Harkis were indigenous Muslim soldiers in Algeria who, organized into units called harkas, served in the French army during the colonial period in Algeria (1830-1962). By extension, all Algerians who favored to some degree the French presence in Algeria—as opposed to the movements for independence whose supporters called for total withdrawal—came to be called harkis.
According to a 1962 report presented to the United Nations by Christian de Saint-Salvy, the general controller of the French army, 230,000 indigenous Algerians were engaged on the French side during the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), including 60,000 active-duty soldiers; 153,000 civilian employees; and 50,000 Francophile public servants. The Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de liberation nationale, or FLN) called them all harkis. The word thus became a pejorative term signifying submission to the colonial power and symmetrical betrayal of the aspiration of nationalist Algerians.
The harkis and their families added up to about one million indigenous Muslim Algerians (of a total population of eight million) sympathetic to France. From the point of view of the independence movements, all these people were guilty of collaboration with the colonial oppressor, hence of treason to the fatherland. At a deeper, cultural level, they were accused of treason to their Algerian identity as they colluded with a European power to impose a Western model on Algeria. This view was reinforced by the French state’s attempt to count Algeria as a French province (department), rather than a colony. Both of these interpretations made the harkis subject to the scorn of the FLN and other Algerian nationalist forces.
In spite of their loyalty to France, the Accords of Evian, signed by French president Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) on March 19, 1962, which put an end to the war and recognized the independence of Algeria, left the harkis and their families at the mercy of the FLN. As French armed forces left Algeria and the pieds noirs (literally, “black feet,” a term used to refer to French citizens who had settled in Algeria) were evacuated, the harkis were disarmed and abandoned.
Although the Accords of Evian paid lip service to national reconciliation and amnesty, the retribution was swift and cruel. A low estimate puts the number of harkis massacred in the immediate aftermath of Algerian independence at tens of thousands. Harkis associations cite much higher figures. The charges of treason brought against them often combined with accusations of violence committed on behalf of France against their fellow Algerians. Harkis were therefore despised and executed both as political offenders (i.e., traitors to the country and to Algerian national identity as defined by the FLN) and as bloodthirsty criminals.
This massive collective punishment was typically executed without trials and without any right to defense. It is therefore difficult to determine if and to what extent the harkis committed crimes. The widespread view of most survivors is that harkis became the victims of revenge killings and also of political settling of scores. The killings were particularly gruesome. Eyewitnesses and official documents catalog a long list of refined forms of torture. The extreme suffering and humiliations had the pedagogical purpose of convincing the majority of Algerians of the evils of collaboration with the French and of the usefulness of pledging full allegiance to the new authorities.
Harkis Soldiers in Paris. Soldiers of the special Harkis regiment from Algiers march past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees on July 14, 1957, during the annual Bastille Day parade in Paris.
Some harkis managed to escape Algeria and enter France, where they encountered a chilling welcome. More often than not they were arrested and returned to Algeria to face torture, imprisonment, and death. Many individual French officers tried to help their former allies. In doing so, they disobeyed the orders of the high command, which considered such actions as infractions of the military code, carrying various punishments. A note from the minister of the French army, Louis Joxe (1901-1991), dated May 12, 1962, threatened further sanctions against French military personnel engaged in helping the flight of harkis towards France, and decreed that all harkis caught on French territory would be returned to Algeria.
By the end of 1962, however, 20,000 harkis had been processed in special transit camps which served to facilitate their integration into French society. These camps were organized in former military bases such as Larzac, Bourg Lastic, and Rivesaltes. 3,200 harkis joined the regular French army. Eventually, 91,000 harkis and their families were permitted to relocate to France. This did not, however, mean that they had been given the opportunity to start new lives. Most harkis spent many years in camps akin to ghettos, during which time their children were not allowed to attend local schools. They were educated in special camp schools, which further perpetuated the stigma of their harkis identity and made their integration into French society even more difficult. Algerian legislation still bars the harkis from visiting their homeland.
Caught between the deadly revenge of fellow Algerians and the sudden abandonment of the French authorities, the harkis who managed to settle in France have long been the object of contempt from all sides. Algerian official discourse continues to present them as criminal collaborators, while anticolonial opinion in France depicts them as traitors to the aspirations of their own people. Until recently, the official position of the French government was assiduous indifference, sometimes combined with the exasperation of having to deal
LAW OF FEBRUARY 23, 2005
The law of February 23, 2005, is a declaration of the gratitude of the French state for the service of the harkis in Algeria, up to the independence of Algeria (1962). In addition to official recognition of past service to France, the law establishes monetary compensation to the tune of 2,800 euros a year or a lump sum of 30,000 euros. The law also guarantees protection against insults and defamation and other efforts to deny the tragedy of the harkis, although it stops short of admitting the responsibility of the French state.
The law has been the subject of heated debate among historians, especially because the pieds noirs (former French colonists in Algeria) were included among the categories of individuals entitled to both recognition and compensation. But the most sustained criticism was provoked by article 4, which calls on history programs and textbooks to give more space to the history of the French presence in Northern Africa, and also recommends that such programs and textbooks underline the ”positive role” of the French presence in that part of the world. Furthermore, the law recommends that the sacrifices of North Africans who fought in the French army be taught in schools. In response to the law of February 23, 2005, an open letter signed by dozens of historians was sent to the French parliament, deploring both the tendency to embellish France’s colonial past and the attempt of the government to control the teaching of history. A great debate followed in the press over the various ways the colonial period is remembered, over the interface between memory and history, and over the lack of consensus on the way in which this particular facet of French history should be addressed. with an embarrassing relic from the past at a time when French authorities were looking for a fresh start in the country’s relation with former colonies.
Since the end of the Algerian war harkis organizations in France have fought an uphill battle to restore the honor of these former French allies. The second generation of harkis has especially worked for recognition of and respect for the service the harkis performed for France. Much effort has gone towards exposing the opportunistic abandonment of the harkis by the French state, a betrayal akin to criminal neglect, considering that French authorities were fully aware of the fate awaiting their hitherto allies. A number of community associations keep alive the memory of the tragedy of the harkis, and they work towards rehabilitation of the community, both in Algeria and in France.
While the harkis are still outcast in Algeria, in France a number of books have gradually made the public aware of the plight of the harkis, as well as the way the French state treated this segment of the Algerian population. These efforts at rehabilitation culminated with a law passed on February 23, 2005, by the French Parliament. The law expresses France’s gratitude towards the harkis and establishes monetary compensation for the sons and daughters of former French allies in Algeria in the form of an allocation de reconnaissance (gratitude grant) of 2,800 euros per year or a lump sum of 30,000 euros. The law also guarantees protection against insults and defamation and other efforts of denying the tragedy of the harkis, although the law stops short of admitting the responsibility of the French state in this tragedy.