The Algerian Minority in France

Christopher K, Fall 2017


For decades before Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, the French had been importing migrant workers from their home to France to work there. France was not the only country to do this; Germany brought in Turkish laborers after World War II to help rebuild its economy. And during the age of colonialism, many workers were taken back to the home countries in Europe to work in the factories there. But what makes Algeria so different from the rest? For starters, it was not a colony, at least in name. Algeria was first claimed by France from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, and in 1848, it was made a département of France[01]Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat: The Integration of Old and New Migrants in Western Europe since 1850 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 173.. A département is a unit of government in France[02]“Département,” Britannica, accessed December 17, 2017,, meaning that Algeria was essentially made a part of France, which differentiated it from France’s other territories in Africa like Morocco and Tunisia. Even so, the experiences of Algerians under French control were not significantly better than those of other parts of French West Africa. France has prided itself on its assimilationist policies and the idea of bringing everyone together, but that does not mean France is not discrimination-free. In fact, it has plenty of discrimination, especially against minority groups that they feel are not French, which in the past has included French Algerians. When Algeria gained independence, there was a sizeable Algerian population in France – over 800,000 in 1982[03]Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 79.. In fact, the Algerian population in France is the largest minority group in France today. This is not just the result of migrant laborers being brought in to work, but also that of Algerian collaborators fleeing to France after Algeria’s independence. Even though these people sided with France, they were treated very poorly by both the French government and the French people. It is the aim of this essay to show how the French government treated its Algerian population and what measures it has taken to integrate the minority into the general populace. But first, it is necessary to explore the definitions of nationalism that these countries use, as well as understand the history between France and Algeria and why it is different that the histories between other European countries and their former colonies.

Nationalism Theory

To say nationalism is a divisive topic is an understatement. It is one of the main driving forces in world politics, and has been for centuries. The impact of nationalism on the world is difficult to truly fathom, with almost every country in the world being considered a nation-state. But what makes a nation-state? That has been one of the most persistent arguments about nationalism among scholars, along with when said nation-states first formed. In the case of France, Walker Connor says that it has been the assumptions of historians like Marc Bloch and Sydney Herbert that a French national consciousness has existed since the beginning of the 12th century and the Hundred Years War[04]Walker Connor, “When Is a Nation?” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 155. respectively, but Connor also points to scholars like Eugene Weber who suggest that the French nation-state did not in fact fully come into being until the Third Republic of 1870 or even until World War I[05]ibid, 154.. The basis for this theory is that national consciousness did not spread to all inhabitants of the nation until that time, and therefore France was not a nation-state until it did. And this is also based around a certain definition of nationalism that Weber had, which most likely Block and Herbert did not share. Numerous interpretations of nationalism have emerged over the last two hundred years, so this is not surprising. Definitions of nationalism become even more varied when taking minorities into consideration, as they complicate the already overly complicated national picture. This is especially true of the national minority of Algerians in France, whose situation is incredibly complicated, especially in how it relates to Algeria and France. For the purposes of this essay, the definition of “nationalism” is a feeling of pride and belonging to a particular region or culture, which in turn is a complicated problem for minorities as they have feelings of belonging to two places; in this case, Algeria and France.

As stated above, there are numerous interpretations as to what nationalism really means. One of the definitions Merriam Webster offers is “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups,” but in comparison to patriotism, Merriam Webster notes a common political bent to nationalism[06]“The Difference Between ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Nationalism,’” Merriam Webster, accessed August 2017, This is a very fitting definition for the situation in France, as the government expects people living within France to assimilate to French culture and abandon their old culture. There are other definitions that fit too; Joseph Stalin defines nationalism through elimination of certain words, like tribal and racial, going back to the ancient roots of national groups, and ends up with a nation being “a historically constituted community of people.”[07]Joseph Stalin, “The Nation” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 18. It is somewhat awkward agreeing with anything Stalin writes, but the definition he provides for a nation is both thorough and scientific. His definition also fits in with France, as it defines the French people as a group that have been together for a long period of time. In turn, his definition also explains why minority populations, like the Algerians, have such difficulty fitting in: they lack the common history the rest of the group possesses, so they are automatically outsiders and not to be trusted. In comparison to the definitions of nationalism other scholars have provided, the definition given above – a feeling of pride and belonging to a region or culture – shares a similarity with the definition provided by Ernest Renan. He defines a nation as a “grand solidarity constituted by the sentiments of sacrifices which one has made and those that one is disposed to make again.”[08]Ernest Renan, “Qu-est- ce qu’une nation?” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17. The similarity is primarily based in the feeling of belonging, as a willingness to make sacrifices for a place indicates you have strong feelings of belonging to that location. While his definition of a nation is far dourer than the ones above, Renan’s, Stalin’s, and Merriam Webster’s definitions all have the same basis, as they focus on a group of people brought together, either through culture, history, or sacrifices. Renan’s focus on sacrifice might have been influenced by his own history as a Frenchman, and how the French nation was formed, especially in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Because of its history, France is widely regarded as one of the first true nation-states, and like all nation-states that came after it, France has ethnic minorities as members of its populace.

