Installment 11 of: ‘The Making of the Modern Internment Regime.’
Before 1962, Algeria was a French colony. In 1954, however, Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) instigated a series of attacks to seek independence from France. These led to further unrest that ultimately sparked the Algerian War of Independence. Although many Algerians supported the struggle for independence, two groups sided with France: the Pieds-noirs and the Harkis.
The Pieds-noirs, French colonials of European origin, were confident that if they pledged their loyalty to the French government, France would win the war. Failing that, they could return to France and be reintegrated into French society. The Harkis were Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French army . Many Harkis were impoverished; they began to serve as French auxiliaries because the French government provided them with an income. As some Harkis sought higher socioeconomic status by serving France, they also sought protection. The FLN inflicted violence on Algerian collaborators with the French colonial government. Harkis and their families were therefore at risk from the FLN. The French government offered protection for the Harkis and their families in exchange for their service and loyalty (Evans 2016).
Despite service from the Harkis and support from the Pieds-noirs on the side of the French military, Algeria successfully gained its independence. Consequently, the FLN inflicted violence on the pro-french populations in acts known as the ‘Harkis Massacres,’ and this violence ultimately pushed both the Pieds-noirs and the Harkis out of Algeria. Upon arrival in France, most of the Harkis were interned in camps, while the Pieds-noirs flowed into a repatriation system that led quickly to citizenship. The Harki population suffered, interned in large, pre-established camps, as well as smaller, more isolated camps. Some of them for 15 years.
Transition into Rivesaltes
With France’s loss of Algeria, and beginning in 1962, the Pieds-noirs and many Harkis migrated to France. The Pieds-noirs were instantly classified as repatriates, and, as a result, many petitioned and gained citizenship status quickly. In contrast, the French government considered the Harkis “foreigners” despite the fact that they held equivalent legal status to the Pieds-noirs. The government placed the Harkis in internment camps beginning in the fall of 1962. Rivesaltes, the largest camp to house the Harkis, received 800 occupants on September 15, 1962, and within one month the camp’s population rose to 7,700 occupants (Miller 2013). The French government deemed Rivesaltes, as well as the other camps that held the Harkis, ‘transit and rehabilitation camps.’ The camps were not a quick stop on the path to citizenship, though, as the name suggests. Instead, many French Auxiliaries and their families occupied disease-ridden camps until as late as 1977.
“…it’s true that France locked us up in Harki camps… we were discriminated against everywhere, we were treated as Arabs, but it’s France. It’s like a mother who hits her children, but she’s nevertheless our mother and we must pardon her and love her. This is what my father told me. This is why I love this country. Tomorrow will be better, God willing. Long live the Harkis. Long live France” (An Anonymous . Second-Generation Harki).*
The Harkis were legally allowed to leave the camp, if they so chose, but the life that awaited them outside the camp was often considered worse than the one behind the barbed wire. Although the Harkis endured conditions that sometimes led to death and suicide, the camps nevertheless provided some protection (Crapanzano 2011). Harkis feared that if they left the camp, they would be mistaken for Algerian labor migrants, which carried other risks. To many, Rivesaltes was the lesser of two evils (Miller 2013).
The ‘Encadrement’ Structures
Despite the Harkis’ emigration from Algeria to France, the FLN continued to threaten the population. On one occasion, an FLN member snuck into Rivesaltes camp and started a violent altercation with various Harki men, which resulted in the Harki killing him (Miller 2013). As a result of the violence, the government established “Encadrement Structures”.
The French government designed the Harki internment program at Rivesaltes and similar camps on the basis of “encadrement,”or “framing” (Miller 2013). The structures consisted of a civil section and a military section (Miller 2013). The civil section served as a means of accomplishing the “mission civilisatrice,” that is, educating the Harkis about how to exist in a presumedly more civilized French society. In contrast, the military section served to inflict discipline on the interned persons to ensure that violence within the camp was diminished (Miller 2013).
