Interview for the Ecomusée du Val de Bièvres
Exposition Pieds noirs ici, la tête ailleurs Date : 9 June 2011
Interviewer: Juliette Spire
Inventory number : 2011.3
JS : Monsieur Charles Jabinet, 9th June 2011. So we'll talk about your journey because you weren’t born in Algeria, but could you talk a little bit about your first contact with Algeria and your relationship with Algeria? CJ : Talking about my first contact with Algeria will be difficult because I was just a baby when I got there, I didn’t have …
JS : Ah, so you arrived when you were still very, very young … CJ : Just a baby.
JS : Ah ! Just a baby. CJ : I must have maybe been, not even two years old.
JS : Okay, so it was which part of Algeria ? CJ : In Oran.
JS : Okay, why did your family move to Algeria? CJ : Oh, my mother was a single mother and she was offered work in Algeria, in the restaurant industry. She was young and adventure called. That’s how my grandmother, my brother and me moved to Algeria.
JS : Okay. Where did she come from in France ? CJ : Paris.
JS : Okay. And so it was, if you were born in 1932, that was 1934 ? CJ : 1934-35, yes.
JS : Okay. Could you tell me about the early part ? So, obviously, that might be a bit much, but in the sense of what it was like over there in Oran, how you lived, in which communities …? CJ : From what point ?
JS : I don’t know, when you were a kid, at school. CJ : We stayed at home until the age of 6, and from 6 years old we went to … we call them ‘garderies’ [nursery] now, over there it wasn’t ‘garderies’, we called it the ‘asile’ [asylum]. So when parents needed to do something, they put us in the ‘asile’. But in Oran we didn’t called them the ‘asile’, it was called the little ‘zile’. But a ‘zile’ was a kind of nursery. But my first contact was preschool, of course, and then primary school.
JS : So were you with other ‘pieds-noirs’ in the primary school, was it all mixed, what was it like ? CJ : In primary school there was a bit of a mix. Eh, not a lot, because the area was in the majority, but there were a few Muslims, a few Jews. But it wasn’t a problem, it didn’t cause any problems between the kids, we got on fine. Good memories, carefreeness of childhood, near the sea, we went out a lot because we weren’t far from the woods, in the Saint Eugène area where we lived, the countryside was just a kilometre away.
JS : So how were you housed? CJ : We rented a villa. At first when we arrived, we were in a first villa but as we had … because we were living with an uncle as well, an adoptive uncle, and we stayed with him at first when we arrived, and then … it was small. It was very nice, very pretty, but small. We … My grandmother found a villa et we moved in. So, we each had our own room. The kids, to have a room, you can’t imagine the …
JS : Grandmother, that means that the whole family left for Oran ? CJ : My mother’s mother, yes.
JS : She left with her? CJ : With her, yes. She was the one who brought us up since my mother worked. My mother played the father and my grandmother the mother. And then, well, it was the war, the public school struggled to find staff, teachers, all that. Because everyone was leaving for the war, eh … My mother put us in a Catholic school through a priest, a colleague, Notre Dame de France, where we … I was in ‘cours moyen’, from CM1 through to ‘la troisième’ [Year 5 to 10/Primary 5 to 4th Year]. My brother left in ‘la sixième’ [Year 7/Primary 7], he stopped his studies, he wanted to be a pastry chef. And after that, when he was working, he left for Algiers to go to hotel management school and become a chef. And when he got his qualification – I don’t know if we called it CAP at the time [vocational qualification] – he left, he worked in Algiers for some time, and then he left for France to spend a season in Deauville. And then he said “I’m not coming back”, “I’m staying in France”. It’s true that it was a lot easier to find work in France than in Algeria. In Algeria, work …
JS : And so what did you do after the ‘troisième’ [at school] ? CJ : Yes, I got work in a mechanical modelling workshop. Mechanical modelling is wooden mechanics to make moulds for a forge. And I did that until I was 22 years old, but in the meantime, I completed my military service in the national marines.
JS : What year did you complete your military service ? CJ : In ’54, my mother met a wonderful man, for whom my brother and I had a great deal of respect, to whom she marries. And since he worked here around Paris – he worked at Trefi Métaux – my mother went to move over there, and then she came to get my grandmother. I stayed on my own with the old adoptive uncle. And then as I had met my wife in the meantime, I was looking for a new job because mechanical modelling was very difficult. France’s industry had returned, everything which was made in house became extremely expensive compared to what was made in France. Of course, in France, there are way to make things which didn’t exist in Algeria. So, the work became extremely expensive … so I was looking to do something else.
I sat many different entry exams. The first, I started as an assistant accountant for the maritime works in Mers-el-Kébir. I worked there for a few months, I sat the entry exams for customs. I sat the entry exams for the Moroccan police. I sat exams … and the exam that I didn’t expect was the one for the Parisian police. But that was a complete mistake on my part, because I didn’t know that, in Paris, when you start working in the Police, it’s for your whole career. At the time. Afterwards, the law in 1966 allowed people to change, to swap jobs. So I arrived like that in Paris in 1955-1956, I moved to Paris having promised my wife that I would come back and get married. If not, if she had said no, I was going to stay in Algeria and not work for the police in Paris. And she said, listen, I need to think about it. I’m not saying no to marriage. We’ll just have to think about it if we’re going to leave Algeria – considering the events at the time, already in 1956. We got married in 1956, we decided to move here. So, of course, I want to talk to you about school, middle school, work, the sports clubs, relationships with friends in my neighbourhood, the hopes that they had, our contacts with Arabs and Jews …
JS : What was the mix like between Europeans, Catholic or Jewish, and Muslims ? CJ : The town of Oran had a population of 360,000 : 300,000 Europeans, 60,000 Muslims. It’s in the books, right ! I count the Jews among the European. As for the Jews in Oran, a lot of them were eastern, Sephardic. I have documents where, at the time, the eastern Jews used to dress like Arabs, with the signs that belonged to them. But they lived like us. After the pacification of Algeria happened in 1830, the Jews became European. They had no problem. Well, among kids there were these little fights in the neighbourhood. With the Arabs as well. But afterwards we would meet up again, through sport. At school, there weren’t any problems, in secular school, there weren’t any problem, none. Rivalries were unthinkable. No, no, we lived like that.