Ever since the French Revolution, France has had an assimilationist citizenship program, laws established in 1851 during the Second Republic and 1889 during the Third Republic that made citizens of third- and second-generation immigrants[09]Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, 85.. The French system of citizenship is primarily based on jus sanguinis, by having a person’s citizenship determined by the status of the parents. However, France is different from most other European countries in that it has significant elements of jus soli, or citizenship ascribed by birth in the nation’s territory[10]ibid, 81., in its system. This system of citizenship, while inspiring loyalty to France above all else, has also brought France into conflict with the independent Algeria, mostly in relation to Algerians born in France and the ones who fled to France after Algeria’s independence in 1962. As stated above, Algeria became a département of France, not just a colony, so it was part of France proper. Article 23 of France’s citizenship laws automatically attributes citizenship at birth to third-generation immigrants, but because Algeria was considered part of France before its decolonization, its people born before 1962 were technically born “in France,” and when they emigrated to France after decolonization, their children were attributed French citizenship at birth[11]ibid, 140.. This unique aspect of the French citizenship laws has caused conflict with the Algerian government, especially as these children are considered citizens of both nations, and therefore obliged to register for military service in both countries[12]ibid, 141.. The Algerian government saw this as an attempt, intentional or otherwise, by the French to impose themselves on their former territory, and to a state like Algeria, which was trying to build itself up as a nation-state, this was not only insulting, but also threatening to its national existence. Or at least, that is what some people believed, because after the issue of dual-national military service was solved, many of the groups within France, including the Socialist government, lost interest in the case[13]ibid, 142.. This conflict between France and Algeria over the citizenship statuses of the French Algerian minority is understandable from both Merriam Webster’s and Stalin’s definitions; Merriam Webster defines nationalism as “exalting one nation above all others,”[14] “Difference Between ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Nationalism.’” and for the French to usurp the citizenship of Algerians, even if they live in France, is offensive to the Algerian state and threatening to its authority. In Stalin’s case, since the Algerians share a history and culture, they are inherently part of the Algerian nation, and therefore not part of the French nation. Thus, Article 23 of the French citizenship laws is problematic at the very least to Algeria. The definition of nationalism that provides the basis of this essay compliments this fact, as those who feel they belong to more than one place are often torn between the two, which can cause serious problems, both in society and in the person’s mental health and sense of identity.

Nationalism is a very broad topic to attempt to define, and even though the definitions of the people that attempt to define it often match up, there is usually small differences in their definitions that changes the entire meaning. At the same time as people define nationalism, they also attempt to determine whether nationalism is either positive or negative. The definition provided above is a positive one on the surface, focusing on feelings of pride and belonging to a culture or region. But it is also a negative definition if taken to the extreme, as the cases of Nazi Germany and militarist Japan can attest to. This definition is also a rather tricky one to apply to ethnic minority groups, as they feel attachment to one country but live in another. In the case of the French Algerian population, this is especially tricky given Algeria’s long history with France, and France’s own assimilationist policies actively discourage minority groups from forming subcultures of their own. And yet, minority groups do have the power to exert influence over their host countries; much of the culture in the United States is proof of that. Undoubtedly the Algerian minority has had an impact on the culture of France, despite or perhaps because of France’s assimilation laws, and even so, many Algerians likely find a way to balance their attachments to the two countires.

Overview of the Algerian Minority within France

The relationships between European countries and their former colonies is complex, but the one between France and Algeria is especially so. As stated above, Algeria was made a legal part of France in 1848, and administered first by the military, then by the Ministry of the Interior[15]Vincent Crapanzano, The Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 35. until its independence in 1962[16]Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, 140., which heavily complicated the status of Algerian immigrants to France after 1962. This governance shows that the relationship between Algeria and France was very close, which is affirmed by the fact that the Algerian minority is the largest one in France. Since independence however, relationships have soured somewhat, unlike the relationship Great Britain has with most its colonies, 52 of which form the Commonwealth of Nations. Part of this is surely because Great Britain let go of its colonies rather easily, whereas France fought a rather bloody war to keep Algeria under control. The status of the relationship between Algeria and France aside, the large number of Algerians living in France suggests that they were a major concern for the French government at the time.

