Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?

With French president Emmanuel Macron set to announce 'reparations' for the Harkis on Monday, we look at what this term means and why it is still politically sensitive nearly 60 years after the Algerian war ended.

Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?
Harki veterans pictured at Les Invalides in 2018. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP

The word Harki refers to Muslim Algerians who fought on the side of France during the Algerian war of independence.

Up to 200,000 Harkis – the name comes from the Arabic word for movement – fought for the French colonial power during the bloody war from 1954 to 1962 with Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN).

After a peace accord granting Algerian independence was signed on March 18th, 1962, only around 42,000 Harkis were allowed to go to France, some bringing their wives and children.

The French government initially refused to recognise their right to stay.

In all up to 90,000 men, women and children fled. The rest remained in Algeria, where many were massacred.

Harki activists in France who tried to prosecute  Algeria in 2001 for crimes against humanity, claimed 150,000 were killed.

Those lucky enough to get to France were held for years in squalid internment camps.

Fight for recognition

Despised as traitors in Algeria, in France the Harkis were an inconvenient reminder of the country’s painful defeat.

The seven-year war of independence in Algeria saw nationalists rise up against and eventually defeat their French colonial rulers. There were atrocities on both sides and the conflict left at least 400,000 dead.

Around half a million Harkis and their descendants live in France today, among them Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, whose grandfather Moussa was a Harki.

Many veterans and their families have fought a decades-long struggle, including hunger strikes and demonstrations, for official recognition of what happened to those left behind in Algeria.

Their integration into France has been difficult as they are considered immigrants but are rejected by other immigrants.

In 2000 then Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika compared them with Nazi collaborators during a visit to Paris.

While criticising the conditions under which they were housed in France, he ruled out their return to Algeria.


In September 2001 France held its first ever national day to honour to the Harkis.

After right-wing politicians rallied to their cause – often at election time – but with little concrete results, in September 2016 Socialist president François Hollande formally admitted that France “abandoned” the Harkis.

“I recognise the responsibility of French governments in abandoning the Harkis, the massacres of those who remained in Algeria and the inhuman conditions for those transferred to camps in France,” Hollande said.

Two years later a €40-million aid package was created for them and their families.

The same year the country’s highest court ordered the state to pay compensation to the son of a Harki for damage to his health in the camps.

Macron in 2020 tasked historian Benjamin Stora with assessing how France has dealt with its colonial legacy in Algeria.

The report, submitted in January, made a series of recommendations including owning up to the murder of a prominent Algerian independence figure and creating a “memory and truth commission”.

Before the end of his mandate he is expected to attend ceremonies marking the anniversaries of two key events still weighing on French-Algerian relations: the brutal repression of a demonstration of Algerians on October 17th, 1961, by Paris police who beat protesters to death or drowned them in the river Seine, and the signing of the Evian accords on March 18th, 1962, which ended the war of independence.

Member comments

  1. Important steps on what will be a very long journey of recovery. France, like all post colonial powers, has to be willing to face up to its past if it is to ever find peace and a platform from which to address the issues of discrimination and inequality within its society.

    Taking an official line of ‘colour blindness’ was a spectacular cop out and closed down just about every avenue through which racism and discriminatory acts could be reported, recognised and dealt with.

  2. My friend who was a Colonel in Algeria, he will never forgive or forget what the Algerians and the ALNF did. Evidently he had a Harkis officer working for him and they became great friends. One day the officer didn’t turn up for duty so he went to his home where upon he found his fiends body with his throat slit, his wife had been raped and posed on the bed with their four children, all their throats had been slit.
    He hates all Algerians, as do the men that served under him and will never forgive or forget. Who can blame him.

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OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

It's another hot summer in France and there's another predictable uproar over the Burkini. If France wants to take its place in a multicultural world then it must make room for all its citizens, writes civil liberties expert Rim-Sarah Alouane.

OPINION: If France is to belong in a multicultural world it must accept its Muslim women

France’s compulsive obsession with the behaviour and dress of its Muslim citizens has taken on worrying proportions, and has turned over the years into a form of mass hysteria. The “burkini affair” is one of many examples.