Next door to me there was an Arab, Bouziane. He was single, an old Arab. We got on very well. The kids were always around him, making a racket and he was very kind … This old uncle that I mentioned was a taxi boss, he had a driver – because the taxis went around 24 hours a day – who was an Arab, Baroudé. I was working in the factory, I worked with several Arabs, they were the ones who drove the cars … No, there was no problem. There were a lot in the restaurant business as well. No, it’s … until … even at the start of the insurrection in November 1954 – I’m talking about Oran – in Oran, we didn’t feel that there was a rivalry. Our lives carried on.
Me, I left at the end of 1955, the start of 1956. Things started to change a bit. Well, I can’t tell you about it as a witness which went on over there. But there was Elyane’ family who would tell us some things. We got the gist. But I can’t tell you that I experienced it directly. From 1956, we went back in 1959, we went back over there to spend two months on holiday. And then, well, we noticed some things, but we didn’t experience anything extraordinary. It’s not true, there was a relative calm. We would listen to the radio, read the news, but there was nothing …
JS : Even during your holiday, there was nothing … CJ : No, no, we went around as usual …
JS : You didn’t feel a strange atmosphere ? CJ : Had to be careful. Had to be careful. For me, I remember cycling around and at night I went through some deserted places, there was no problem.
JS : There was no curfew ? CJ : Oh no, for me I didn’t experience the curfew.
JS : Maybe that was afterwards. CJ : Afterwards. The curfew is particularly around the time of the OAS, they were …
JS : Yes, it’s later on actually. And so, was it mixed amongst your relationships, your friends ? It was Europeans, Jews ? CJ : No, I can’t say that from the point of view of my friends that I had close friends who were Muslims. We had relationships, we sometimes went to marriages, baptisms, circumcisions … although circumcisions is Jewish, and for them it’s … I can’t remember what it’s called. I’m losing my memory as well. Relationships with the Jews were a little bit closer. But there weren’t any big family reunions … each religion had its big gathering. But if not, from the point of view of friendships, they were all quote-unquote ‘Christian’, the Jews kept to themselves, the Muslims kept to themselves. But there were relationships. We went to the marriages, as I’ve said, Bar Mitzvas, some … well, on New Year’s Eve, ‘choura’ [Shura], Eid. Eid, that was a party, everyone was in their finery, they invited us, they invited us to ‘méchoui’ [Maghrebi roast], yes. But you couldn’t say that there was an intimacy … and then, always with respect … well, it’s true that the women guests and the men did not eat together, the men ate and the women guests ate with the women. Well, you had to respect that, and for some Sephardic Jews, it was the same. But it was all in good faith. It didn’t cause a problem. That’s why, today, we are people like … people like us and like a lot of ‘pieds-noirs’ are a bit surprised to see the form that it takes today of … this violence, of pointing the finger at Mr so-and-so, he is that, he is this … that surprises us a bit. I mean, personally, it surprises me.
JS : Obviously you speak French, but Arabic ? CJ : In Oran, we spoke French and Spanish.
JS : Oh Spanish, also ? CJ : Even more Spanish than French. Well, in my family, we spoke French. A lot of people spoke French as well, but at work we spoke Spanish. There were lots of Spanish in Oran, after all, it was a Spanish town. Arabic was barely spoken. Had to go out into the bled [countryside]. On the other hand, there was Elyane’s brother who spoke Arabic fluently. Why, because he lived with them to put it simply. So people would ask : your brothers speak Arabic ? And several dialects … and you, why don’t you speak it ? But the women didn’t go out ! The girls stayed at home. Even the Christians. It was out of the question for a girl to go out in the street. After, when they grew up, went to work, well, but the girls didn’t go out. And then, when you went out walking with a woman, watch out, we would walk with girls, but people would say : look, they’re going to get engaged those two ! To have a friend, two friends [who are girls], to discuss the Esther Williams film – I mention Esther Williams because it was an actress that I liked a lot – it was out of the question, it was like that.
