What is the history of the Harkis people, and what issues do they face today?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Harkis people have a unique history since they did not originate as an ethnic tribal or family group but rather as a political group during the French-Algerian War for Independence, which was fought from 1954 to 1962 and which escalated a point of crisis between 1954 and 1958. The word harki derives from an Arabic adjective meaning "war party," that is, a collaborator with the enemy, and is especially relevant to soldiers. During the Algerian War, Harkis (plural of harki) were Muslim Algerians who were loyal to colonial France and who consequently fought in the French army as Auxiliaries against the National Liberation Front (FLN) comprised of Algerians fighting for independence from the French who had colonized, dominated, impoverished Algeria and Algerians beginning in the early 1800s. When Algeria won independence in 1962, the position of the Harkis was a dangerous one because they were viewed as worse than traitors who deserved extreme punishment for their betrayal of the Algerian people. As a consequence, as many Harkis as could illegally find a way fled to France. The number of Harkis and their descendents living in France as of 2012 is 800,000. The Harkis who stayed behind in Algeria--of those who survived their rejection and punishment--now represent a distinct French Muslim ethnocultural group also called Harkis.

The history of the Algerian War Harkis begins with the 1954 bid for independence that began in Algeria and was headed by the National Liberation Front. A decolonization war, it was characterized by resistance groups, guerrilla fighting, counter-terrorism and torture (practiced by both sides). The Harkis, Muslim Algerians joined with the French for a variety of reasons:

  • revenge against the FLN for killing civilians
  • opportunity for regular pay for an impoverished indigenous people (French immigrants of the early and late 1800s seized Algerian farm land leaving the indigenous Algerian population destitute)
  • loyalty to the French or to a French army officer, which assumes a preexisting connection to the French army
  • being perceived as traitors because of preexisting French army service (colonial armies often sought to incorporate the colonized peoples in their armies so as to have a pro-colonizers core in their military, such as the British did in India with the Sepoy)
  • positioning to side with the likely victor (though France was ultimately then defeated)
  • obedience to their village bachaga (chief)
  • because of Francophile sentiments (love of the French)

Harkis soldiers were employed in in both guerrilla style units and conventionally formed military units. They served in either all-Algerian troops or in mixed troops, each being under the leadership of a French officer, who might often have been the impetus for the motivation for an Algerian Muslim to become a Harkis. In addition to serving in these forms of combat units, Harkis also served in intelligence gathering units or ran covert "black flag" or pseudo-operations that are intended to deceive by attribution of actions to groups other than the one performing the action; these operations were run in support of intelligence collection.

The crisis of 1958 during which French forces in the Algerian based corps launched a parachute attack against the French island of Corsica in what was called "Operation Corse." Their purpose was to demonstrate quite clearly to the French government--which had undergone twenty-six changes in eighteen years of instability--that they should not abandon colonial control of Algeria. The next phase of the air coup was to land paratroopers in the heart of Paris under "Operation Resurrection," which would seize Paris and remove the sitting government, the Fourth Republic. Since General Charles de Gualle was called out of retirement to head the French government, Operation Resurrection was postponed, then cancelled. After de Gaulle organized a referendum vote in 1961 to indicate French support for Algerian independence, he began plans for a withdrawal of French troops, an plan that instigated assassination attempts and military coup attempts from the pro-French colonial factions and military, with whom the Harkis were affiliated. The Organisation de l'armée secrète (OAS), made up of French military officers (some with Harkis followers) committed to a colonized French Algeria, carried out terrorist bombings, murders and attempts to sabotage the plans for homeland independence in Algeria.

After the war, a guarantee was given from France and Algeria as part of the March 1962 cease fire, the Accords d'Evian, that neither Harkis nor Algerian-born French nationals (Pieds-Noirs) would suffer reprisals, no retaliation or punishment for their nationality, for their war participation, or for their pro-France political preferences. Nonetheless, it is estimated that anywhere between 30,000 and 150,000 Harkis were executed by the FLN or suffered torture and lynching by angry mobs of anti-French Algerians. Still, thanks to the illegal efforts of French army officers (orders were given by de Gaulle to prevent Harkis from seeking French refuge as the Pieds-Noirs had done.

