The History of the Pieds-Noirs. The Last Defenders of the French Colonial Empire

Term Paper, 2013

21 Pages, Grade: 1

Clara Omag (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The History of the Pieds-Noirs in a Global Context

3. The Pieds-Noirs: Definition and Terminological Distinction

4. French Colonial Interest in Algeria from the Beginnings to Independence
4.1. Beginnings of French Colonization
4.2. Oppression and Racism
4.3. Legitimation of Colonial Violence
4.4. The Fight for Freedom and Independence
4.4.1. Tensions and Resistance- The War for Equality
4.4.2. The Algerian War
4.4.3. The Resistance of the Pieds-Noirs

5. Foreign Homeland - The Return of the Pieds-Noirs to France
5.1. Integration Measures of France
5.2. Clash of Cultures: the Pieds-Noirs and the French of the Metropolis

6. Conclusion

7. Literature

Ce fut un grand ptonnement pour moi quand je m’aperçus peu à peu que les troncs de figuier ptaient des hommes semblables à nous, qu’ils riaient, qu’ils pleuraient, qu’ils ptaient capables de sentiments nobles, comme la haine ou l’amour, la jalousie et la gratitude. Découverte simpliste ? Mes compatriotes d’Algprie, qui ne sont pas mpchants, ne l’ont pas tous faite.1

Jules Roy (1907-2000): writer, Algerian Pied-Noir

1. Introduction

Colonialism was one of the most violent chapters of world history. Also France has tried to hide its colonial past and for quite some time, voices remained silent. The Pieds-Noirs were nearly banished from older history books and their life was often ignored by historians.2 Similarly to the Dutch in Indochina, the life and the return of the Pieds-Noirs did not establish an important place in historical research. “Theirs is a history still inadequately told but now ended, as both groups have been assimilated into their `homeland` culture”, Betts states.3

As the history of the Pieds-Noirs has been hidden for years, it is not surprising that there is only little literature about it. Most books have been published in French even though it is a topic of global interest. Therefore, it is a main goal of this paper to use sources in different languages in order to compare standpoints, to avoid a narrowed view and to allow a global perspective. It shall be pointed out that the discrimination of indigenous people by European powers did not only happen in Algeria but in many other colonies as well and that countries which got independent inspired other colonies. How did decolonization movements all over the world help Algeria to find the strength in the fight for independence?

Surely, the history of the Pieds-Noirs is a complex one as they were not a normal nation but a specific group that is directly connected to the history of both, Algeria and France.4 On the following pages, not only plain facts shall be presented but an overview over the life and the development of the Pieds-Noirs will be provided. Here, racism and oppression of the indigenous population by the Pieds-Noirs will form main aspects as these eventually led to the Algerian War which ended eight years later with the independence of the North African country.5 Another focus will be laid on the behavior of the Pieds-Noirs who tried with all possible means to hold on to their possessions and privileges so that they can be considered as the last defenders of the French colonial empire. Contrary to many other publications, this paper will not end with the Algerian independence as the reintegration of the Pieds-Noirs in France will be examined, too. The years following the War of Independence are significant for understanding how easily powers can switch. In this respect, this paper tries to explain the development of the Pieds-Noirs comprehensively - from the beginnings in 1830 until today.

2. The History of the Pieds-Noirs in a Global Context

The history of the arrival and the retreat of the French in Algeria were unique. The measures used to keep Algeria under France surely raised questions about French values, rights and violence. Police action, revolts, battles and the continuous attempt to restore order and peace amounted to an undeclared colonial war which included an unprecedented degree of brutality. However, the Algerian War of Independence cannot be considered as a single event. As Thomas et al. say, it would be too easy to narrow the decolonization wars down to nationalism.6

Colonization and decolonization have followed a long historical path with differences in every epoch and region. Also in the 20th century, colonies were organized differently - often, the French colonial rule in Africa is used as counterexample to the indirect rule of Britain in Asia by governing through indigenous elites without destroying cultures. The aims, however, were to a large extent the same: financial interests, hiding domestic problems, stronger national consciousness as well as increasing trade. The Europeans in Africa were often not respecting ethnic cultures, new borders were drawn arbitrarily. The indigenous population should show deference to the new power and frequently, the Europeans used violence to bring them under their reign. This was not just the case for Algeria but also for British and German colonies in East Africa where flogging and corporal punishment were common methods of exerting power over the locals.7

After the end of the Second World War, many European powers had to allow the independence of different former colonies. This did not only touch the losing forces of the war, but also the winning nations. In this respect, World War II did not just destroy the empire of Germany and Japan but also decisively weakened France, Great Britain and the Netherlands. Even though more national and durable borders assured peace on the European landscape, in the colonies of the European forces, that were frustrated because of unfulfilled promises, a time determined by struggles and fights for independence was still about to come.8

Especially for Great Britain and France, the colonies were very important as colonial products might have been the only way to earn foreign exchange and to re-establish influence on a global scale.9 Domestic political stability was mostly threatened by the Algerian War - the way to independence of the neighbor countries Tunisia and Morocco left much smaller impression on colonial France as Algeria was not just a protectorate but a part of France. The French settlers tried with all possible means to hold on their Algerian possession. On a smaller scale, this was also reflected by white settlers in British Central and East Africa. Here, the most difficulties arose in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) with the black resistance (ZAPU and ZANU) and in Kenya with the Mau-Mau uprising whose main goal was to restore Kikuyu native lands occupied by the British.10

Before explaining the history of the French settlers in Algeria, it seems inevitable to clarify the term Pieds-Noirs. This is not easy and it can be seen that already the dissension about the name makes prove of the complexity of this topic.

