The History of the Pied-Noirs

Pied-Noir, literally meaning “Black-Foot”, was originally a term coined to refer to any white settler born in Africa, later evolving into a slang name for French settlers in Algeria. After the Algerian War of Independence in 1962, which led to Algeria’s independence from France, more than a million French Pied-Noir settlers returned to France.

The origin of the term Pied-Noir is unclear and a subject for debate. Dictionnaires Le Robert states that from 1901 the term Pied-Noir referred to a sailor working in the coal room of a steam ship. For these bare-footed workers, having feet blackened by the coal and soot was an occupational hazard. In the Mediterranean, the coal room worker was more often than not an Algerian, and so the term evolved from being a derogatory term for an Algerian, to being used to refer to a person of French descent born in Algeria. Other popular interpretations include a reference to French officials who were generally dressed in white clothing with black boots; a reference to the black mud which stuck to new settlers feet and legs as they worked to clear swampy ground on the south of Algiers; and referring to vineyard-owning settlers who had grape-stained feet from trampling the grapes to begin the wine making process. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Pied-Noir as “people of French origin living in Algeria during French rule, and to those who returned to Europe after the granting of independence in 1962.” It is generally agreed that this definition is valid.

France maintained colonial rule over Algerian territory for more than a century before the Algerian War of Independence. Following the two World Wars, growing discontent among native Algerians led Algerian nationalists to request equal representation and access to citizenship by means of the Manifesto of the Algerian People. The French authorities responded by granting citizenship to 60,000 Algerians on what they called a “meritorious” basis. In a further reform effort in 1947, the French authorities established a bicameral legislature with one house of parliament for the Pied-Noirs and another for the Algerians. However, the vote of a Pied-Noir was considered to be seven times more valuable than that of a native Algerian. This half-hearted attempt to appease the locals did not go down well and realizing that negotiation with French authorities was going nowhere, paramilitary groups such as the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) were formed. The Algerian War of Independence followed, continuing from 1954 to 1962, resulting in independence for Algeria and the relocation of large numbers of Europeans and Jews, with more than a million Pied-Noirs fleeing to France.

The French government had not expected such a massive exodus from Algeria, and even when faced with this huge number, they anticipated that many would return to Algeria once the dust had settled – which didn’t happen. Upon their arrival in France, many of the Pied-Noirs felt ostracized because it was commonly believed in France that the Pied-Noirs had been the cause of the conflict and political turmoil in Algeria. Returning to Algeria was not a viable option to the Pied-Noirs as they were resented by native Algerians and other settlers. For these reasons, the recent history of the Pied-Noirs presents them as being alienated from both their adopted land and native homeland – a situation which many believe can only be resolved with the passing of time.