Claire Eldridge, From Empire to Exile: History and Memory within the Pied-Noir and Harki Communities. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
Giulia Fabbiano, Hériter 1962: Harkis et Immigrés Algériens L'épreuve Appartenances Nationales. Nanterre: Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2016.
Since the 1990s, official silences in France surrounding the Algerian War for Independence (1954–1962) have increasingly been lifted, and sensitive archival collections have been brought to light by historians such as Benjamin Stora and Raphaëlle Branche. Yet given the ensuing “memory wars” that have implicated not just academic research but also the current political landscape in France and Algeria, scholars have approached the question of memory and the war with great care, reluctant to be drawn into a contentious mire. Some have looked to explain the role of memory (and forgetting) in historical processes of identity-making by exploring nonstate and nonofficial actors. But questions of representation remain: it is difficult enough to speak of coherent groups such as harkis (Algerians who supported or worked for France during the Algerian War, and their descendants), Algerian immigrants (who often arrived later and under different circumstances than did harkis), and pieds-noirs (French settlers and their descendants who returned to France from Algeria during and after the war). Still less certain are we of which representatives may speak authoritatively on behalf of these groups and of their relationship to the memory of the Algerian War since its conclusion in 1962. If scholars are not to favor the voices of a select few prominent spokespeople, where might they look for alternatives?
Monographs by historian Claire Eldridge and ethnographer Giulia Fabbiano reveal the fruits of nonlinear and multidirectional approaches to memory and identity in France. They build on but also go beyond the study of “memory sites,” which since Pierre Nora’s Realms of Memory (Columbia UP, 1984–1992) has centered mostly on state-recognized institutions and events. Eldridge’s From Empire to Exile examines the activism of harki and pied-noir groups from Algerian independence until today, comparing how each group of stakeholders and their de facto representatives have interacted with the state, the national media, and the academic world (as well as with one another) to produce a particular vision of history as a basis for communal identity. This work integrates underexplored sources, such as the archives of local advocacy associations, television programs, and the works of prominent spokespeople, to show how harki and pied-noir “genealogies of memory” were, even during periods of official “silence,” distinct but interconnected (18). Fabbiano’s Hériter 1962: Harkis et immigrés algériens à l’épreuve des appartenances nationales (Inheriting 1962: Harkis and Algerian Immigrants Facing the Test of National Belonging) presents an intimate ethnographic analysis of daily negotiations of memory and identity in the French communities of Mas Thibert and Barriol, problematizing the strict separation often presumed between harkis and immigrés. Through oral interviews with local community members of all generations, Fabbiano privileges the local layers of “fragmented belonging,” deftly illustrating a process far more nuanced than debates at the national level usually allow. While each work features a decidedly different body of sources and methodology, they both make their mark by demonstrating that it is not so much memory itself, but rather the processes of creation and contestation of memory, that have come to be such an important part of identity among immigrés, harkis, and pieds-noirs in contemporary France.
Eldridge’s monograph is organized chronologically, alternating chapters between a focus on pied-noir and harki activism. Such an organization is helpful in demonstrating how both movements built upon or co-opted one another in their appeals for public and media attention to their unique plight. Eldridge begins by providing a detailed and useful overview of the historiographical touchstones of the Algerian War of Independence and its legacy, drawing from the work of both Francophone and Anglophone scholars. The author also takes the highly politicized “memory wars” that followed decades of official amnesia as a jumping-off point, but states her desire not to treat these divides as an inevitable conclusion of conflicting legacies of colonialism. Rather, she argues, the divides reflect a complicated and evolving process that predated the “hyper-memory” of the 1990s; scholars have overlooked an earlier period in which harkis and pieds-noirs worked to create communal memory narratives by founding local charitable associations and political interest groups, promoting charismatic representatives in the media, and incorporating war memorial rituals into local public events and religious celebrations.