Men, women, and children under 14 years old were separated, daily, and educated. Their education confirmed gender norms; women often learned to sew, while men learned building trades (MMCR-35, Memorial De Rivesaltes, Harkis Photo Album). The encadrement within Rivesaltes trained internees for a working class lifestyle in future; at the same time, the structure of the camps, distanced the Harkis from civil society, and also prevented interaction with neighboring French citizens. In effect, the Harkis were isolated (Miller 2013).
The Role News and Media Played in Informing the Public
Local news sources at the time when the Transit and Rehabilitation camps were in operation were blind to the situation behind the barbed wire in places like Rivesaltes. Newspapers continuously requested coverage of Rivesaltes, but the government denied access to reporters. Following many months of requests, in March 1963, the government allowed a group of reporters inside the camp. Journalists from the Pro-Gaullist Daily and L’Indépendant, two regional newspapers, finally provided the public with an account of the Harkis’ lives in Rivesaltes. However, both sources presented an inaccurate portrayal of the camp that was largely based on what the camp’s directors told them (Miller 2013). L’Indépendant explained, “It’s no longer a camp. It’s truly a city like no other in France, and no other city with the same type of population is so well organized socially” (L’Indépendant 1963). In short, the media contributed to French civilians’ willed ignorance about ongoing internment in the camp. Various forms of censorship also prolonged the silence about what was happening in Rivesaltes.
Rivesaltes remained an internment camp for Harkis through 1977, when the transfer of this population to smaller camps was largely complete (Miller 2013). As early as 1964, the Minister of the French Army, Pierre Messmer’s cabinet director, Jean Sicurani, issued a statement i explaining that Harkis could remain at Rivesaltes and other camps if they applied for French nationality (Miller 2013). Even as legal repatriates seeking citizenship, however, the Harki population remained victims of internment. The French government’s initial decision to intern the Harkis, “established a logic for continuing to do so” (Miller 2013). The French government eventually redistributed many of the Harkis who had applied for citizenship into smaller, more isolated, camps known as “forest hamlets” throughout southern France (Miller 2013).
Breaking the Silence of Rivesaltes
Throughout their lives, the Harkis faced many hardships. Their political affiliations led them to be targeted by the FLN throughout the Algerian War. After ‘repatriating’ to France, they became victims of an unnecessary internment policy for almost two decades. In interviews that were collected decades after the Harkis left Rivesaltes, many second-generation Harkis explained that their families,
“…lost all initiative… They were afraid of what was outside the camp. They had lost their courage and their dignity. They were empty” (Vincent Crapanzo).**
The conditions at Rivesaltes led many of its Harki internees to lose hope for a better life; they became known as the “Generation of Silence” (Sutton 2017). Once grown, the Harkis’ children played a critical role informing the public of the truth of what took place behind the camps’ barbed wire, and demanded that the state acknowledge its wrongdoings. As a result, beginning in 1975, protests by second-generation Harkis initiated camp closure across France. Nevertheless, the Transit and Rehabilitation camp at Rivesaltes did not shut down until two years later (Sims 2016).
The Process of Gaining Recognition Following the Harkis’ Internment in Rivesaltes
1994 (11 June). Following many protests, by Harki descendants and Harki allies, with the goal of obtain official recognition for the Harkis and their internment, the French government passed a law in which the French Republic expressed appreciation for the Harkis.
2001 (25 September). President Jacques Chirac of France recognized that the Harkis were never given proper recognition or compensation for the hardships they endured. In doing so, he established a place for the Harkis in France’s national history.
2008 A stele was erected near the Rivesaltes Memorial Museum to honor the Harkis.
2016 (16 October). The Rivesaltes Memorial opened. This museum honors the many populations that were interned at Rivesaltes, including the Harkis.
2016 (19 March). Close to 200 Harkis gathered at the Rivesaltes Memorial to commemorate the Harkis Massacres.
Among the directives that arise from the Harki descendants’ narratives is the desire for French Auxiliaries to be recognized as an integral part of French history.
Block Quote Sources:
*Anonymous Second-Generation Harki, as cited in (Sims 2016: 93) ; **Vincent Crapanzo, as cited in (Crapanzo 2011: 48).
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