Identity and Imperialism in Algeria
French Algeria represents in many ways both a normative, yet also unique colony. It was a settler colony, with a relatively small group of European colons ruling over a vast population of indigenous who were denied their rights under oppressive foreign control with all that it entailed. However, it was also unique among Europe’s overseas domains in being integrated directly into the metropole, a colony that was formally administratively the same as the Loire or Paris.
Colonization in the Algerian context served to radicalize the colonizer while oppressing the colonized in a way to remove any political agency and will, which aborted potential development of representative and civic institutions. The effect of this was to reduce the colonizer to a state removed from history and lacking in the capabilities for effective institution building, while the colonizer’s political identity became one based upon hatred and exclusionism. These were not unconnected phenomena, but instead deeply related by the dualistic effects of colonialism.
Despite being France’s only overseas colony that was integrated directly into the
Metropole, Algeria was always clearly viewed as separate from France. At most, plans aimed for its assimilation into France, a long term project, and more often a policy of association was adopted. 1 Ruling over a vast cohort of non-citizens with little chance for citizenship, it stood alone among France’s metropolitan regions in its unique political aspects, and different even than the Four Communes of Senegal with their assimilated African classes. Algeria, despite flirtations with assimilation, was thus not a state intended to become “French” despite its inclusion with the
metropole, as related above, the lack of such assimilationist tendencies being a critical element of colonialism. Albert Memmi states:
The true reason, the most principal reason for most deficiencies is that the colonialist never planned to transform the colony into the image of his homeland, nor to remake the colonized in his own image! He cannot allow such an equation-- -it would destroy the principle of his privileges.” 2
Therefore, even in the most broad sweeps of administration, Algeria - and thus the indigenous - were always slated to be different than the French, and thus capable of being repressed and denied any political agency.
Effects on the Colonizer During Colonization
From the politics of difference and the creation of identity in Algeria emerged exclusion policies even amongst the formal colonizers themselves, in this case prejudice against the Jewish population. Although France had naturalized all of the Jews in Algeria in the year 1870, if anything this only inflamed anti-Semitic sentiment. 3 Is it not unusual that in the stupefying atmosphere of racism and colonial power structures that this would lead to such a major backlash against theoretically fellow citizens? While there certainly was anti-Semitic prejudice in France, in Algeria such sentiments grew to the level of involving the effective capture of local government by such parties. 4 Furthermore, this is demonstrative of the principle that Memmi laid out - that one cannot choose to be a colonizer or not. The Jews were enfranchised in Algeria, and theoretically were inducted themselves into the ranks of the colonizer. But this induction was one that differentiated them, and despite being theoretically part of the colonizer they could still be discriminated against. Even the end of formal anti-Jewish movements in 1901, was followed by increasing prejudice against still other peoples, such as the Muslims. 5 This was well illustrated in the film Battle for Algiers, where the French settlers were ultimately capable of extremely ruthless acts - the hounding of old men in the streets, pummeling a young Algerian man, and most horribly of all a bombing of an Algerian neighborhood as a reprisal. 6 Some of these acts, of course, occurred due to the growing violence within Algiers as part of the National Liberation Front insurgency, but the attack upon the young Arab man near the beginning of the film predated it; a settler youth tripped a running Algerian in the streets for no other reason other than he was Arab, then attacked him when he responded against them with a punch. Ultimately he was saved by the intervention of gendarmes (French police), but for many Algerians the role of the State in protecting them was not quite as comforting.