Like many other European minorities, such as the German Turks, the Algerian population in France owes its origins to migrant labor. Unlike other migrant labor groups from Asia and North Africa, however, the Algerians were brought in at least as early as 1912[17]Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat, 173.. It was not until World War I, however, that their population didn’t explode, as many Algerians were brought over to France to work at factories to replace Frenchmen who were in the trenches. This was not the only work Algerians performed in World War I; many also fought in the trenches and worked to clear minefields[18]ibid, 173., a very dangerous and unpleasant task. What made the Algerian minority in France different from other minorities, like the Moroccans and Tunisians, was that in 1914, six weeks before the outbreak of World War I, the French government passed a law that gave Algerians freedom of emigration to France, treating Algeria like it was a province instead of a colony[19]ibid, 174., which it technically already was. Despite freedom of emigration, the majority of Algerians in France were migrant workers, who came to France for work, then returned home to their families with their wages. This did not change until around 1948, when the number of Algerian women and children that emigrated to France increased[20]ibid, 178.. This influx increased again in the aftermath of its war of independence, since the situation in Algeria was so desperate that as many as hundreds of thousands decided to leave; but this free migration period finally came to an end in 1973, when the Algerian government shut down emigration over outbursts of racial violence against Algerians[21]ibid, 179.. Of course, not all Algerians who came to France were migrant workers. As many as eighty thousand of them were Algerians who had collaborated with the French during the war, either as soldiers (harkis) or as civilians (moghaznis)[22]ibid, 180..

The Algerians who sided with the French, much like the Africans who collaborated with their colonial lords, did so for a variety of reasons: they believed that Algeria would be better off under France than independent, they or their fathers had served in the French army, meaning that they either felt a sense of duty to keep fighting for France or they had friends in the army that they did not wish to fight against; or they and their families desperately needed the money to survive[23]Crapanzano, The Harkis, 17.. When the war ended, many of the harkis were sent back to their villages, where they were the victims of prosecution by fellow Algerians; between 60,000 and 150,000 of the harkis were tortured, mutilated, or killed. As a result, over 100,000 of them fled to France, where their situation did not improve; they were sent to camps where they were subject to abusive discipline and constant humiliation, with many of the harkis suffering identity loss, anxiety attacks, delusions of persecution, depression, bouts of violence, suicide, and alcoholism, at least until 1978 when the last of the camps were shut down[24]ibid, 17.. Even after the camps were closed, the harkis situation in France has only improved marginally. They are considered traitors by the Algerians, abandoned by the French, rejected by Algerian immigrant workers, and the ones who leave the hamlets they usually live in are often mistrusted and subject to virulent racism[25]ibid, 18..

It is the fate of the harkis that show that despite their history of assimilation, the French are not entirely inclusive. The harkis openly collaborated with the French, chose them over the country of their birth, and were cast aside and abandoned. There are reasons as to why the French have not been entirely inclusive towards Algerians, and one of those reasons is that the majority are Muslims. There was a belief in colonial France, a belief that had not truly been shaken off by the 1960s, that the primary characteristics of Arab and Muslim society were nomadism and fanaticism, traits that made it impossible for Muslims to assimilate to French society like their policies wanted[26]Paul A. Silverstein, Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 49.. This belief is partly to blame for the treatment, not only of the harkis, but also of the Algerian migrant workers and other minorities in France.

In-Depth Focus on French Algerians

After the Algerian War of Independence, the migrant workers, harkis, and Algerian immigrants became part of France proper. Even though the French had said in the past that Algeria was part of France, they were still treated like outsiders. This section is intended to go further in-depth with the experiences that French Algerians underwent, mainly about how the French government initially tried to welcome them but then walked back its course when the Algeria war ended, how the population of Algerians living in France have faced spatial discrimination in the locations where they live, and how religion plays a role in the treatment of the Algerian minority by both the state and French citizens.

