thing as a nationalist sentiment. I hate all kind of nationalism. We didn’t choose to be born in a country or another, it is just luck. Why would you defend a country rather than another? 

“What it is to be French? It’s a great question. I’m more of a humanist, I follow the humanist values, not values dictated by a country, so this doesn’t really make sense to me. 

“I have friends who are applying for the French nationality, and they’ve been given questionnaires like ‘name famous French singers’ and ‘can you sing the French anthem’… Does being able to answer these questions mean you are French? I don’t know.

Assimilation has another meaning in France. It means fitting in by denying everything from your foreign culture.

by Messaoud Djemai

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen the younger French-Algerian generation holding on to their Algerian identity more strongly. This is due to several reasons, such as how France treated immigrants at first, what we called the ‘suburbs issues’.

“This younger generation was fed up with it and decided to go back to what was the most familiar to them, which was their first culture. For me, it’s a step back. We can’t reduce this to lack of integration. It’s the consequence of years and years of the authorities’ negative treatment of immigrants in France.

“Assimilation has another meaning in France. It means fitting in by denying everything from your foreign culture. We used to use the word ‘assimilation’ during the colonial era. So that’s why it’s a bit problematic. Assimilation erases every difference. Whenever you assimilate a product in another one, the first one totally disappears. We shouldn’t erase who we are to fit in a certain mould. 

“Integration and assimilation have a double meaning here in France. In 2005, when we pointed out at the suburbs issues, the public said that it was ‘their’ fault because they weren’t integrated in the nation. This makes no sense. How can’t they be integrated when they were born in France? They’re 100 percent French. 

“Paris is divided. There are some districts in Paris I have never set foot in, like the 8th or the 16th for example, where there’s no diversity over there. I don’t feel comfortable there. 

“My favourite neighbourhood is this one, the 20th arrondissement around Place de la Réunion. It’s a true melting pot. I feel great because France is represented here.”

Source: Al Jazeera