Sixty years after French colonial rule ended in Algeria, the idea of decolonization has gained new traction among French anti-racist activists seeking to dismantle the colonial vestiges that still buttress the Republic, from statues and monuments to legal and penitentiary regimes.

The official campaign posters of French presidential candidates Jean Lassalle of the Resistance party, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally and Eric Zemmour of the far-right Reconquest party (with his slogan “So that France remains France”), March 28, 2022. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

But decolonization has also become a buzzword in the arsenal of nativist right-wing groups who have recast it as the right to ethnonational self-determination. In this perverse upending of the very meaning of decolonization, to decolonize France is to rid the nation of the immigrants who are “colonizing” it. Paradoxically, the most vocal advocates of decolonization today are not formerly colonized subjects, but the nativist guardians of the borders of France against the purported invasion of immigrants. This view of immigrants as foreigners or strangers (étrangers) is not the preserve of the xenophobic right alone. The image of the “immigrant as guest”—unwanted or welcome, depending on one’s political persuasions—is ubiquitous across the political spectrum. And the label sticks. The children and grandchildren of colonized subjects recruited to rebuild France after World War II continue to be dubbed issus de l’immigration (of immigrant descent) as if migration were a hereditary condition. Immigrants in France have become foreigners, and their French-born children are still seen as strangers to the country. Nativist discourses have managed to delink migration from its colonial roots.

Scholars in settler colonial and Indigenous studies have developed important tools to analyze and critique former settler colonies (such as Algeria, South Africa and Rhodesia) and ongoing settler colonial projects (Israel, the United States and the British Commonwealth countries). These frameworks fail, however, to account for the recuperation of decolonization within anti-immigrant discourses in the former metropoles of Europe. To understand the transformation of immigrants into foreigners, it is necessary to first understand the development of settler-colonial paradigms in the “settler postcolony” of France. Indeed, the history of anti-immigrant nativism hews closely to the “invention of decolonization” in France.[1]

Unlike the United States, France itself is not a settler colony. But France was once the proud metropole of a settler colony, Algeria. Although decolonization was meant to ensure that after 1962 Algeria and France were two separate and sovereign nation states, the reality is messier. President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged as much when he invited the historian Benjamin Stora—a French Algerian Jew born in Constantine—to produce a report on the “wars of memory” that continue to play out in and between both countries.[2] That it took 60 years for France to initiate such an effort is a testament to the lasting effects of colonial and postcolonial violence, both physical and epistemic. Naming France a settler postcolony acknowledges the central role that the history and memory of French Algeria continue to play in French politics, culture and society. The term also points to the colonial genealogy of anti-immigrant nativism in postcolonial France.


Toward a Colonial Genealogy of Nativism


The nativist recuperation of decolonization has been decades in the making. Writing in the wake of the Algerian War of Independence, New Right theorist Alain de Benoist invoked nineteenth-century racial supremacist Arthur de Gobineau (author of The Inequality of Human Races) to advocate for “mutual respect and reciprocal decolonization.”[3] The subtext of Benoist’s call for the so-called decolonization of France is clear: we (French settlers) left Algeria, now you (immigrants) leave France. Indeed, the French experience in Algeria played an outsized role in the emergence of nativist discourses in the 1970s. These discourses track closely with the fraught history of decolonization, including the Algerian state’s nationalization of oil production in 1971 and its suspension of emigration in 1973 in response to a sharp uptick in racist crimes targeting Algerians. In the face of increasingly unapologetic calls for remigration—the proposed deportation of immigrants to their countries of origin—it is more urgent than ever to identify the permutations of settler-colonial discourse in the postcolonial metropole.