Part one focuses on this period of official silence, stretching roughly from 1962 to 1991. In chapters one and two, Eldridge introduces the efforts of pied-noir and harki activist groups to establish memory narratives on behalf of their communities during the 1960s and 1970s. The author points out that neither group was truly a “community” in a uniform sense, and that members of each group held divergent stances on many issues. For example, as pieds-noirs experienced increasing economic integration, early groups such as the Association nationale des Français d’Afrique du Nord, d’outre-mer et de leurs amis (ANFANOMA) were challenged by those emphasizing a particular cultural pride, such as the Cercle algérieniste. Meanwhile, harkis remained mostly silenced, caught between a French public that had not come to terms with its treatment of them and an Algerian society that viewed them as traitors. In the third chapter, Eldridge demonstrates how pied-noir associations moved in the 1980s to build a “meta-memory” narrative that at once held them to be bearers of a “true” French history betrayed by De Gaulle, yet also a group with a unique and underappreciated history that demanded state recognition. The fourth chapter turns back to harkis in the same period, showing how harkis’ children were far more outspoken than their parents about the difficult identity questions left lingering by the Algerian War’s legacy. But this younger generation also had to accept the generalization of their collective memory so as to avoid issues that could split the community, such as just how much “Frenchness” and pride could be extracted from the fact that their very presence on French soil came from their parents’ decisions during the war. Fault lines remained, however, particularly when prominent and elite harki “spokespeople” advanced a narrative that was more focused on proving their community’s sophistication and integration than on righting the economic inequalities that still racked harki communities over two decades after the war had ended.
Part two tracks harki and pied-noir movements through the 1990s to the present, marking in particular the turn to more assertive but also more polarizing stances toward the French public and state. This breach of the long official silence on the Algerian War came on the heels of the pioneering work of highly visible scholars such as Benjamin Stora. Chapter five explains the shift of pied-noir activism of groups like ANFANOMA and Rassemblement et coordination unitaires des rapatriés et spoilés (RECOURS) toward a more radical right-wing politics. Since the 1970s such groups had worked to influence elections. By the 1990s, however, they saw the need to uphold a united front in the face of liberal and academic pieds-noirs, whom they held to be overly sympathetic to the plight of harkis and Algerian immigrants more broadly, opening the way to more pied-noir support for rightist and xenophobic parties such as the Front National. Chapter six, on the other hand, shows how during the latter period, harki recognition and memory narratives grew more acceptable to the political mainstream. Yet the episodes of violence during 1991 protests led by harkis demanding an end to economic marginalization revealed the tensions that remain within harki communities even today, particularly surrounding the lack of internal cohesion and the question of who has the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the community. To understand these tensions, Eldridge surveys the range of harki leaders who have been thrust into the public eye since the 1990s, from the popular activists Hacene Arfi and Abdelkrim Klech to the writers Fatima Besnaci-Lancou and Dalila Kerchouche. The author argues that critiques of the essentializing and generalizing nature of some of these leaders’ narratives miss the point: it is more productive to understand the dynamics of how the memory-making process unfolded over successive generations than to question the factual veracity of the memories themselves.
Chapter seven treats the recent “memory wars” that have more directly pitted harkis and pieds-noirs against one another. These “wars” also often reveal rifts between harkis and immigrés over their roles in the Algerian War of Independence as well as their competition for state recognition of their economic and political struggles in France. The author demonstrates how pied-noir activists, for their part, have feverishly condemned the increased mainstream and academic acceptance of harki and immigré struggles, decrying what they have perceived to be a campaign of misinformation and demonization. The chapter takes a stand, in a way, for the academic pursuit: like Stora, Eldridge argues that history and memory cannot be conflated; personal testimony of the like insisted upon by pieds-noirs cannot be used to silence the archives. This position might have informed the author’s explicit decision not to use oral interviews as a source, unlike Fabbiano. The eighth and final chapter shows how victimhood has overcome heroism as the key device for achieving official recognition and justice for both pieds-noirs and harkis; ironically, however, if any such justice were ever to be reached, both groups would find themselves without direction in their struggle to forge an identity.
Where Eldridge’s historical approach favors archival research, Giulia Fabbiano’s ethnography draws mostly upon oral interviews with harkis, North African immigrés, and their descendants living in the Mas Thibert and Barriol communities of southern France. Like Eldridge, however, Fabbiano approaches the glaring divides presumed by political discourse with careful skepticism, demonstrating instead a complicated and not always oppositional relationship between harkis and immigrés. Central to this intervention is an ethnographic approach that examines the lived daily exchanges between ordinary members of each community as they pass through shared local spaces. This emphasis on the local helps skirt the contentious politics of the national, even while Fabbiano’s informants address questions of national identity and what she calls their sense of “fragmented belonging.”