This development of the “other” and separatism was not confined ultimately against only the Jews and the indigenous cultures. At the end of colonization, the colonizer developed a peculiar patriotism that is noted by Memmi:
But he is seized with worry and panic each time there is talk of changing the political status. It is only then that the purity of his patriotism is muddled, his indefectible attachment to his motherland shaken. He may go as far as to threaten-- -Can such things be!-- -Secession! Which seems contradictory, in conflict with his so well-advertised, and in a certain sense real, patriotism.” 7
For it was at the end of French Algeria, as France decided to withdraw, that the OAS, the Organisation de arméel' secrète, was born to resist the attempts on the behalf of the French government to leave Algeria. At this time, the Algerian settlers, or Pied-Noir, became classified as “others” along with the Jews and Arabs. Although the settler’s motto was “Algeria is French and shall remain so” (like in the 1890s when an “Algerian” identity was formed to counter European French moves) the settlers were not French - not metropolitan French at least - but
instead, I would argue, a different splinter of them which in its radical forms held a
fundamentally different identity - anti-democratic, far-right, and opposed to the authority of the French metropole. Of course, this was not the picture of every Pied-Noir, and to insist that every single person was backwards thinking, xenophobic, and inherently racist would be foolish. Many French Catholics remained after independence and helped in forging the new state, and there were doubtless many Pied-Noirs during the Algerian War who were opposed to torture, crimes, and terror. 8 However, the basic fabric of colonialism twisted the general milieu of the Pied Noirs to encourage them to exclusionism, vicious racism, and ultimately hate.
Effects on the Colonized During Colonization
In Algeria, one of the claims of the French was that prior to colonization Algeria had never had an identity and that, through colonization, France had given it birth. 9 Algeria had been permanently under foreign control - the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the French - and was not an organic state, but instead one created from outside influence. The agency of the Algerians was thus denied, and they were reduced permanently to a record of the conquests by other nations. Through this, the history of the colonized was erased, to remove them from the stream of time and to leave them nothing but an imprint to be acted upon. 10 As Memmi states:
"The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility. "
Colonization thus acted retroactively upon the Algerians to form their history into that which was desired by the colonizer.
This approach of removing the Algerians from any agency for their own development was in general repeated across the board by French practices. Algerians were denied citizenship, possibilities for citizenship (except if they gave up their religion), voting rights, and political representation 11 - after all, if they were truly assimilated, the colony would cease to exist. Algeria did not even have the normal faux-independent leadership that was set up in European
protectorates. As a result, Algerians did not have a developed political legacy, it being removed by colonialism. They were rendered helpless actors upon which history happened, instead of the citizens of the nation-state.
In some ways, it was the fashion in which the Algerians were not changed by French rule however, that were the most telling indictments of the colonialist system. Despite a century of rule, there was little in the way of conversion to Catholicism, even with the maintenance of pre-1905 religious arrangements between the state and the churches. 12 If anything, Algerian religious
institutions were maintained and favored over Catholic ones. Not only did this leave the Algerian religious culture intact, but was vital for keeping the Algerians and the French different who, after all, were people that came from similar regions - the coastal plains of Algeria and the southern lands of France and the Mediterranean (the Pied-Noirs and the French as a whole generally came from such regions). Instead, social characteristics provided the construction of difference. Religion provided this barrier between the French and the Algerians, utilizing one of the most ancient “others” that Europe has created, that of Muslim vs. Christian. To assimilate the colonized would mean the end of the colony, and religious matters provided an excellent illustration of the rejection of assimilation.
This was part of a significant division that existed between the various groups of the
colonized. Those from the interior who attended Islamic schools principally defined themselves as being Muslim, while those that attended French schools tended to identify themselves as Arab. 13 Presumably the self-anointed Arab population was rather small due to limited literacy in Algeria, although it would have had to develop to a greater level to fit the current Algerian post- independence identity. Furthermore, the judicial aspects of colonization served to differentiate the Berbers of the south and the other indigenous through usage of a multi-tiered court structure. 14 The effect of this was a politically undeveloped, divided, and historically alienated population by the end of colonialism, the political identity of which had been stunted by colonization. The struggle for independence could give the Algerians agency of their own affairs again, but it could not so easily correct the damage done to their institutions and identities.
