French 'pieds noirs' cling to their roots in Algeria

27th October 2004, Comments 0 comments

BLIDA, Algeria, Oct 27 (AFP) - At the height of Islamic extremist violence and government repression that began tearing this nation apart a dozen years ago, Chantal Lefevre decided to settle in the land from which her family along with hundreds of thousands of other "pieds noirs" were driven into exile after the 1954-62 Algerian war of independence.

BLIDA, Algeria, Oct 27 (AFP) - At the height of Islamic extremist violence and government repression that began tearing this nation apart a dozen years ago, Chantal Lefevre decided to settle in the land from which her family along with hundreds of thousands of other "pieds noirs" were driven into exile after the 1954-62 Algerian war of independence.

She is one of a small number of French citizens - along with a few who never left - who live and work in the land of their birth.

In 1994, she took over the management of a family-owned printing works in this garden city some 50 kilometres (30 miles) by highway from the capital Algiers, defying the risks confronting a foreign woman in a region where armed Islamic groups were then sowing death and terror.

Lefevre, who was born in 1945, went with her family to Madrid after Algeria won independence from France in July 1962 and began rebuilding her life.

But during a tourist visit to a desert oasis in 1987, curiosity took her to the Algiers district where she had grown up.

Responding to the emotional pull of home, she began coming back on vacations to stay with her cousin, Henri Lombard, who had never left the country.

Little by little, she said, "she rediscovered her country", and the idea of coming back to live began to germinate.

At the height of fighting provoked when the military-backed authorities in 1992 cancelled elections that a now-banned Islamic party was set to win, Lefevre took the decision to settle here for good.

She lodged in an apartment above the Mauguin printing shop founded by her great-grandfather, and took over the management of the plant, which employs 70 workers, when her cousin died.

"It was not easy, but it was deeply interesting," she said.

Two years ago, her brother Francois, intrigued by her experience, moved from Paris to Blida to set up a publishing business.

"Algeria has always had an important place in our family," he said.

Other pieds noirs - the name given to the French colonists in Algeria - preferred to remain in the land of their birth after independence, including Bernard Gassio, 68, who lives in the eastern city of Annaba.

He divorced his wife, a Frenchwoman who joined the exodus, "and won my own independence," he said.

Gassio later married an Algerian woman, with whom he had three children, and settled in the town where his family became established in the 1860s.

"Algeria is my country," he said. "I was born here and I will stay here until the end of my days.

"I never felt like a foreigner, and I am proud of the fact that my children today speak fluent Arabic," he said.

Sabri Melo, whose French father remained in Algeria until his death four years ago, said he had never considered himself as the son of a pied noir, but as a child of his country.

"Most pied noirs left, but my father decided to stay and marry a woman from Annaba out of love of the country," he said.

With a gradual lessening of the violence that is estimated to have cost 150,000 lives since 1992, an increasing number of French citizens are coming back to visit their old family haunts - some 4,000 in the first six months of this year, compared with 2,000 during the whole of last year.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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