One of the greatest concerns regarding nationalism and the nation is whether a group of people belong to that nation. That is the very reason the issue of minorities is so complicated. Do they belong to the nation-state whose ethnicity they share, or do they belong to the nation-state in which they grew up? In the case of the French Algerians, the long history between France and Algeria, as well as the unique position Algeria had in the French Empire, made their situation somewhat unique. During the Algerian War of Independence, the French government began introducing measures intended to “civilize” and assimilate Algerian immigrants into the French system[27]Amelia H. Lyons, The Civilizing Mission in the Metropole: Algerian Families and the French Welfare State during Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 3.. Despite the condescension in the language, the government did make an attempt to incorporate Algerians into France, an attempt that was hampered by continuing colonial beliefs about the Algerians’ “absolute difference” and worries that assimilating Algerians into the nation would pose risks to France’s “vitality.”[28]ibid, 4. However, after the war ended, the French reconfigured the welfare system they built up during the war and ended the special focus placed on Algerians, causing them to become part of an undifferentiated sea of immigrants[29]ibid, 15.. These events show how quickly a country can turn from courting its minority population to turning against it. Part of the reason for this was because the French wanted to maintain the support of Algerians in France during the war, likely as an attempt to prevent internal sabotage. But when Algeria gained its independence, the French lost their reasons for supporting the Algerian minority, so they turned their backs on them. It’s the same story as the harkis; the only difference is that the migrant workers were not placed in camps in southern France. Though that might be because they were needed for work. Despite the harkis being placed in camps, today the Algerian minority is spread across France, including the harkis.

One of the consequences of the Algerian war was that France wanted to forget the whole event ever happened. An understandable response when looking at it from the perspective of a nation whose pride had been wounded, but in terms of its treatment of the Algerian minority, it was not good news. When a ceasefire was declared, French officials sought to restructure French history to exorcise Algeria from their history. In the process, most Algerians who had French citizenship had their citizenship taken away by 1963; those who were “Muslims” became Algerians; and a minority continued to be French[30]Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 2.. Despite this setback to their status, many Algerians continued to live in France, and they are spread all across France. In 1937, before Algeria’s independence and back when it was still mostly a source for migrant labor, the Algerian population in France was mostly centered in eastern France, with the largest populations being in Marseilles, Metz, and Paris[31]Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat, 177.. In these cities, Algerians lived in special houses called Kabyle house, or axxam. Colonialists saw these houses as a space of cultural exteriority that functioned simultaneously as an object of assimilation practices and a foil to French conceptions of order, civilization, and modernity. When Algerian achieved independence, these houses took on a new discourse, focused on the integration (or lack thereof) of Muslim immigrants and their children as members of the nation-state[32]Silverstein, Algeria in France, 78.. What this means is that after Algeria achieved independence, and especially after the economic downturn in 1973, right-wingers began turning against the Algerian minority, claiming they take jobs away from the true French people and abuse the welfare system of the French state. The cities that were built to house the Algerian migrant workers, intended to facilitate their movements from the factories to home, ended up becoming “sites of spatial isolation, economic exclusion, and social containment, reinforcing physical and mental boundaries between city and suburb, French and immigrant.”[33]ibid, 78. During the war with Algeria, the French sought to break down what it perceived to be a network for the National Liberation Front (FLN) in France by destroying the shantytowns that Algerians lived in in France and relocating them to different areas. These people were temporarily placed in camps while the French government worked on building new housing for them, not unlike the situation with the harkis, but these camps were intended to be temporary. In one example, the residents of the Franc-Moisin bidonville (French for “slum”) of Saint-Denis were moved between 1968 and 1970 to three of these camps, called cites de transit, before being relocated into twenty different public housing projects built by 1975[34]ibid, 92.. Such housing projects eventually became the settlement sites for Algerian immigrants who fled the war and its aftermath in the 1960s. Many immigrants viewed it as an improvement, given the government’s advertising them as a haven for the lower middle class and many of the immigrant parents planned to return to Algeria eventually and thus had no desire to become homeowners. Unfortunately, the economic recession that occurred in the 1970s that hit Algeria and France meant that more and more Algerians became private homeowners, and a survey in 1982 revealed that only about a quarter of 1.43 million North Africans living in France lived in these public housing projects[35]ibid, 96.. While Algerians did experience economic and spatial discrimination regarding where they lived, they also experienced religious discrimination, as it was believed that Muslims would have difficulty integrating into France.