The burkini is a two-piece full body swimsuit with sleeves, long legs and a headgear. This type of swimming-suit made of Lycra® leaves the face, feet and hands uncovered. It was invented in 2003 by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti, who wanted to develop sporting attire for Muslim women that would allow them to take part in sports activities while accommodating their religious beliefs. While the burkini was first designed for Muslim women, it has also been adopted by many non-Muslim women who wish to cover their bodies for various reasons.

The controversy escalated in 2016, when the French Council of State – France’s highest administrative court – overturned a series of local initiatives to ban the use of burkinis on public beaches. These bans were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Muslim sentiment by local officials who argued that such attire disturbed the public order. The Council saw no such disturbance and argued that it was an infringement on constitutionally protected civil liberties. This, however, did not end the controversy.

READ ALSO: Why is France’s interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

In response, the political establishment from across the political spectrum tried to find legal loopholes to circumvent the ruling, turning their attention to municipal swimming pools where they could modify the rules governing public services.

A recent controversy involved the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who authorized the wearing of the burkini (as well as topless swimsuits) in municipal swimming pools, triggering an avalanche of criticism. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Mr Piolle of entertaining “communitarian provocation” and that authorizing the wearing of the burkini in public swimming pools was contrary to France’s values. Once again, French Muslim women found themselves stigmatised and targeted.

They were accused of being a conduit for Islamist extremism, separatism, patriarchy, and violating the principle of laïcité. This discourse, like so much before it, happened without inviting Muslim women themselves to be a part of the conversation.

Modern interpretations of Laïcité – France’s unique way of managing church-state relations – have become an ideological tool for political identity, a factor of division, and the exclusion of French Muslims from the societies in which they live. How did we get here?

The meaning of the term “laïcité” has become obscured by the fact that its interpretations are diverse and sometimes contradictory.

Its current usage betrays the very liberal intention of the 1905 law on “Separation of Church and State”, the ruling which forms the foundation of the principle. 

Laïcité once defined the territories in which the State is sovereign and religious belief is left at the door. It generates obligations for the state to remain neutral and guarantee the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of its citizens, within the limits of public order.

A significant misinterpretation of the 1905 law persists to this day. The law does not require religious belief or visible signs thereof to be kept in the home. However, politicians and pundits on a daily basis cite the law in their efforts to erase any religious visibility (especially Islam) in the public square.

Any attempt to show visible attributes of faith outside the home are deemed to be a threat to a commonly-held belief that France’s citizens should conform to an imaginary notion of what it means to be French. This very illiberal interpretation of laïcité and religious neutrality goes against the essence of the Law of 1905.

As France continues to mature as a country made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, vulnerable communities have begun to advocate for their rights to be treated as equals with their fellow French citizens without giving up their personal beliefs and customs.

Critics of the clothing choices of Muslim women have forgotten the fundamental freedoms of the Declaration of  the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, often seeking to free Muslim women from their religion. Even when Muslim women dare to defend their basic rights, they are often accused of being radicalised.

A good Muslim woman is a quiet invisible woman. The irony is that many Muslim women who wear their burkinis to swimming pools or wear headscarves during sports competitions actually go against rigorous interpretations of Islam. In order to justify burkini bans, politicians or commentators will often point to Muslim-majority countries who have similar prohibitions, as if authoritarian states were a role model for France to follow.

Muslim women are perceived as a threat because they shake France’s status quo. The illusion of France being a colour-blind nation has been broken. If France really believes that multicultural communities threaten the character of the country, it must not believe that its culture – one that the entire world looks up to – is actually that strong.

But if France is to take its place in a multicultural world, it needs to come to terms with how vulnerable communities fit within the notion of French identity and make room for all its citizens.

Rim-Sarah Alouane is a doctoral candidate and a researcher in comparative law at the University Toulouse Capitole in France. Her research focuses on civil liberties, constitutional law, and human rights in Europe and North America. She tweets @rimsarah