Effects on the Colonizer Post-Independence
Algeria was the last and greatest of the French colonies to gain independence (unless one counts French Somaliland or Vanuatu, who don’t really live up to the “greatest” colonies), and perhaps the one with the greatest effect upon France. Not as geographically large as the vast expanse of former French sub-Saharan Africa, and not as populated as former French Indochina, Algeria was unique, as mentioned, for its great settler population. Post independence, this settler population would be relocated to France.
With decolonization, the Pied Noirs were ultimately driven from Algeria to France, a
land which many of them had never known (such as those immigrants from Italy and Spain), and which much of the rest had long ago left. But this did not mean that the legacies of colonialism ended for the Pied Noirs. In France they continued to bear the imprint of exclusionism and the creation of the other. Former Pied Noir settlers were vital in support for French parts based upon the principles of exclusion, alienation, and the creation of the “other,” the principal one being the National Front. 15
Furthermore, as Memmi notes, the colonizer must secure their legitimacy despite the lack thereof. They need to assure themselves of their victory even if this requires efforts to falsify history, rewrite laws, and/or extinguish memory. 16 Even with the ending of colonization, these attempts continued to secure the legitimacy of the colonialist era, something former settlers in Algeria would see in a positive light. 17 Most famously was the 2005 French law on colonialism, which imposed upon high school teachers a requirement to teach of the positive benefits of
colonialism. 18 But, perhaps more insidiously, there were also attempts to control information and memory through the destruction and management of archives. 19 Control of archives is vital for the ability to manage the flow of information, and in this case the colonizer’s identity based on exclusionism and the creation of the other dictated the desirability of this. On a personal scale,such attacks were more clearly rabid, such as an attack upon a cinema that was showing Battle of Algiers in 1971 with sulphuric acid. 20
Effects on the Colonized Post-Independence
When Algeria gained independence, as with the Pied Noirs’ exodus, it did not do so as a blank slate. Instead, its identity was heavily dictated by generations of colonial rule. This rule had had direct consequences upon Algeria, helping to prevent the arrival of democratic institutions and governance, national unity, or effective capability for national self-governance. As Memmi asserts about the post-independence colonized:
"He has forgotten how to participate actively in history and no longer even asks to do so. No matter how briefly colonization may have lasted, all memory of freedom seems distant; he forgets what it costs or else no longer dares pay the price for it."21
This is a direct legacy of colonization, as the institutions of the colonized were, as stated, removed and suffocated. Algeria’s colonized had seen their differences exaggerated by the colonial system, and their political identity undercut. As a result, Algeria would fall into civil war by the 1990s after a span of authoritarian, one party rule under the National Liberation Front. This was not, however, the fault of the colonized. How could we blame he who has had no experience in government, who had been subjected for at least a century to a system that removed their political character and placed them as subjects instead of citizens, and attempted
to minimize their traditions and own agency? Colonization left the colonized Algerians poorly equipped for self-government, and this was the inevitable corollary of the colonizers’ development of exclusionism and prejudices, that prevented their development. The two were tightly interlinked as part of the nature of colonialism, which created two different political identities for the colonized and colonizer. These were unbridgeable, with reform attempts doomed to failure from their beginnings.
Political identity has had major consequences for Algerians, both colonizer and those colonized. For the colonizer, it enhanced their identity built upon distaste of the “other”, exclusionism, and hatreds. For the colonized, the legacies were perhaps even more unfortunate, leaving them forced to attempt to rebuild their own institutions after independence, after their experience with political agency had been eliminated. Even the struggle for independence as shown in the Battle for Algiers, albeit reawakening political action, did little to put into place political institutions other than the identity instilled into the Algerians by colonialism, that of the absence of representation. Colonialism left a bitter seed for both colonized and colonizer.
1 Lizabeth Zack, “French and Algerian Identity Formation in 1890s Algiers,” French Colonial History 2 (2002): 138.
2 Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965): 69.
3 Zack, “French and Algerian Identity Formation in 1890s Algiers,”120.
4 Ibid. 123.
5 Ibid. 133
6 La bataille d'Alger The battle of Algiers. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Argent Films, 1966.
7 Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 61-62.