JS : How did you meet Elyane ? CJ : So Elyane, I met her – there was my best friend, who was a witness at our marriage, who was hanging out with her sister, Paulette, who died two years ago now, in October. He hung around with her. And one day, he wanted to go out to a dance at a party in the neighbourhood. But girls didn’t go out at night. So, as Elyane was of age, he said: “Well, ask your sister to come with you, and then your parents, if your sister is with you, well then, there’s no problem”. But the sister had to find a companion. So, he asked me. Elyane is two and half years older than me. So, I went out with them, and we saw each other as friends, birthday parties, all that. My friend didn’t carry on with Paulette, the younger sister, but I, as friends, met up with her. Then it happened, little by little. We knew each other for five years before we got married. That is to say, we had time to think about it! But at the start, it was just as friends, there wasn’t … It was rather us coming to France and the fact that I was going to leave Algeria which meant that I knew that I was going to leave a life, people I loved, that I was going to leave this girl eventually, for whom I no doubt had feelings. And then, this raised the question of confidence for me. Well, that’s how I got to know Elyane, through a friend. And then, I knew her by sight, she would go through the neighbourhood on her way to work. She was a seamstress, an artisan. I knew her by sight but the idea never came to me that, this girl, I was going to track her down. First, she was two and a half years older than me, then she had … which intimidated me a little. You see, she had more personality. We’ve been married for 55 years. [Laughter]
JS : And so Elyane’s family which has older ‘pied-noir’ roots, is that what drew you … CJ : Oh, Elyane’s family is extraordinary. For me who had a restrained family, my grandmother, my mother – in Elyane’s family, I found brothers, I found uncles, I found aunts. Everything that I had never known, they gave it to me. In many different ways, each in their own way, but it was an extraordinary family. They were people of the land, in Algeria, Elyane’s father worked in Algerian agriculture, I have documents about this, I can show you. After, he father was a saddler by trade. And in her family, on her mother’s side, they were very simple people. If I tell you that the mother … the woman who brought Elyane into the word died when she was 2 years old. And the father-in-law remarried some time afterwards to a woman who had lost her husband to tuberculosis. So the father-in-law married her, and he gave her three children : Elyane’s older sister, who lived in Sarlat, Elyane, and the younger brother, who had died since and spoke Arabic … and who, during the events in Algeria was a ‘harka’ leader [Algerian soldiers who fought in the French army during the Algerian War of Independence]. I have a very nice photo of him with his ‘harka’, him all dressed as a ‘ranger’, it’s … well and so Elyane’s family brought me a lot. Elyane’s sister, for me, is someone I respect because she had 7 children plus a niece to bring up, she’s a very sweet person. Now, well, she’s very elderly, she doesn’t want to anymore, she’s given up a bit. On her uncles’ side, there were some wonderful people. There were one which had a well-drilling business. A real character, he was North African champion of pétanque, another who worked … anyway, they were all jobs which were close to the land. It was people …
JS : And so they all left ? CJ : With independence, they all left. They were in the region around Bel Abbès and so … with independence came fear. On the other hand, Elynae had a cousin who I thought of like a sister, in Montpellier, the cousin has died. They were headteachers at a school, a public school, wonderful people. They were the members of Elyane’s family that I like the best. They helped us a lot. Because they could afford it while we couldn’t, being a lot younger than they were. And those people were an example to me and gave me a of ideas, especially on how to keep hold of friendships, you see. He had established … he had set up a training college, in Algeria, and since his arrival in France, each year, he had went back for an annual meeting with his former students of the training college. And that gave me an idea, I did the same things with my colleagues. And each year – it’s the case next Saturday – we meet up at a place in France and we see each other all together. Raphaël, this cousin, he had a feeling for friendships and … selfless, people supported him so much that he gave back all that he had in terms of feelings. He really was wonderful. And so the food well … a small character, but someone who was wonderful. Well, she’s also elderly now, she’s nearly 90 years old now.
JS : So how did you experience the beginnings and then the rest of the conflict ? So you were already in France, Elyane as well. Did you go back together at the start of 1956, how did that happen, and how did you experience it both of you ? CJ : It kicked off in 1954 so we didn’t experience the start. As I said, Oran didn’t … You have to tell the truth, there was nothing. We continued to live normally, with each our normal relationships. We thought that it was a small … at the beginning, I mean, between ourselves we said, oh it’s just a little conflict around Constantine, you see. Well, there were two or three things but it’s like that here, when there were attacks, direct action, a bomb exploded somewhere, there was a murder at another place. That wasn’t why there was a revolution in Paris, no. Well, over there, it was the same thing. “Look, there was an attack, they blew up a shop somewhere”, “Oh really?”. For us, it was just an item of news.
But when I moved to, when we moved to Paris, for me in the Police, we started to have problems in Paris. Because the FLN people were more present in Paris, eventually, than in Algeria. They had set up a ‘qatiba’ in Paris and so there started to be murders of police officers … I lived through independence … I mean the fight for Algerian independence in Paris, with all that that entails and, I won’t hide it, a lot of fear. Well, it happened, we felt like we were losing something. Have to say it. We were losing something. Then, time went on.
JS : You said, you were losing something … CJ : Well, we were losing the country were we had lived, we were losing the place where we had buried our dead, where we had our memories, we were losing … we left our belongings behind … belongings, some possessions … we weren’t rich, have to tell you the truth.
JS : But you left to work in Paris. CJ : Exactly. But I arrived in Paris with one suitcase in my right hand, another in my left, and a backpack. And my toolbox which didn’t come the train liner. That’s all I had when I arrived. And when Elyane came with me and we went back, she also had two suitcases, and me two others. No furniture, nothing. Her sewing machine came by liner. It was the only thing we brought back with us, the sewing machine. And then, we began like, we started in a ground floor studio, with light all day, Rue Monge in Paris. That’s where I met a wonderful man, who is known at the Ecomusée, Monsieur Grandin, who … he invited us to learn more about the ‘castors de la Peupleraie’ [Housing blocks in Fresnes]. That’s how we came to the ‘peupleraie’ in Fresnes.
JS : When was the last time you went to Algeria before the ... CJ : The last time we went in total freedom was in 1959. No, I should really say it was 1957. It was the last time that we went as visitors, tourists, or to see family. It was mostly to see family. But afterwards, I went back for work, to escort FLN people that we were taking back to Algeria, to Constantine, to Algiers, you see, I went back there.
