Why Algerians cannot resist French siren song
For many young Algerians, the ultimate dream is to be able to move to France. Sara Benaissa examines the myth and reality that has driven the Algerian exodus over the decades since independence.
This summer marked 60 years of Algerian independence from France. It’s also the year that Algerian immigrants and French nationals with Algerian heritage reached 12.7% of the total French population, or over 6m. This figure, like many others, is contested between France and Algeria because of what each side defines as Algerian.
Nevertheless, it remains an irony of history that Algerians, who had fought so hard to push French rule out of their country and achieve independence, have been moving en masse to mainland France to be once again subjugated to French law.
In Algeria, most young people have a plan to leave the country –whether that’s by securing a job, obtaining a study visa or on a clandestine boat. The majority risk their lives on those overcrowded and flimsy boats until they hit the Spanish side of the Mediterranean. They have only one direction in mind – north, to the old colonial homeland.
Even older generations hold a flicker of hope that one day their visa will come through, so they get to leave Algeria and make a better life for themselves elsewhere.
This huge Algerian exodus to France is neither recent nor straightforward. During the French colonial rule, Algerians were considered indigenous French subjects – but with none of the rights that came with that name. They were in fact neither Algerian nor French for 130 years.
It was one of the longest-lasting colonies in modern history, but the French didn’t consider it a colony – l’Algérie française was part of France. Anything before that time was erased and the ‘indigenous’ were historical nomads in their own country.
When Algerians claimed their land back and l’Algérie française fell, the two now separate countries formed agreements for Algerians (and former French subjects) to work and study relatively easily in France.
After the protocols were signed, many Algerians left their villages to study or work in France to provide for their families and society back in North Africa. They were considered the ‘light of post-colonial Algeria’, and their homecoming was celebrated throughout the country.
While some stayed in France, most went back either through obligation or because they truly wanted to change Algeria for the better. Whatever they chose, Algerians who left for France had their homeland resolutely in mind because they believed they could be agents of change.
Candles in the dark
People used the agreements formed in the 60s to apply for French visas en masse during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. Nearly all the literati and cultural elite of Algeria left because of death threats or fears that they would be next on the dreaded Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) list.
This led to a catastrophic brain drain. When the war-ravaged ‘Black decade’ was eventually ended, a new Algeria rose from the ashes. It was neither the hoped-for postcolonial Algeria, nor was it the Islamist wasteland it had become during the war, it was something in between.
The Algeria millennials nevertheless grew up with bombs and curfews. And even when the Islamists were finally chased into the mountains, they lived in a socio-cultural vacuum created by the brain drain.
They didn’t enjoy the same social freedoms their parents or even grandparents had enjoyed when they were young. This created frustration, so the millennial generation continued (up to the present day) to request visas for anywhere they would be accepted, as long as they could live what they saw as their stolen youth. France was more likely to accept them and this led to the exodus.
Algerians haven’t forgotten the bloodshed and French colonial atrocities, even two generations on. But they are also forever linked with France, for better or for worse.
Shared trauma binds people together and creates convoluted entanglement; Algerians who wanted to leave used it to their advantage. As the brilliant Algerian comedian (and French resident) Fellag said, “La France et l’Algerie est un sacré couscous” or “Algeria and France is one hell of a couscous”.
The road back to El Dorado
This pan-generational tradition to leave the country eventually created urban myths. Young people who play the French visa lottery and win think they are accessing a new land of riches – largely because they grew up with fathers, aunties, uncles and cousins doing it and coming back home with riches and tales of adventures. Or because a friend of a friend has told them they live like kings in France.
Of course, that is more often than not a myth and nothing more. It’s a vicious circle of white lies and tall tales created and perpetuated by fellow Algerians year on year. It has become so out of control, that Algerians arriving in Paris without the right paperwork or means of getting by, are often forced to share 15m square apartments among three or more and find illegal and low-paying jobs; or sell contraband cigarettes (and often opiates) on the street. Instead of admitting that they made a mistake and returning home to a much more comfortable life, they pretend everything is OK and carry on struggling in France.
The shame of being the immigrant who fails has no limits; and Algerians, illegal or not, will go out of their way to show the people back home that they made the right decision. Their friends then hurriedly use up all of their savings to pay eye-watering amounts of (currently 5-6,000 euros) for a treacherous boat ride to the southern Spanish coast.
There are countless videos on social media of Algerians arriving safely in Spain, enjoying fiestas or living the high life in Paris with iconic monuments behind them. It all becomes part of the social media siren song. And if they aren’t willing to jump on a boat, they will put their life on hold, waiting for a visa that might never come.
This has influenced Algerians into turning down marriage proposals, career paths and chances of happiness, all for the elusive French dream, or just the chance of leaving and seeing something different. Every Algerian knows someone who has preferred to wait for a visa, no matter how long that takes.
The sands that shift
The dissociation with reality doesn’t end when Algerians put their feet on French soil. It takes years for the scales to drop from their dreaming eyes. In Paris, listen to Algerians in the many tiny café tabacs and you will probably hear them talking about two things: ‘les papiers’ or French residency paperwork, and the traumatic Franco-Algerian relationship. The two are now fused for the Algerian diaspora living in France, and it is a vicious cycle nobody is ready to be truly honest and open about.
And for those who do get visas and set their lives up in France, the cat and mouse game isn’t done. They must apply for a new visa every year and cross their fingers they get to stay in the country their grandparents fought a war to never see again. This bitter irony isn’t lost on Algerians, and it creates a degree of resentment for the circumstances they felt forced to choose.
The hope is that one day they might hit the jackpot and get a 10-year visa. The next step then would be French citizenship and all the liberties that come with it. But the elation that comes with citizenship also arrives with a truckload of guilt.
For most however, French citizenship remains a distant if not impossible dream. They continue to exist on the margins and even if they want to, most Algerians can’t afford to fly back while they are trying ‘to make it’ in the first five years.
Instead they squabble with each other over an Algeria that they haven’t seen for years. Countries shift and move at an incredible speed, and so the Algeria they are talking about is no longer the Algeria of today. And this unchanging, nostalgic and unrealistic view of Algeria has left a pessimistic black cloud over the expatriate community.
The reality is that Algeria is no longer the stagnant home they once knew; it is part of an Africa that is rising. Time will only tell when Algeria will finally stand steady on its feet. When it does, it will need all Algerians behind it, making sure it doesn’t relapse.
For the Algerian diaspora, who are living a heady mix of disillusionment and denial, the only solution is to honestly burst the bubble of the French utopian dream and stop the ever-increasing brain drain.
The diaspora has a responsibility to the homeland so that Algerians are given the luxury of the truth before deciding whether they should cross the sea or stay and invest in their homeland. Algerians back home also have a role to play for any French Algerian wanting to return or reinvest. Whether they have ‘made it’ or not, they must be able to return without any shame attached to them to a motherland that is slowly finding its feet again and needs every willing national to pitch in.