“Citizen” and “subject” are not the same thing; despite Algeria being made part of France in 1848, its people were not considered citizens of France until 1958. Before that, they were considered subjects of the French state[36]Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization, 19.. Part of this had to do with the racism behind the colonial system, and how World War II and the fascism of Nazi Germany discredited the assumption of authority based on superiority of race and civilization. In the wake of this, France started to move its empire towards becoming part of the French nation, renaming the colonies “Overseas France” and terming the empire the French Union to serve as a counter to Britain’s Commonwealth of Nations[37]ibid, 40.. However, groups in Algeria that the French government considered “Muslim” opposed these changes, seeing them as a cover for continued colonial domination, and the new laws the government was creating meant they had more rights in the metropole than Algeria[38]ibid, 41.. One of the main reasons for the disagreement with the policies is that the French government was not willing to change the laws to accommodate Algerian and Muslim cultural differences. To the government, integration into France did not mean embracing what made Algerians different as beneficial; it meant ensuring that all French people would be governed by the same laws[39]ibid, 48.. And it is not just Algerian cultural practices, but also Islamic practices, as well as the French government’s understanding of them, that causes tension against the minority. Following decolonization, ideologists in France have argued that Islam is incommensurable with the French beliefs of state secularism. These ideologists simultaneously cast blame for immigrant exclusion on Islamic practices of wearing headscarves, mosque building, female seclusion, and the public slaughter of lambs during the festival of Aïd; while at the same time pointing to the success of immigrant athletes as the hallmark of French inclusion[40]Silverstein, Algeria in France, 123.. This practice of laying blame on Islam is more of a recent development than one would think, brought about by Islam becoming the second largest religion in France; a continued influx of Muslim workers and refugees from sub-Sahara Africa, Bosnia, and central Asia; increased Muslim missionary work; the intensification of Algeria’s civil war; and news coverage of Islamist violence during the 1990s causing Islam to become a rather contested feature of life in France[41]ibid, 130.. As stated before, this is a recent development. In 1921, a mosque was built in Paris, both to show support to the French Empire’s Muslim subjects, and to honor 26,000 Algerians who had fought in World War I. Notably, however, this mosque serves primarily as a diplomatic and cultural institution rather than a site of religious worship[42]ibid, 131.. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increased fear among alarmists in France that there was an attempt to colonize France by Muslim immigrants, which led to many Islamic groups becoming marginalized and targets of generalized fears[43]ibid, 132-3.. Despite such fears and tensions, this discourse has created what French government officials call “French Islam;” which is a republican and capitalist Islam in which believers express their faith in the privacy of their homes or in state-sanctioned mosques, and the government considered unthreatening, and its adherents as fully participating citizens in public French life[44]ibid, 150..


The situation of the Algerian minority in France is both complex and simple. It is complex in the relationship that France had with Algeria, and it is simple in that these people are living in a country that has mixed feelings about them, like most other minorities living in countries these days. The Algerian minority is a concern of the French government because their definition of nationalism is that of assimilation, and there are beliefs that Muslims cannot integrate fully into French society. Not all Algerians are Muslims, but a significant percentage of the ones in France are. The history between France and Algeria is both long and unique among France’s former colonies, as Algeria was once part of France proper. Ultimately, while the situation of the French Algerians has improved, there are still conflicts in France today about their place, and considering the intensification of nationalism and the polarization of politics these days, the situation may turn worse. Or, it may improve depending on the actions people decide to take.


01 Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat: The Integration of Old and New Migrants in Western Europe since 1850 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 173.
02 “Département,” Britannica, accessed December 17, 2017,
03 Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 79.
04 Walker Connor, “When Is a Nation?” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 155.
05 ibid, 154.
06 “The Difference Between ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Nationalism,’” Merriam Webster, accessed August 2017,
07 Joseph Stalin, “The Nation” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 18.
08 Ernest Renan, “Qu-est- ce qu’une nation?” in Nationalism, ed. John Hutchinson & Anthony D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17.
09 Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, 85.
10 ibid, 81.
11 ibid, 140.
12 ibid, 141.
13 ibid, 142.
14 “Difference Between ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Nationalism.’”
15 Vincent Crapanzano, The Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 35.
16 Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood, 140.
17 Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat, 173.
18 ibid, 173.
19 ibid, 174.
20 ibid, 178.
21 ibid, 179.
22 ibid, 180.
23 Crapanzano, The Harkis, 17.
24 ibid, 17.
25 ibid, 18.
26 Paul A. Silverstein, Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 49.
27 Amelia H. Lyons, The Civilizing Mission in the Metropole: Algerian Families and the French Welfare State during Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 3.
28 ibid, 4.
29 ibid, 15.
30 Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 2.
31 Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat, 177.
32 Silverstein, Algeria in France, 78.
33 ibid, 78.
34 ibid, 92.
35 ibid, 96.
36 Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization, 19.
37 ibid, 40.
38 ibid, 41.
39 ibid, 48.
40 Silverstein, Algeria in France, 123.
41 ibid, 130.
42 ibid, 131.
43 ibid, 132-3.
44 ibid, 150.