JS : Can you talk to me about that ? CJ : Uh, it was normal escort of people who we took back to the place for which they were fighting, you know. They were fighting for independence, the Evian agreements were being outlined, but France pre-empted it. She [France] said: those people, it they take … That’s why a lot of people thought that independence would not be possible. But from 1959, that became - the end of 1959 - that become a reality. General de Gaulle had given his speech, self-determination, and we felt … especially in the police, that a reversal was taking place. So all the fighting Algerians who were in Paris, we had to take them away bit by bit. But we took them away under escort, that was the kind of escort. There were no problem. There was a lot of tension, but it didn’t create any problems in particular, to say …
JS : And how did you feel to return under those conditions? CJ : It was a little hard for me, but … when I said to them … because I spoke with them, they were handcuffed in the plane, they were handcuffed, “Do you think that you will be able to get by like that, all of sudden independent”, “Even if we don’t eat, we will be free men”. There you go, they were slogans. Go and repeat the same slogan, it will be another matter. There you go, that’s it. I struggled to … first of all, you have to be honest, which is that I worked with people, some had children in Algeria. Some had children who died in Algeria as young soldiers. I couldn’t, faced with people I liked, I couldn’t tell them: they’re over there for France, they’re over there so that Algeria remains French. They didn’t care about Algeria, to be honest, they didn’t care. Their sons fought, they wrote letters saying: I am a pawn, we’ve been here for 2 weeks and we refuel helicopters, we have to hold such and such road, have to watch out for this. There were some who received a message : “Your son has died for France”. Deep down I respected it a bit. But it was all the harder, because I had this shared feeling, among colleague I liked, the feeling that Algeria would no longer be French, we felt it. But anyway, with time, afterwards, we said to ourselves: it was inevitable. But a lot of people say now, if you speak with other pieds-noirs, they say: we should have done it differently. We should have created, like they did in South Africa. You see, the South Africans, they said to the 4 million whites: don’t leave. Without you, we … the country will not eat. And in Algeria, we should have done the same thing, tried to create an osmosis where the Europeans continued to work, but by teaching future generations to take on responsibilities in law, in architecture, in everything to do with social life. No, we left everyone behind, it was a monumental mistake, because they still haven’t gotten out of it. Apart from the big oil companies, gas, all that, who have a huge amount of money, who have managed to move in.
But, three years ago we went back. I can show you the port of Oran, which was a big port which was heaving, it was Gare Saint Lazare at rush hour, the port of Oran was like that. You don’t have a single boat in the port now. But you can’t criticise, they made their choice, you can’t … on the other hand, we were welcomed like kings. The families … we even went back to our respective houses, very, very … the one who lived in our house was an architect. So he asks me: which one was your room? I say, it was that one. And your brother’s room? Well, it was there. So he says, it’s the same room. Yes, but you knocked down the partition! Oh yes, you’re right, he says. My brother’s room and my room, they knocked down the partition, they made a bedroom out of it … it was marvellous! Well hangings, divans, carpets, it was a wonder, we never lived like that! [He laughs]
JS : And so you arrived in metropolitan France, what was it like? The fact that you came from Oran etc. Did you experience anything? I’ll ask Elyane the same question and she might have had a different experience. CJ : It happened. I was already in a group of trainees in the police academy. There were two Muslims. And … they were welcomed very well. There were no problems. For me, it … there were two of us pieds-noirs. It didn’t cause any problems. The guys would chat. Some were recalled, they hadn’t done what they needed to do, they left. For me, when I got my papers to leave as a commando unit to Nemours [in Algeria], the Nemours marine commando, I went to my group leader and I say: but I came here and I’m not going back, when I go back they’ll say to me, uh … well he say to me: go see Mr so and so, there was a military office at the Police prefecture. I say “there was” because this was all in the past. Uh … I went to see, there was an old sergeant [ brigadier chef]: go back to your classes young man, I’ll take care of it. I never heard about it again … I never went back. I stayed here while others left, where called up.
JS : Did you know any pieds-noirs who had gone back? CJ : No, not ‘pieds-noirs’, people who were called up from our class. No, pieds-noirs who went back, no, I didn’t know any.
JS : Because it’s quite odd after all. CJ : No, because they had just moved there, there were some who already felt that things were going to change. And then you know, I’ll say this, even because the events in Algeria, there were a lot of pieds-noirs who moved to France in the hopes of promotion, to have opportunities to move up in life. People moved, they worked for a living. If you were a joiner, you were a joiner for your whole life. You had no chance of becoming a supervisor, you had no change of becoming … Moving, it wasn’t possible because some people couldn’t afford it, you know when I was a young apprentice, working on Saturdays, the boss would pay for everyone’s aperitifs [l’apéro]. So we had aperitifs, we went to his brother’s café, and had anisette. I would drink one of then, and then I said: well I have sports training. I always used that as an excuse because I didn’t want to drink three, four anisettes … uh well, there were these workers who said: Charles, would you mind taking this envelope and giving it to my wife? Because they were paid weekly. And there would be at least two who would ask me to do that. The wife waited for the envelop to arrive Saturday at midday to be able to pay for … to do the shopping. Life was hard and they were people with trade which took a long time to learn, it’s a creative trade. Mechanical modelling, it’s a creative job.