3. The Pieds-Noirs: Definition and Terminological Distinction

It is not easy to find a name for the French people living in times of colonization in Algeria. Can they be called French even though they had never seen the motherland? Are they Europeans in Africa or Algerians although they were French citizens by law? Or can they simply be called colonialists? All these terms, however, seem to be inappropriate as it is a very specific group who needs to be called by a separate term.11

Only around 1956, the term Pieds-Noirs (English: black feet) came up to name the French citizens who lived in Algeria before independence. This term, however, has not been clearly defined yet. Moreover, this term has implied for a long time a negative connotation that has only disappeared recently.12 It has also not been clarified yet where the origin of the name lies. There exist at least two possible interpretations: From the Algerians’ point of view, the French were Pieds-Noirs as the French military used to wear black shoes; Europeans, on the other hand, called them Pieds-Noirs because the French living in Algeria had sunburnt feet that seemed to be nearly black.13 According to the French encyclopedia Nouveau Larousse encyclopédique, the Pied-Noir is defined as “Français d’origine européenne installé en Afrique du Nord, et plus partic. en Algérie, jusqu’à l’indépendance“.14 Hureau limits the term even more by only defining those people as Pieds-Noirs who were not Muslims. The Pieds-Noirs, however, cannot be called Christians as there were also Jews, Freemasons or Atheists among them.15 Esclangon-Morin goes even a step further by calling not only the French living in North Africa Pieds-Noirs but also those who returned to France after the independence of these states.16 Thus, she does not distinguish between the French designation “rapatrié” (English: repatriates) which refers according to the Nouveau Larousse to the “Français d’Algérie installé en métropole après l’indépendance de ce pays (1962)”.17

So if on the following pages the term Pieds-Noirs will be used, it shall unite all these definitions and thus refers to the non-Muslim French people living in Algeria during times of colonization as well as to those who returned to France after independence.

4. French Colonial Interest in Algeria from the Beginnings to Independence

France’s colonial rule over Algeria lasted 132 years. It was a long and complicated time so that it is surely not easy to retell the history of Algeria and France in their beginnings, effects and sequence.18 The following pages raise no claim for completeness but shall try to explain the complexity of Algeria’s colonization whereas the main focus will be laid on sociopolitical aspects. These, however, will not be considered as single events but shall always be embedded in a brother global context. The extent of violence, the resistance and the reforms will be analyzed and connected so that the reasons leading eventually to the independence of the country can be understood.

4.1. Beginnings of French Colonization

On 16 May 1830, 500 ships left the port of Toulon in order to conquer Algeria. Although initially, the royal army of Charles X. did not have the intention to colonialize the country, the soldiers let themselves carry away by their successes. Soon, they took advantage of their stronger military power and tried to subdue the whole country. The French army needed forty years to “pacify” Algeria and often did not hesitate to use violence against those who got into their way.19

The mission of the Europeans was to bring the advantages of the French civilization and reasoning to Algeria. This civilizing mission, however, was not more than a cover for pragmatic motives such as financial interests and a desperately needed victory for the fragile position of the Bourbon’s throne. The French desire for more power soon faced the resistance of the indigenous populations. The white settlers, however, responded with an even more brutal policy of conquest.20 The fellahs, landbased Arab peasants were displaced while the resident European minority controlled the land and the population.21 Whole villages were destroyed and the soldiers had the permission to plunder houses and rape women. The peak of these fights might have been reached in 1845 when five hundred Arabs were suffocated the Dahna caves where they had taken refuge.22

In 1871, Algeria was divided in three departments. By this, all Algerian affairs became a part of France’s area of competency. The administration was thus entirely French.23 Therefore, the Pieds-Noirs got the right to vote for parliamentarians in the National Assembly.24 Algeria was stuck between two fronts: It was more than a simple colony but still not an entire part of the motherland.25 On the following pages, the extent of the French reign of violence and the discrimination of the Pieds-Noirs shall be examined more closely. This is relevant because all these aspects eventually led to the Algerian War, one of the most brutal decolonization wars in the world.