The case of France is singular, but it is also exemplary. The recent transformations of nativist discourse in the United States, which likewise seeks to delink migration from centuries of US imperial entanglements in the Global South, point in a similar direction. As scholars of comparative colonial studies have shown, settler colonialism has always been a “transcolonial” process involving multiple imperial interests.[4] The settlement of the United States, for example, served as an explicit model, and sometimes foil, for the conquest of Algeria, as did other settler-colonial projects. French parliamentarian Alexis de Tocqueville, fresh from his expedition to gauge the workings of “democracy in America,” warned against replicating what he euphemistically called the “destruction” of the American Indians in France’s first African colony—even as he advocated tactics taken straight from the US playbook, including mass displacement, “forced expropriation,” burning and looting.[5] Other French politicians and settlers were less circumspect about taking on “the role of the pioneers in America, the English in Oceania and Southern Africa” to advocate for all-out “extermination.”[6]

Settler-colonial fantasies of replacing the indigenous populations never materialized in Algeria. The native’s labor proved too useful for the settler. But the fantasy endured in the face of anti-colonial resistance. More than a century after Tocqueville wrote his “Report on Algeria,” anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon ventriloquized the settler’s fear of being replaced: “they [the natives] want to take our place.”[7] The irony of the possessive (“our place”) is inherent to settler colonialism, founded, as Patrick Wolfe and others have shown, as a “project of replacement.”[8] But the project is never complete. In Ranajit Guha’s apt phrase, the settler is “not at home in empire.”[9] This paradox lies at the heart of Fanon’s postmortem on settler colonialism: “Despite the success of pacification, in spite of his appropriation, the settler always remains a foreigner. … The ruling species is first and foremost the one from elsewhere, different from the autochthonous population, ‘the others.’”[10]

Notwithstanding Tocqueville’s fantasy of “taking…the place of the vanquished,” Europeans never formed a statistical majority in Algeria.[11] The project to replace the Indigenous population gave way to what Achille Mbembe calls the “‘indigenization’ of the colonist.”[12] Stranded in enemy territory, the lonesome settler had to legitimate his presence through conquest, settlement and agriculture (etymologically, linked to colonization). The settler became Algerian (until 1962, the settlers, not the colonized, were called “Algerians”), and Algeria became France (l’Algérie, c’est la France). The natives (indigènes), for their part, were subjects but not citizens of France, governed by a separate penal code, the infamous “Code de l’indigénat.”

The re-indigenization of settlers into France—many of whom were born in Algeria and had never set foot in the metropole—and the sudden transformation of colonial migrants into immigrant nationals of newly sovereign nation states also opened a new chapter in the story of French nativism.

In Algeria, the process of indigenizing French settlers—what colonial advocates dubbed the “implantation” of settlers in Africa—took more than a century. France invaded the city of Algiers in 1830 and set about the slow and arduous process of military conquest, culminating in the annexation of the Ottoman province in 1834 and the administrative “departmentalization” of the territory in 1848. Equally slow and arduous, settlement soon followed, with the aim of creating a new France in Africa. By 1862, when colonial apologist and convert to Islam Ismayl Urbain published his essay French Algeria, Natives and Immigrants, French, Spanish, Italian and Maltese settlers numbered 200,000 across Algiers, Oran and Constantine, referred to as the three “centers of European colonization.”[13] Those the French called indigènes (Muslim and Jewish Arabs and Berbers/Amazighs) were at least twice as numerous with 400,000 urban dwellers and countless more living in the countryside, despite the policies of extermination adopted during the conquest. By the time Algeria achieved independence from France a century later, the balance was one settler for nine indigènes. The repatriation to France of close to 1 million settlers in 1962 (and Algerian Jews, who had acquired full French nationality by decree in 1870) was the first chapter in the messy story of decolonization unfolding across the new border separating France and Algeria. The re-indigenization of settlers into France—many of whom were born in Algeria and had never set foot in the metropole—and the sudden transformation of colonial migrants (including indigènes from Algeria and France’s other colonies) into immigrant nationals of newly sovereign nation states also opened a new chapter in the story of French nativism. Paradoxically, one of the consequences of decolonization was the transformation of settlers into natives of France and indigènes into immigrants.[14]


