From Academic Kids

Pied-noir is a term for the former French colonists of North Africa, especially Algeria. It is sometimes used to include the Algerian Jewish population as well. Literally Pied-noir means "black foot" in French. Supposedly, one way the colonists could be distinguished from the indigenous Algerians was by the black shoes the French wore. According to most scholars, however, the term is of unknown origin. One of the most famous pied-noirs was Albert Camus.


The Europeans had arrived as colonists from all over the Mediterranean (particularly France, Spain, and Malta), starting in 1830. The Jews had arrived in several waves, some coming in Roman times while most had arrived as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and had largely embraced French citizenship and identity after the décret Crémieux in 1871. Before 1962, both the Europeans and the Jews of Algeria were listed under the name Européens (Europeans) for statistical or official purposes. They considered themselves just French, or Algerian, or Africans, each of these identities intertwined in their mind. Their unofficial anthem was the Song of the Africans (Le chant des Africains).

In 1959, the pieds-noirs numbered 1,025,000, and accounted for 10.4% of the total population of Algeria, a percentage gradually diminishing since the peak of 15.2% in 1926. However, some areas of Algeria had high concentrations of pieds-noirs, such as the regions of Bône (now Annaba), Algiers, and above all the area from Oran to Sidi-Bel-Abbès. Oran had been under European rule since the 17th century, and the population in the Oran metropolitan area was 49.3% European and Jewish in 1959. In the Algiers metropolitan area, Europeans and Jews accounted for 35.7% of the population. In the metropolitan area of Bône they accounted for 40.5% of the population. The département of Oran, a rich European-developed agricultural land of 16,520 km² (6,378 sq. miles) stretching between the cities of Oran and Sidi-Bel-Abbès, and including them, was the largest area of pieds-noirs density outside of the cities, with the pieds-noirs accounting for 33.6% of the population of the département in 1959.

The pieds-noirs felt betrayed by the act of Charles de Gaulle sanctioning the independence of Algeria and some of them fought a limited civil war. The terrorist organization OAS (Organisation de l'Armée Secrète) set up by a group of these who had served in the French army was active in the first half of the 1960s and is well known for its role in the plot of the fictional the Day of the Jackal.


In just a few months in 1962, 900,000 of these Europeans and Jews left the country, the first prior to the referendum (held in Metropolitan France and for which by an unprecedented decision of the de Gaulle government they were not allowed to vote), in the most massive relocation of population in Europe since the Second World War. The motto among the European and Jewish community was "Suitcase or coffin" ("La valise ou le cercueil"). The French government had not planned that such a massive number would leave; at the most, it estimated that maybe 200,000 or 300,000 may chose to go to metropolitan France temporarily. Consequently, nothing was planned for their return, and many had to sleep in streets or abandoned farms on their arrival in metropolitan France, where the vast majority had never set foot in their whole life.

Some departing pieds-noirs destroyed their possessions before departure, in a sign of despair, but the vast majority of their goods and houses were left intact and abandoned. Tragic scenes of thousands of panicked people camping for weeks on the docks of Algerian harbors waiting for a space on a boat to France were common from April to August 1962. Some people who were refused the right to take their cars on-board burned them on the spot in the docks. For most, departure was meant to be without an idea of return, and despair was general at leaving the land where they were born. The exodus accelerated after the massacre and kidnapping of 3000 Pieds-Noirs in the streets of Oran on the 6th and 7th of July 1962 by the ALN (Algerian Arlée de Libération Nationale) entering the country from Morocco after the cease-fire decreted by the French army. By September 1962, cities like Oran, Bône, or Sidi-Bel-Abbès were left half empty. All administrations, police, schools, justice, commercial activities stopped in a matter of 3 months. About 100,000 pieds-noirs chose to remain, but they gradually left in the 1960s and 1970s, to the point that in the 1980s there remained only one or two thousand pied-noir in Algeria.

In France

The French government left Algerian administrative records to the new Algerian government; for the pieds-noirs, this led to the situation that hundreds of thousands could not access their birth or marriage certificates after the independence, sometimes being unable to prove that they were French, or unable to obtain legal papers. In the 1970s the French government finally sent a mission to Algeria to copy the birth, marriage, and death certificates in the main cities and towns of former European settlement, but villages records were not copied, so that up to today some pieds-noirs in France are still unable to prove their identity.

More generally, the pieds-noirs felt rejected in France, where they were often portrayed as nasty colonialists, especially by the Communist party. Famously, when the boats carrying distraught and devastated pieds-noirs were arriving in Marseilles in the months of 1962, they were treated to a large "The pieds-noirs down in the sea!" ("Les pieds noirs à la mer!") painted by the Communist longshoremen (dockers) of the Port of Marseilles on the mole at the entrance of the harbor. Communist posters showing a brutal pied-noir whipping some Arab workers was also frequently seen at the time in French cities. In reality, the vast majority of European and Jews in Algeria were lower-middle-class, or even outright poor, with only about less than 5% of the pieds-noirs being rich and possessing large farm estates. However, the backbone of the far right in France was formed out of elements of the pieds-noirs. Not well accepted at first, it was only because of the big economic boom of France in the 1960s that they managed to integrate quickly in their new land of exile.

More recently, the French government has finally acknowledged the trauma and suffering of the pieds-noirs, and ceremonies are often organized to commemorate their tragedy. They have received money from the French government to compensate the loss of their houses and properties in Algeria, but there was a cap on the amount that could be received, so that many people have not received an appropriate compensation. In any case, for the vast majority of them, money is no compensation for the lost land where they were born. It is not uncommon to hear of dead pieds-noirs who asked for their ashes to be strewn on the Mediterranean Sea, in the hope that the currents will lead them to Algerian shores. Symbolically, the pieds-noirs were allowed in the 1990s to use the old codes of their French Algeria's départements for official purposes. Until recently, when filing papers, or obtaining social security numbers, they had to list number 99, which is the code for people being born in foreign countries, which the pieds-noirs found insulting since they were born in départements that were regarded by France as an integral part of France at the time (unlike colonies.) They can now use number 91, 92, and 93, which were the codes for the three départements of Algeria. Other oddities still remain. For instance, since driving licenses in France are delivered by the prefect of the département for life, hundreds of thousands of pieds-noirs in France still carry a driving license with the stamp of one of the former départements of French Algeria on it, although these départements do not exist anymore.fr:Pieds-Noirs


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