Pied-noirs breathe life back into Algerian tourism

Marketplace Staff Aug 1, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Europe pretty much goes on vacation this time of year. In France they call it the Grand Depart, the big summer exodus. Millions take advantage of those generous vacation benefits they get over there. Lately, tens of thousands of French citizens have been heading to Algeria instead of Nice or Provence. Most of them left the north African country in 1962, when Algeria won its independence from France. They’re called pied-noirs — “black feet.” And they’re breathing some life into Algeria’s struggling tourist industry. John Laurenson went along with one group.

JOHN LAURENSON: A hundred and thirty “pied-noirs” fasten their seatbelts for a package holiday to the past, to a time when they were young and Algeria was French.

WOMAN [interpreter]: This is the first time I’ve been in an airplane since we left Algeria in 1961, just before independence. I’ve wanted to make this trip for so long! I dream of Algeria all the time.

MAN [interpreter]: Ever since we left Algeria I’ve been living like a hydroponic plant — out of the soil. What I’m hoping for on this trip — it’s a lot I know but — what I’m hoping is that I’ll be able to find my roots again and start living my life anew.

Till recently, few dared make this trip. People were worried about the Islamist insurgents. Now security has improved and 30,000 have made the journey. It’s still only a fraction of the 1 million settlers who fled Algeria for France, but Air Algeria says pied-noirs already account for 35 percent of their business between France and its former colony.

On buses taking us through Bijaya, a town where almost half the population used to be French, Brigitte points to the old cinema, Robert to the church where he used to play the organ. (It’s since become amosque.)

A band welcomes them to their hotel, which, frankly, is run down. French tourists have a bit of a reputation for complaining. But colonial tourists, it seems, are different. Because, when you think about it, what’s worse? Broken toilets and cockroaches the size of your hand? Or the feeling that everything in this country you no longer govern works irreproachably well?

The mayor, in any case, is inviting everyone to a grand Couscous Royal. Algeria’s tourist industry lags way behind those of its neighbours Morocco and Tunisia. The pied-noirs are an opportunity to catch up.

The mayor says he’s enchanted to meet his former townspeople. They’re very welcome and he hopes they’ll return often. Yes, it’s true the Algerian president recently described French colonization as “cultural genocide” and, of course, he agrees with what his president says. “But not in a nasty way,” he adds witha winning smile, “in a nice way.”

In the streets of Bijaya, in any case, people seem genuinely pleased to see their colonial visitors.I’ve come with Anne-Marie and her husband to look for the apartment where she grew up and which her family abandoned when they left. Along the way, people greet them with “bienvenue” (welcome), even “bienvenue chez vous” (welcome home).

We’re going up the stairs to Anne-Marie’s old apartment.

Barely a word of explanation and everybody’s kissing everybody on the cheeks. As if we were expected.Perhaps they’ve read about these trips in the paper.

Inside we’re given drinks and cakes and the mistress of the house shows Anne-Marie around. Even much of the furniture is the same as when she lived here. The parents’ bed. The mirror.

The man of the house says it’s time to turn the page. With some 3 million people of Algerian origin now living in France, the two countries are still economically intertwined. It’s too early, perhaps, for some politicians to make peace with the past, but already Algeria can do business with it.

In Bijaya, Algeria, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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