Indigènes Into Immigrants


Of course, not all nativists are former settlers. But it is not a coincidence that many think tanks, parties and organizations that have advanced a nativist agenda in postcolonial France originated in the battle to keep Algeria French. Benoist, co-founder in 1968 of the principal think tank of the New Right, the Group for the Research and Study of European Civilization (GRECE), was an ardent supporter of the Secret Armed Organization (OAS), which carried out terrorist attacks against Algerians and French partisans of Algeria’s right to self-determination. He was also an outspoken advocate for apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia. Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founder of the National Front (FN) in 1972, was a veteran of the Algerian War and an apologist for the French army’s systematic use of torture during the war. Eric Zemmour, the son of Jewish Algerian migrants to France, has become the most ardent apologist for the “reconquest” of France. The Algerian war continues to inform nativist and anti-immigrant discourses in France decades after decolonization. Several nativist right figureheads have explicitly invoked the example of the Algerian War of Independence in their plea for remigration, including Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of the Saints (1973), and Renaud Camus, creator of the so-called “Great Replacement” theory, which suggests that immigrants from the Global South are replacing European (read: white) people. Raspail and Camus are nostalgic for an era when ethnic cleansing was acceptable collateral damage in the pursuit of a just war of decolonization.[15] Today, the argument goes, France should have the right to deport the immigrants settling France.

Decades in the making, French nativism has taken on a pioneering role in the “Eurocolonial” war against immigration. France’s former settler colony, Algeria, is one of the unacknowledged anchors of this trans-settler-colonial imaginary.

In their wistful account of a deportation that can no longer be, Raspail and Camus gloss over the fact that the mass repatriation of settlers and Algerian Jews was an unexpected and unwelcome development for both parties to the Evian Accords that ended the Algerian War of Independence. Nonetheless, their arguments have gained traction in France and beyond. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine Le Pen, who recently stepped down from her role as leader of the newly rebranded National Rally (RN) to run for president for the second time, is not afraid to tout Raspail’s unapologetically racist dystopia of the submersion of Europe by immigrants as required reading. Steve Bannon, an aficionado of Western movies narrating the conquest of the American West, is also a fan of Raspail’s novel. As is Renaud Camus, of course, whose Great Replacement theory has inspired real-world disciples, from the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville to Brenton Tarrant’s mass shooting rampage in Christ Church, New Zealand. That these disciples invoke Camus’s Great Replacement fantasy to protest immigration in a settler-colonial context—the United States, Australia and New Zealand—is not surprising. Anti-immigrant nativism has roots in anti-native racism. Decades in the making, French nativism has taken on a pioneering role in the “Eurocolonial” war against immigration.[16] France’s former settler colony, Algeria, is one of the unacknowledged anchors of this trans-settler-colonial imaginary.


A Transcolonial Approach to Settler Colonial Studies


Can it be a coincidence that the migrant hordes that wash up on the shores of France in Raspail’s novel are Indian? Raspail originally planned to make his migrant invaders North African but settled for migrants from the subcontinent to signal his “refusal to enter the sham debate on racism and anti-racism in France” (unsuccessfully: it is impossible to read his novel as anything but a racist screed). But his second choice for the figure of the migrant unwittingly reveals the colonial genealogies of anti-immigrant discourses in postcolonial France. is still the most common designation for Indigenous Americans in French. It is, in this sense, a cognate for indigène or native, the term Europeans used to “define and rule” the populations they conquered.[17] In Raspail’s novel, “Indian” is also a metaphor for the colonized. No surprise, then, that one of the politicians involved in managing the migrant crisis in the novel half-jokingly proposes placing the migrant ships under the protection of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). “It’s hardly a new idea,” he says. “Remember Palestine?”[18]