JS : And the business was run by a European, a Muslim? CJ : No, no, a European. Monsieur Dautès. A man who … subsequently, I found out that he was a strange man who … who wheeled and dealed a bit. He bought a brasserie with a club, well … since he earned a lot of money … but it was closer to prostitution. Anyway! It wasn’t that which worried me. But no, he was a European. And we worked in a very large factory with 400 employees, the Cros foundry, which are now Algerian foundries. We made models and sometimes we went into steel, cast iron, bronze, because there were corrections to make, well. That was the work, eh. If we’re going into detail … [Laughter]
JS : So you moved directly to Paris, rue Monge … CJ : Rue Monge, yes, my mother moved to the 20th arrondissement, but she had a small two roomed apartment with her husband and my grandmother! We couldn’t move in there … So we found, it was an old concierge room. Initially, it was an old stable, because in Paris you have a lot of buildings where, when you go into the courtyard, there’s a stable. Because at the time, there was horse-drawn transport. So, this stable had been turned into a concierge room, and then one day the building was sold as a co-ownership, they wanted a caretaker. They didn’t want a concierge, they wanted a caretaker. And they took us on as caretakers, we didn’t have any other responsibilities other than to keep an eye on the stairs, so they were cleaned you know. So, we hired specialist stair cleaners and all that, we made sure it was well done and all that. We were payed peanuts because it wasn’t really a job. Even the postman put all the post in the boxes, there were post boxes. Well, that was it. We stayed there until 1958, then December 1st, 1958 we moved to Fresnes. In the meantime, I found the Castors [building] here, … they you have it … we’ve stayed loyal to Fresnes because we’re people who are faithful to where they live. [Laughter]
JS : That has something to do with your past, perhaps! CJ : Absolutely! Well, now, in retirement, we wanted to enjoy the calmer side of life, we moved to Sarlat in the Dordogne … we like that as well! But Elyane does not want to leave Fresnes. She has too many memories in Fresnes, she met people who … she has connections with Monsieur Villette, Monsieur Bourdin, well … she did a lot of social work in the area, she is still Vice-President of Fresnes Services, uh … Paul Frachon replaced her a President … No, Elyane is really attached to Fresnes! But Elyane is less nostalgic for Algeria than me. Me, I’ve always been a bit nostalgic.
JS : And how do you explain that? CJ : Well because of my personality! That’s all! Even if I can appear a bit, how to put it, hot-headed in conversations where people don’t understand what I mean … I’m sentimental! I’m sentimental! I have a deep respect for people, first of all. I … I don’t let people run amuck, that’s not nice, there I rebel! But I respect people, whoever it is. I get on with everyone, with the poor, the rich … I don’t give up. People, if they get what I’m trying to say, we’ll stick together. Now if … well, there are some people who say nasty things to me, but anyway …
JS : So, we’ll go back to pied-noir identity, do you feel pied-noir or not? CJ : Oh completely!
JS : And what does that mean to you, being ‘pied-noir’?? CJ : Being pied noir ?
JS : First of all, the word, when did you first hear it? CJ : I’ve always heard it.
JS : Even over there ? CJ : Yes, yes, yes. But over there, it was an insult, it was an insult. Afterwards it became a badge of honour. But at the first, when they said ‘pied-noir’ to us, that could lead to a fight. Then, it became, well. But what was your question?
JS : If you feel like a pied-noir and what that means to you, being a pied-noir? CJ : Well, what does it mean to be Alsatian? What does it mean to be Breton? It’s roots! It’s … from little kids you are instilled with a certain way of living, an Alsatian way, a Breton way, you know! Uh well, being pied-noir, it’s that, it’s a mixture of French culture, Spanish culture, a bit Jewish, a bit Arab … That’s being a pied-noir. Food, sport, going out!
JS : So, what is the food, the sport? What is specific about it? CJ : Oh well, we play together! When we got to Paris, I went to look about, because I really like football, despite the fact that I was a basketball player. I went to the parc des Princes [football stadium in Paris] several times with pieds-noirs friends who were in Paris. There were only French metropolitan players! I knew a team where the Oliver brothers played, it was in Sedan, I knew … yes, Ben Barek, a few pieds-noirs who played in … but it was very few! But over there we played together, we went out together! There was school sport as well! School sport, well, we clashed with each other … and then you had teams that were specifically Muslim! So the match was, let’s say, tense. But after we met up, we drank lemonade, because you couldn’t drink alcohol, so lemonade. There you have it, it was like that, you know.
But being pied-noir, it’s a way of life, it’s … I’ll say this, an Alsatian, a Breton, a Basque person, a southerner … each one has their traditions! Well, there were pieds-noirs traditions. I mean however you tell the differences, it would be by different roots … each one has its roots!
JS : Do you still feel pied-noir today ? CJ : Oh yes! But anyway, I had to adapt you know! I learnt slang [Laughter], I learnt … I … words that I would say over there, I use them to say so, you know Well! There are expressions that come back to me, well, when I’m with my family, or … let’s say, over there, in Oran, when something was wrong, we would say “Que leche”. In French, ‘que du lait’ [leche, lait, milk]. So, some times, when we had compassion for someone and you’d say, oh it’s sad to see them like that, we’d say ‘Lastima Quaena’. In France, it means ‘dommage de chêne’ [‘oak shame’]. Dommage de chêne! Well. You can see the expression! Sometimes it comes out like that, it’s …
JS : And so you were say that you would go out with pieds-noirs friends to watch football, so you still have pied-noir friends and you have built a network of people that you see, or …? CJ : No, no. It’s based in the … we see each other from time to time, some of them. Well because there is the distance, some have passed away, well. And then, you have to, I think that it’s also … they have a way of seeing Elyane and I, we have always integrated into whatever environment we live in. People are wonderful! Personally, I’ve always been interest in the young women or young men – but especially the young women – who take off for, let’s say, the Amazon. And who live for months, sometimes years, in the middle of tribes like that! And they say, there’s a way of living, but they’re fin, they share everything with these people! Well, for me, I think it’s wonderful! One goes to other people, they teach you things, and you are enriched in this exceptional way by learning from others! Well, you know, always being in the same group, with the same ideas … Elyane and I, we don’t have the same ideas. In Fresnes, it’s well known, well. We don’t have the same ideas. Does that stop us from living together, from doing things together, from sharing …? She has her way of opening up to others, and I have another way. And that makes up a way of life, at the end of the day. There’s a way of life which is amazing, when we meet pieds-noirs, we’re happy, because, uh … you go back to the past, you remember, positive things! But if it always involves crying, sating ‘Oh do you remember’, like old women who say ‘oh my son, oh my son!’. No, that’s not constructive. That, it’s … it’s not the time for that anymore.