Fabbiano begins with a survey of the two localities—Mas Thibert, which is home to a fairly insulated community of harkis who were governed much like a flock under the charismatic veteran Bachaga Said Boualam, and Barriol, a diverse suburb of the nearby city of Arles. In understanding the transmission of memory across generations, the author is careful to point to certain tensions that persist between harki and immigré groups. For example, while immigrés often travel to Algeria over the summer to visit family, harkis have usually lacked that option. Instead, harkis have had to learn more about their family origins from sporadic stories told over dinner, rituals performed at funerals, and the like. Yet across different localities, such divisions are rarely so clear-cut. In Mas Thibert, myths about Algeria and the war were known through the fairly specific narrative of the Bachaga, with the war considered the point of no return: it was the moment at which their choice to fight for France had precipitated their displacement and marginalization. In the larger and more mixed Barriol, however, most describe their connection to Algeria and its history in much more diffuse and unsure terms.
Nonetheless, in the case of both harkis and immigrés (and their descendants), the memory of Algeria and the war is constructed in a fragmentary, nonlinear, and contested way that is not reflected by the monolithic versions we receive in texts and official pronouncements; generational divides, for example, are an important factor in this process. Part two explores questions of belonging and identity in greater depth, with the author’s conversations with locals exposing a sense of identity that is fluid and shifting but also marked by a striking awareness—especially on the part of teenagers—of the fraught nature of what it means to be “Arab,” “Algerian,” or “French.” An emphasis on local relationships is important here: even the harshest Algerian critics, for example, understand that harkis’ children—whom they interact with on a daily basis in schools, markets, and other public spaces—are not “at fault” for their parents’ choice to serve the French war effort. The way in which inhabitants of Mas Thibert and Barriol identify themselves underscores the importance of a relational understanding of identity. Many Algerian immigrés might define themselves against the supposed treachery of harkis (and violence at the hands of the French); harkis likewise identify their struggle through the “double denial” of rejection by both Algeria and France despite their sacrifices for the latter.
The final section draws Fabbiano’s monograph to a close with a reminder that the differences between immigrés and harkis are, when taken at the local and everyday level, not the impenetrable divides of received wisdom. Rather, at wedding celebrations, in casual conversations between high-school students, and in jokes told between rival gangs, we see that identity is often performed differently depending on the audience. When faced with a French interlocutor, one might simplify one’s origin story by saying one’s family hailed from the well-known city of Oran rather than the small village from which they really came; an immigré might identify as a “true Algerian” during a mundane argument with a harki friend. Yet mixed marriages, friendships, and shared communal spaces reveal that often the generational divide is more dramatic than one between immigrés and harkis on the whole.
Eldridge’s and Fabbiano’s monographs do well to tightly weave their comparisons between groups too frequently spoken for with regard to the extent of their external differences and internal intransigence. Both works will appeal to specialists of contemporary France and Algeria, immigration studies, and postcolonial memory. Fabbiano’s theoretical rigor and unprecedented oral interviews will be of great interest to anthropologists and sociologists, though readers may find the rhythm of the author’s interspersing of theoretical interventions with informants’ responses challenging. Eldridge’s novel treatment of little-studied associational archives and television programs makes a similarly significant contribution to the field, and the author’s lucid historical contextualization of complex identity debates will appeal to graduate students and advanced undergraduates.
From Empire to Exile and Hériter 1962 advance a corpus on memory in contemporary France that allows harkis, immigrés, and pieds-noirs to voice their own truths in conversation with one another, complete with all the nuances and fluidity that have marked the identity-making processes within each “community.” The two works make it clear to the reader that within each group there is no self-evident, homogeneous, or consistent identity to be pinpointed and reified. Instead, they highlight the importance of local and intergenerational dynamics within and between these communities, calling into question just which associations, individuals, and political ideologies can speak as their representatives.