8 Darcie Fontaine, “After the Exodus Catholics and the Formation of Postcolonial Identity in Algeria,” French Politics, Culture & Society 33, no.2 (Summer 2015): 109.
9 Eric Savarese, After the Algerian War: Reconstructing Identity Among the Pied-Noirs, International Social Science Journal 58, no. 189 (September 2006):459.
10 Benadouda Bensald,“The French Colonial Occupation and the Algerian National Identity: Alienation or Assimilation?” International Journal of Arab Culture Management and Sustainable Development (2012): 3.
11 Sarah L. Kimble, “Emancipation through Secularization: French Feminist Views of Muslim Women’s Conditions in Interwar Algeria,” French Colonial History 7 (2006): 115.
12 Ben Gilding, “The Separation of Church and State in Algeria: The Origins and Legacies of the Regime D’Exception, University of Cambridge (2011): 2.
13 Zack, “French and Algerian Identity Formation in 1890s Algiers,” 135.
14 Kimble, “Emancipation through Secularization,” 112.
15 John Merriman “Vietnam and Algeria,” Yale University, Connecticut, November 26th, 2006. Lecture.
16 Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 52.
17 Robert Aldrich, “Colonial Past, Post-colonial Present: History wars French Style,” History Australia 3, no. 1 (2006): 144.
18 ibid. 144.
19 Todd Shephard, “Of Sovereignty”: Disputed Archives, “Wholly Modern” Archives, and the Post-Decolonization French and Algerian Republics, 1962-2012” American Historical Review 120, no. 3 (June 2015): 870.
20 Patrick Harries, “The Battle of Algiers: between Fiction, Memory, and History.” Black and White in Colour:African History on Screen. eds. Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn (Oxford:James Currey): 203-222.
21 Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, 93.
Aldrich, Robert. “Colonial Past, Post-colonial Present: History Wars French Style.” History Australia 3, no. 1 (2006): 144. doi: 10.2104/ha060014.
Bensald, Benadouda. “The French Colonial Occupation and the Algerian National Identity: Alienation or Assimilation?” International Journal of Arab Culture Management and
Sustainable Development 2 (2012):142-152. doi: 10.1504/IJACMSD.2012.049124.
Fontaine, Darcie. “After the Exodus Catholics and the Formation of Postcolonial Identity in Algeria.” French Politics, Culture & Society 33, no.2 (Summer 2015): 97-118. doi:
Gilding, Ben. “The Separation of Church and State in Algeria: The Origins and Legacies of the Regime D’Exception.” University of Cambridge (2011): 1-17.
Harries, Patrick. “The Battle of Algiers: between Fiction, Memory, and History.” Black and White in Colour:African History on Screen. eds. Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn (Oxford: James Currey): 203-222.
Kimble, L. Sarah, “Emancipation through Secularization: French Feminist Views of Muslim Women’s Conditions in Interwar Algeria.” French Colonial History 7 (2006): 109-128. doi: 10.1353/fch.2006.0006.
La bataille d'Alger The battle of Algiers. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Argent Films, 1966.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.
Merriman, John. “Vietnam and Algeria.” Yale University. Connecticut. November 26th, 2006.
Savarese, Eric. “After the Algerian War: Reconstructing Identity Among the Pied-Noirs.”
International Social Science Journal 58, no. 189 (September 2006): 457-466. doi:
Shephard, Todd. “‘Of Sovereignty’ Disputed Archives, ‘Wholly Modern’ Archives, and the Post-Decolonization French and Algerian Republics, 1962-2012.” American Historical Review 120, no 3 (June 2015): 869-883. doi: 10.1093/ahr/120.3.869.
Zack, Lizabeth. “French and Algerian Identity Formation in 1890s Algiers.” French Colonial History 2 (2002): 114-143. doi. 10.1353/fch.2011.0015.
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