JS : So you haven’t gone, for example, to the pieds-noirs meetings in Fresnes? CJ : Oh, we knew about it, we knew! Well, I can tell you a few names, but anyway, that’s not the point! No, we knew about it, especially in Toit et Joie [housing block where many pieds-noirs were rehomed], in our building, in … no, and besides Fresnes, luckily! But … we did things together, for example the party in Fresnes, you know, we did things with pieds-noirs …
JS : What was the party in Fresnes ? CJ : Well there was Toit et Joie which was, well, we went along as parents of school children! But you see, we did things! We like Toit et Joie a lot, why, because there was … memories of old times, all that, there were wonderful people, you know! But to say that we signed up to associations and all that …
JS : You went to parties at Toit et Joie? CJ : Oh, we went along, as friend, but from a material point of view, if we went to give a hand or whatever, no, it was their business. But we went along as friends! We like it, we knew quite a few people, my son got quite involved, but distance meant that – a niece of a Toit et Joie resident, her niece lived in Toulon. And they met in Spain several time, and my son fell in love with the niece, and the niece of my … well, it didn’t happen because Toulon … You see, beside that goes back … more than thirty years! The daughters of pieds-noirs, moreover … So Michel, he said, we can’t hang out, you can’t come to Fresnes, I cannot go to Toulon because … it’s like that …
JS : On this subject, how many children do you have? CJ : Two !
JS : The two children, do they feel like pieds-noirs? CJ : Not at all! Not at all! They respect our way of thinking, and each time that they can bring us documents or … not at all! They only feel pied-noir through food.
JS : Ah! So you still cook …
CJ: Oh, me, no. But Elyane … Couscous, paella, tajines, well … A lot of Spanish recipes … Because there is a pied noir food! Besides, we have pieds-noirs cookery books. No, no, they only feel like pieds-noirs through food. But I offered to take my son and daughter to the places … we went three years ago … no, no, it doesn’t speak to us. There’s only one that really wants to know about it, my eldest granddaughter. She was interested. Well, we said yes, we will choose. But you have to choose your moment, at that time it was …
JS : A bit difficult… CJ : A bit difficult. It’s a bit difficult.
JS : So can you tell me about the trip back to Algeria that you did? CJ : Yes. It was for our 50th wedding anniversary, uh … people had chipped in some money as a present, so that we could go back to Algeria. So, at the start, I went to several agencies, I didn’t find any that were great. Then, eventually, my brother and I decided to do it ourselves. So, how did I do it, I sent a message to the Bishop of Oran. Because the bishop of Oran now lives in the neighbourhood where we used to live. And it was my old parish. He very kindly got back to me that we could come and he gave us the name of a hotel. And then here in Fresnes, there was a young woman, a Muslim that we knew very well, that Elyane and I liked a lot who said to us, but I have family over there! And they said … they were the ones to welcomes us in the end.
JS : The Muslim family ? CJ : Yes, but they welcomed us. We had said that we wouldn’t stay at theirs you know! We went over for dinner several time, to have dinner, but we wanted to be free. And it was their son, one of their sons, who drove us around in the car, during our stay. And then, we had … people we met in the street, especially old people, they said to us, it’s nice that you came back. Like that, out of nowhere! It’s nice that you came back, this is your home, it’s still your home … But an atmosphere, the people … and the young people who stopped us, well it was paradoxical, the young people stopped us and asked us how you could go to France. Well, we heard extraordinary things. Well welcomed … well, all the purchases that we made, I stuck with tradition and I haggled, because if you don’t haggle, it’s almost an insult … No, very nice! And my brother and I, we found our house which was emotional. And so we went into our house, the garden was gone! In the garden, they had built an extension on the house … We had a garden which was 60m squared. Maybe more. There were vines, hibiscus, geraniums, all that … They had raised it all and had built living quarters. And in the court they built … Because we went into the garden, the house, and there was a courtyard. And in the courtyard, during the war, we raised chickens, rabbits and all that, because there wasn’t meat. And in the courtyard they had built a kind of specialised room, where there was a utility, showers, a workshop for … very nice, very nice! And my brother and I, we went in, we looked around, the mosaics … you know how they do it on the walls, there, a lot of blue! It was the tiling where we had walked barefoot for years and years … Well that, for us that … there was something about that that got to us … so I said, no, this tiling it’s beautiful, it would have been a shame to … The most beautiful thing about the house was the tiling! In our time, I mean. No, very welcome, we say the sites with a lot of emotion, we went up to Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, we spent half a day there. The Algerian police guard the site, and to go inside you have to ask the police chief for a key, who gives it to you and then, as usual, a little ‘bakchich’ [tip], of course. The police is … I wouldn’t say corrupt, but well … there are people who are police officers but who are not … they only have small wages, it’s not well paid … Well, for us maybe that’s how it seems, not well paid, but for them, 18000 dinars … They’re paid 18000 dinars, which is 180 euros. So for them maybe it’s a lot, I don’t know, for us it’s ridiculous. So well, the ‘bakchich’. And pens. Because they like pens.