4.2. Oppression and Racism

With the colonization of Algeria, a time of fear and anxieties began. Some thousand men who formed only a small foreign minority got the power over the numerically superior African majority. The exploitation was justified by the superiority of the white race that was ordained by God. It was their divine mission to civilize the African barbarians. Humiliated and exploited by the military, political and social power of the Europeans, the Algerians became outsiders in their own country.26 At this point, it needs to be stated that not all Europeans were brutal rulers. Simple farmers shared their food with Muslims and also celebrated together. Yet, the fear from the Pieds-Noirs in leading military and political positions was so grounded that no one dared to show open sympathy for the Algerians. There barley existed official relations or weddings between Europeans and Africans in order not to get in danger.27 For the colonialists, the Arabs were often not more than an inferior race.28 The French described them as lazy and capricious creatures that can learn discipline and manners only by being treated in a hart and strict way. Only by mistreating Africans, Algeria would have a chance to increase economically and socially.29 The Pieds-Noirs, on the other hand, profited from the colonization: They got farmlands, held leading positions and worked as officials.30 Moreover, the French also had privileges in the juridical and fiscal system as well as in the income distribution - i.e. the per capita income of the Pieds-Noirs was on average five times as high as those of the Arabs.31

On top of that, the colonialists showed only little respect for African traditions and customs. French national days were celebrated, the Christian calendar was introduced, villages, cities and streets got French names, churches and cathedrals were built - sometimes even in old mosques. The Pieds-Noirs also dominated political and educational affairs of the natives. Algerian traditions, however, were only continued if they suited the French regional control.32 The resident European minority largely controlled Algerian affairs. They also enjoyed a privileged position in France’s policy as the Pieds-Noirs were French citizens and were directly represented in the French parliamentary system. Algerian Muslims, however, could only become French citoyens if they renounced to Islamic faith.33

This two-class society was mirrored in all spheres of life. The sale race of the Arabs was often considered as incompetent to lead their own country. Jules Roy, a French writer born in Algeria in 1907, gave in his book La Guerre d’Algprie a deep insight of the perception and the treatment of the Arabs. Although he did neither support nor understand the treatment of the Algerians, he grew up in a racist environment in which Muslims were not considered as humans. In this respect, he cites his brother René who expressed the following words:


1 Jules Roy, La guerre d’Algérie, Paris 1960, 23.

2 Joëlle Hureau, La mémoire des pieds-noirs de 1830 à nos jours, Mesnil-sur-l'Estrée 2001, 100.

3 Raymond Betts, France and Decolonization 1900-1960, London 2004, 8.

4 Valérie Esclangon-Morin, Les rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord de 1956 à nos jours, Paris 2007, 16.

5 Fabian Klose, Menschenrechte im Schatten kolonialer Gewalt. Die Dekolonisierungskriege in Kenia und Algerien 1945-1962, München 2009, 97-114.

6 Martin Thomas/ Bob Moore/Lawrence Butler, Crises of Empire. Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States, 1918 - 1975. London 2008, 5; 228.

7 Ludolf Pelizaeus, Der Kolonialismus. Geschichte der europäischen Expansion, Wiesbaden 2008, 213f.

8 Jane Burbank/ Frederick Cooper: Empires in World History. Power and the politics of difference, Princeton 2010, 370f.

9 ibid., 411.

10 John Spinghall, Decolonization since 1945. The Collapse of European Overseas Empires, Hampshire 2001, 146-186.

11 Clarisse Buono, Pieds-Noirs de père en fils. Voix et regards, Paris 2004, 7f.

12 Hureau, Mémoire des Pieds-Noirs, 7f.

13 Alistar Horne, A savage war of peace. Algeria 1954-1962, New York 2006, 30.

14 Nouveau Larousse Encyclopédique. Ed. by Bertrand Éveno. Vol. 2. Paris 2001, 1210.

15 Hureau, Mémoire des Pieds-Noirs, 8.

16 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 16.

17 Nouveau Larousse Encyclopédique, 1304.

18 Hureau, Mémoire des Pieds-Noirs, 99-101.

19 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 24.

20 Klose, Menschenrechte, 97f.

21 Springhall, Decolonization, 147f.

22 Klose, Menschenrechte, 97f.

23 In this point, Algeria is different from Tunisia and Morocco. Those were under French rule but only as protectorates and could thus keep their own structures to a certain extent.

24 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 24-29.

25 Thankmar Freiherr von Münchhausen, Kolonialismus und Demokratie: die französische Algerienpolitik von 1945-1962, München 1977, 31.

26 Georges Balandier, La situation coloniale: approche théorique, in: Cahiers internationaux de sociologie, 110/1 (2001), 18.

27 Jacques Duquesne, Pour comprendre la guerre d’Algérie, Paris, 2001 197.

28 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 30f.

29 Buono, Pieds-Noirs de père en fils, 22.

30 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 31.

31 Münchhausen, Kolonialismus und Demokratie, 57.

32 Esclangon-Morin, Rapatriés d’Afrique du Nord, 31f.

33 Springhall, Decolonization, 148.

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The History of the Pieds-Noirs. The Last Defenders of the French Colonial Empire
University of Vienna  (Institut für Geschichte)
World of Empires
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Clara Omag (Author), 2013, The History of the Pieds-Noirs. The Last Defenders of the French Colonial Empire, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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