Robert Zaretsky: History's Forgotten Exodus ... French-Algerian Pieds-Noirs Were Citizens of a Nation They Scarcely Knew

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. Zaretsky is teaches at the Honors College, University of Houston, and is author most recently of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell, 2010).

Fifty years ago this Sunday, the greatest human migration in postwar Europe began to unfold. When French and Algerian representatives signed a series of peace accords in the spa town of Evian on March 18, 1962, the two nations ended an unspeakably bloody and brutal eight-year war. But the agreements also heralded the exodus of nearly one-and-a-half million French Algerians—an event of seismic proportions, yet now mostly forgotten.
Not surprisingly, the anniversary of the Evian Accords is less the occasion for commemoration—forget celebration—than it is for confusion. The perplexity reflects how France's past in Algeria is not only not dead, but not even past. The television programs and magazine stories all too predictably focus on the war. Center stage is taken by the Battle of Algiers and the mad contagion of terrorism on both sides, the simmering civil war in France and the pivotal role played by Charles de Gaulle, who in bringing an end to this war without a name, brought down one republic and created another.
Mostly ignored in the sound and fury, though, are the so-called oubliés de l'histoire, or history's forgotten ones. This, in particular, is the case with the pieds-noirs: the European immigrants who had begun to settle in Algeria in the mid-19th century. Hailing largely from other Mediterranean countries, these men and women learned the French language, read French history, served in the French army and became French citizens.
But here's the rub: The pieds-noirs were citizens of a nation they scarcely knew...

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