JS : To go back to the … because actually we haven’t talked about … you were saying that pied-noir, at the start it was an insult. Can you tell me about that, actually, why was it an insult to be pied-noir before the events? CJ : It was an insult because … how to put it … because in our minds, why ‘pied noir’, black feet, it’s a dirty feet, it’s maybe the paws of an animal … there are versions like that, well. Why … when we lived there, sometimes to some Arabs, they’d say, look at the ‘fig trunks’ [troncs de figuiers]. It was an insult! Why did they call them ‘fig trunks’, because they slept at the foot of fig trees, that’s all. And well, when we talked about Jewish people, we didn’t call them ‘Jews’! Judio! Judio! Judio! It means Jewish in a … I don’t know why we used that word, it means Jews but in a … Judio. From the Spanish, a bit. A pied-noir …. Well we were French, you know, but when we spoke about the French from France, they were the Frankaoui! We didn’t talk about ‘metropolitans’, the French of France, were the Frankaoui, there you have it! And the French from France called us pieds-noirs. Because pied-noir was a word that went back to the time when France pacified Algeria in 1830 – pacified, I mean, conquered Algeria – I mean you can use whatever word you want, you know! And there were many Alsatians among the first French colonisers who arrived! And Alsatians, when they – because there were the swamps … they did some amazing work, you have to acknowledge it, in terms of agriculture … when they arrived, they had black boots because they had to splash around in the water, all that, they had black boots so with it came the term pied-noir [black-feet]. And so after that, it became more widespread throughout the general population. But we took it as an insult, that’s all. Because, as I’ve told you, it suggested dirty feet, it suggested … feet in bad shape, and all that that meant, you know. But afterwards it’s become a badge of honour, you know, like the … the French resistance, at one point the resistance was known as the ‘franc-tireurs’ [outlaws, mavericks], guys who were working outside of the law, it became ‘resistance’ after the fact, it was later when they were decorated, there you go! [He laughs] It’s a bit like that! You know, every time there’s a, uh … Have you seen the film, ‘La Cuisine au beurre’? When you see the couple, how they develop, from the black market, by the end he’s in the resistance, uh … well-known, uh … Well, it’s like that, that’s life! You adapt … Personally, I remember in Oran, before the Americans landed in 1942, Algeria was not occupied, the Vichy troops were from the French Army, you know, and there was an Occupation Commission which was a German commission. Which was located in the Grand Hôtel with the Italians. Very discrete people, uh … they kept an eye on what was going on, to see if the French authorities made any … for me, the only contact I had with these people was an Italian diplomat, who was in the commission, who has died. And the time, I was a child in the choir. So there was a big ceremony, everyone was in their outfits, it was the first time that I saw German and Italian outfits! Well, that was the only contact we had.
JS : And so did you hear the term ‘repatriated’? Because, well, you, you weren’t repatriated, since it was voluntary. But did you hear it? What did you think about it? CJ : Well, repatriated, our whole family was repatriated! Repatriated means that … repatriated is a verb which means that you are forced to repatriate yourself! No, people left by the situation couldn’t carry on! Well. In Oran, a few days after independence, there was a lot of killing. And many people had decided to stay behind. Following these killings, well, I can’t give you any figures, the only figure that I remember is 1400 people but no one agrees on these figures. So repatriated is … it’s not voluntary, you are not voluntarily repatriated, they force you, you know! You are repatriated, you are forced to go there! But people left on their own, because there was fear. There was fear.
It’s … I have testimonies from people who told me, we don’t know how we’re here today. But, well, repatriated, of course, the government paid for the journey to France, uh, it’s … the government could use this term since they said, you don’t want to stay so we’ll bring you back! When my sister-in-law arrived, we didn’t travel often at the time, even in 1960-1962. People travelled very little, didn’t have suitcases! My sister-in-law took two double curtains and she made bundles with her sewing machine. She put all she could carry inside the bundles! Why suitcases, we didn’t go on holiday or if we went on holiday one suitcase was enough to carry … we didn’t even have many clothes, because in Algeria you didn’t exactly have to wrap up warm! Summer clothes here, we could use for four, five years, you know, over there, winter clothes, we used for four, five years! Because we used our summer clothes more frequently, from the month of March we went around in … In March, even the start of March, we put on a shirt, some people went about in t-shirts. No, we didn’t travel. So, suitcases, yes we had a suitcase per family, two suitcases, but … bundles, people arrived like that. And then, my brother-in-law put things in a little crate, the crate stayed on a port in the Midi for month and when they brought it to Fresnes, when he opened the crate, everything inside was mouldy. It was sheets, covers, cooking things, everything was mouldy, all of it … he closed it again and said, take it back, I don’t want it.
JS : On this point, what were you actually able to take with you? CJ : Us, personally ?