To think of France as a settler postcolony is to acknowledge the messy history of decolonization as an unfinished project. It also places France on the map of the settler-colonial projects that continue to structure our purportedly postcolonial present.
One of the solutions proposed by the French during the protracted negotiations leading to the 1962 Evian Accords was the “Israelization of Algeria.” Under this plan, independent Algeria would be partitioned into three territories: one fully sovereign, another for settlers and Algerians who wished to remain French and a third, the Sahara, a neutral territory designed to protect France’s oil fields and nuclear testing sites. If the nineteenth-century conquistadores of Algeria looked to the United States for a model of conquest and settlement, the politicians in charge of decolonization saw Israel as a model for a continued settler-colonial future in the twentieth century. That this partition project never materialized does not disprove Léopold Lambert’s thesis about the “colonial continuum” that blurs the overly neat timelines of colonization and decolonization. It also shows that settler colonialism has always been a transcolonial venture.

To think of France as a settler postcolony is to acknowledge the messy history of decolonization as an unfinished project. It also places France on the map of the settler-colonial projects that continue to structure our purportedly postcolonial present. Most importantly, calling France a settler postcolony offers one way to track the colonial genealogy of nativist discourses and the colonial production of the migrant crisis. The figure of the migrant-as-guest is a legacy of decolonization, then as now. If migrants continue to wash up on the shores of Eurocolonial nations, it is because they constitute the “detritus of ‘settled’ nations.”[19] In the words of migrant activists, we are here (in France) because you were there (in the colonies).[20]


[Olivia C. Harrison is associate professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.]





[1] Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[2] I borrow the expression “wars of memory” from Pascal Blanchard and Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, eds., Les guerres de mémoires. La France et son histoire: Enjeux politiques, controverses historiques, stratégies médiatiques (Paris: La Découverte, 2008). All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[3] Alain de Benoist, Vu de droite: Anthologie Critique des Idées Contemporaines (Paris: Labyrinthe, 2001 [1978]) p. 263. Italics in the original.

[4] Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, Minor Transnationalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (London: Penguin, 2003) p. 376. Alexis de Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery, trans. Jennifer Pitts (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) p. 89.

[6] Eugène Bodichon, Etudes sur l’Algérie et l’Afrique (Algiers: Eugène Bodichon, 1847) p. 150. Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser, exterminer: Sur la guerre et l’état colonial (Paris: Fayard, 2005), p. 18.

[7] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004) p. 5.

[8] Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (London: Verso, 2016) p. 33.

[9] Ranajit Guha, “Not at Home in Empire,” Critical Inquiry 23/3 (1997).

[10] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, p. 5. Translation modified.

[11] Tocqueville, Writings on Empire and Slavery, p. 19. Translation modified.

[12] Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017) p. 57.

[13] Ismayl Urbain, L’Algérie française, indigènes et immigrants (Paris: Séguier, 2002 [1862]) p. 59–60.

[14] I borrow this formulation from Emmanuelle Comtat, who analyzes “the persistence of settler colonial culture following the end of colonisation and the removal of the settler population” in her sociological study of pied-noir communities (repatriated settlers) in postcolonial France. Comtat, “Indigènes to Immigrant workers: Pied-Noir Perceptions of Algerians and People of Algerian Origin in Postcolonial France,” Settler Colonial Studies 8/2 (2018) p. 263.

[15] Jean Raspail, Le camp des saints (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2001 [1973]). Renaud Camus, 2017 dernière chance avant le Grand Remplacement. Changer de peuple ou changer de politique? (Paris: La Maison d’Edition, 2017).

[16] Wolfe, Traces of History.

[17] Mahmoud Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[18] Jean Raspail, The Camp of the Saints (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975) p. 63. “Remember Palestine?” is added in the translation. Raspail apparently felt the reference would be transparent for a French audience. I’m grateful to Mehammed Mack for drawing my attention to this passage.

[19] Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003) p. 15.

[20] Houria Bouteldja, “Si nous sommes ici c’est que vous étiez là-bas…,” Montray Kréyol, July 16, 2018.


How to cite this article:

Olivia C. Harrison "France, a Settler Postcolony?," Middle East Report 302 (Spring 2022).

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