Those Harkis and their families who did manage to get to France were put in one of two kinds of resettlement camps. One was the hameaux forestiers, which was abandoned military barracks in deep forest areas. The other was ghettos called cités urbaines where families could assimilate into mainstream French society, gain education and access job opportunities. A 1962 regulation allowed Harkis in France to declare French citizenship. Today, the children and grandchildren of those who played the role of harki (collaborator with the French) are accepted as mainstream French citizens. The original generation of Harkis--which is a title not an ethnic or cultural designation--feel the French government needs to acknowledge its abandonment of hundreds of thousands of loyal Algerian colonial indigents and make peace with the remaining Harkis and their families. Along with a French national day of honor for the Harkis being established in 2003, Lionel Jospin's government passed a law requiring the payment of a small pension to all former colonial peoples who had served in French military forces, legally closing the issue of reparation to the Harkis.

Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing French National Front, embraces Harkis as Arabs who were and are loyal to France, while old Harkis still look for apologies from France for de Gaulle's abandonment of them. They protested for the first time publicly in 1975, and their protests culminated in 2001 a lawsuit against the French government for crimes against humanity. In 2002, President Jacques Chirac gave tribute to the Harkis in a national ceremony during which the names of those Harkis who fought and died were commemorated. Though the French government has subsidized Harkis education, employment and housing, many academics and Harkis and Harkis descendents feel these measures have marginalized and ethnicized a non-ethnic generational group consequently having an adverse effect on the descendents' French acculturation.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Harkis occupy a unique position in French history.  The history of the Harki people emerges about half a century ago when Algeria sought independence from their French Colonial controller.  The Harkis were the group of Algerians who sided with France and fought as auxiliary soldiers in the French army against their native Algerians.  They were groups of Algerians that sided with the French.  There were different reasons for the Harkis siding with France and against the Algerian people.  Some simply preferred the French, while others believed that loyalty compelled them to side with the Colonial parent nation.  The Harkis were not a nationality themselves, but defined through their own allegiance to France.  

Such a condition made the Harkis fundamentally different from Algerians who openly fought against the French.  As a result of French removal, the Harkis faced a challenging predicament.  Staying in newly- freed Algeria meant instant retribution for their actions. The Harkis that remained behind experienced savage treatment:   "Hundreds died when put to work clearing the minefields along the Morice Line, or were shot out of hand. Others were tortured atrociously; army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut to pieces and their flesh fed to dogs. Many were put to death with their entire families, including young children."  At the same time, the French government did not make provisions for welcoming the Harkis into France and acknowledging their enormous sacrifices.  President De Gaulle did not validate the experiences and harrowing condition of the Harkis.  There was active inertia to the Harkis entering into France.  This was overcome, to an extent, with the forced movement of the Harkis into resettlement/ internment camps followed by social integration in economically challenging communities.

It is here in which the modern challenging condition of the Harkis exists.  While the children of those who were Harkis do not necessarily bear the same stain as the older generation, social integration problems still persist.  The Harkis find themselves experiencing some of the same challenges that many people of color experience in France.  In an environment where the fear of foreigners and resentment towards integration is evident, the Harkis struggle to find economic and social opportunity and advancement.  Historically, the Harkis' narrative is being understood in a bit more detail.  French leaders Chirac and Sarkozy have both recognized that French history does owe a bit of gratitude to the Harkis.  The social challenges of the Harkis are compounded by this historical challenge:

The second kind of settlement was to place the Harki families in suburban ghettos, cités urbaines, the kinds of slums you see in the news where riots today periodically break out. Here, their children could go to schools, and assimilate into the mainstream culture. But opportunities were limited, and they were haunted by their ethnicity, religious and national origins.

The sword that stabs the Harkis is a modern one and a historical one, helping to enhance their tragically challenging predicament.