War in Algeria: Remembering the Harkis – a dark page in French colonial history.

Paris, France. If there is one thing you did not want to be in France in 1944, it was a suspected Nazi collaborator or a woman who slept with a German. In 1962, the last thing you wanted to be in Algeria was a Harki; an Algerian who fought against the independence of his country and in favor of French rule.

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It is not a good idea to fight for the “oppressor” when it is the oppressed who win.

When France granted Algeria independence at Evian on March 19, 1962, there were 263,000 Muslims engaged on the French side of the war in one way or another, including 60,000 Harkis fighters. France repatriated the million ethnic French of Algeria known as Pieds Noirs and the Jews but left most of the Algerian Muslims who defended French rule in Algeria where many were either executed or imprisoned. While most historians agree on the figure of 70,000 Harkis and family members killed, some estimates put the number as high as 150,000.

Pieds-Noirs, including indigenous Mizachi and Sephardi Jews and Harkis accounted for 13% of the total population of Algeria in 1962. Over one million were brought to mainland France, including only 42,000 loyalist Muslims and family members.  These Harkis were housed in deplorable conditions and, at best, were given access to low paying jobs. Today their descendants live in France like other Muslim migrants and are despised as “collaborators” by the Algerians. The Harkis feel they got a raw deal.

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Harkis interrogate an Algerian prisoner

France tries to make amends.

On Sunday, France honored the loyalist Algerians in ceremonies around the country during which President François Hollande “recognized the responsibility of French governments in abandoning the Harkis…the massacre of those left behind and the inhuman conditions of those transferred to France.”

The national day of remembrance was established in 2003 and a military ceremony is held in Paris every year. On Sunday, it was a chance for former President Nicolas Sarkozy to point out that you can be both a Muslim and a good Frenchman. “Our ancestors were the Gauls … but also the Muslim riflemen,” Sarkozy said, trying to quell an uproar he unleashed last week when he claimed “once you become a French citizen, your ancestors are the Gauls.”

But for the far right National Front, Sarkozy and Hollande are Johnny-come-latelies who tried to jump on the band wagon for electoral reasons. The question of the treatment of the Harkis  surfaced when their youth protested their conditions in 1991.  The right-wing National Front, which wanted to keep Algeria French, had been battling for the Harkis from the very beginning while most French political parties preferred to forget they left so many behind to pay the price of “collaboration” with the colonial master.

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Those the French left behind paid the price for being on the ‘wrong side’ of history.

The National Front’s chief economist, Bernard Monot, tweeted “the FN is the only party to have defended the harkis since 1962.” National Front Member of Parliament, Gilbert Collard, rendered “homage to the Harkis whose ancestors were not Gauls but whose blood spilt was for the great faithful love of France.” The FN believe that if the descendants of the Harkis should vote for anybody next year, it should be for the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

There are an estimated 500,000 descendants of the Harkis in France today. With presidential elections looming next year it is understandable that all parties and candidates are trying to cash in on the Harkis vote.

That the Algerians, including those in France with French citizenship, hate the Harkis is also understandable. Algeria says as many as two-million people died from war related causes during the fight for liberation from 1954 to 1962. Many historians put the number of dead at a little less than a million. Torture was widespread and summery executions common place. France has avoided debate on what it did to the Algerians.  In 1968, the French National Assembly passed an amnesty for all acts committed during the Algerian War, including torture, extra-judicial killings and other war crimes. But that war just won’t go away.

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