JS : Yes ? CJ : Nothing, nothing. We brought back some photos, we brought back things like that. But in terms of object, of belonging, Elyane’s sewing machine, as I said, for me, my tool box. We had a ‘phonograph’ which we left behind, to be fair, you know. We were moving to Paris, but we thought all the same that, I would always say, we’ll retire in Bousfer. Bousfer is a fishing port, a seaside resort, a few kilometres from Oran. It’s a lovely spot, I would I say I was going to build a house and we would spend our retirement there. Bousfer, I look at it on the map, but it’s …
JS : Did you go there during your pilgrimage back there ? CJ : No, we went through it but we didn’t stay. We had so many things to see! But I have photos that we took over there that we could show you … I wanted to make a film out of them, I haven’t done it yet, they’re all mixed up. I wanted to sort them out and display each place with some background music, a bit -
JS : Oriental ? CJ : - Islamist, Islamic music, and then Spanish, a bit … but personally, I can’t do all of that, that’s the problem! And my son-in-law has better things to do than to spend hours doing that. But when we went back, we went back to the workshop where I used to work. Well. It’s all photographed anyway. When I went inside, the walls were the same! They hadn’t painted it! Everything … the only thing that had changed, was its layout and the machines, of course, there was only one machine still there from the time that I was there. But all the other machines, the spindles, the planner, the wood lathes, all of that, all of it had changed. And the guy, the workshop boss, I explained all this to him, how it was … he was very surprised. He said to me, I didn’t see things like that! I said to him, you see on those walls, there was big panels, the equipment which was extremely … He says to me, we don’t have all that! They had some lovely machines but the equipment was a bit rudimentary, actually. But they did some nice work. He took me into the workshop, they were in decorate cabinetmaking, Arab, in Arab style, very nice. He said to me, what do you think of all that, I passed my hand over it because … people who work with word are very tactile.
We went out in the farmlands … I told you, my brother went back where he worked as a pastry chef! So, when we went back to this patisserie, we looked for it, it was Rue d’Arzeu, this patisserie. Rue d’Arzeu, in Oran we said it was the Champs Elysées. And he said, she’s in front of the Dames de France, and he said, I don’t know it … Of course, the … they changed many things, it’s nice! All of a sudden, I look up, and I see a big panel, a kind of badge, you know, which … with an arm there, and on the panel was written Patisserie Aton. It’s still a patisserie, patisserie Aton. I said, look! We went in, a women dressed in … I’ll tell you, there’s some wealth over there, you know! And, “I used to work here” …. She called, I think it was her husband. You know what he said to my brother? Welcome home, I don’t need to show you around, you know the house, feel free to have a look around. My brother’s wife, she’s from Normandy. And she had never set foot in Algeria before. He brought his wife, I didn’t want to go with him, I was more interested in the little cakes [He laughs]. And he spent half an hour looking around with his wife, both in the laboratory and when they left, Elyane said, let’s buy a couple of cakes because … he didn’t let us pay! They gave them to us for free. And we went to lots of places like that where they didn’t want us to pay! There was this little guy in the street who was selling a kind of flan, over there we call it ‘Kalentika’. It’s made with chickpea flour. Well, it depends, there are more different ways of making it. And they sell it in slices, like that. They give it to you on a bit of paper and you eat it. It’s a good snack. It’s heavy like it all is, but … And Elyane, oh the Kalentika … So the little Arab, he cut it up like that, and then she said to him, how much for that? Eat, Madame, he said, it’s free! And we felt like the poor guy, he wasn’t rich, you know! He had a plate, he walked around with it and his little knife to cut with. Elyane didn’t want to, she wanted to give him the money, and he didn’t want it. It’s funny that there are things like that … and we went to visit Elyane’s workshop as well. Because we was a craftswoman and had two women who worked for her and two women as apprentices. And now its … I don’t know what they’ve transformed it in to, but, anyway, we recognised the place where it was … it was shut. And in from there was a centre for handicapped children.
JS : So, actually, you came back between 1959 and … CJ : No, not 1959, 1957, I made a mistake! In 1957, and we didn’t come back. Except for me, as I said, for work. But we couldn’t go about as a tourist, we had a specific job to do. But … no, we were enchanted, uh … we had to do it, I’ll tell you, this trip was necessary because when we landed back in Orly, my brother, he said to me, now, Algeria isn’t our home anymore. We understood that it was a different place. And we had to do that. Now, our home is here, you know! But we had this nostalgia for … Well, we still feel nostalgic for, our youth, but uh … they would say to me, well now you have the opportunity to live over there or whatever. I don’t think that … or well, it would have to be some exceptional circumstances … but whatever happens, we are so developed here … that we have a well-being that it would be impossible to have over there, that’s true. Then we see that there are places, they have some beautiful buildings, but you see the stairs, the state they’re in … They make some lovely thing, you have to say it, but they don’t look after them.
And another thing that it happening, all this construction that is being done by the Chinese. So they were appalled when we said you have some nice things, they say, the Chinese bring it, even the mop to clear the worksite is from China. And I admit, that surprised me. We left, while we with them, we worked with him, perhaps badly! Perhaps we didn’t feel some … how to put it … aspirations on their part for progress, to want to … but they had a life, but there, the Chinese are moving in, they get married on site, and no one says a word. No one says a word. That, for me … but on the other hand, some are upset about it. They say: we are capable of it! And do you know why, the Chinese? Because the Chinese pay premium for oil. Since they need a lot of oil, a lot of gas, so to stop others coming and grabbing it - because the Chinese have a huge amount of money. What does it cost them to pay premium? They can pay it! We have to haggle, eh, because … the Chinese have no debt, we have debt. And they’re suffering for it! The fishing boats! The Chinese come with boats the clear out the sea, they … not only in Algeria! Look at other African countries … the local people are upset about it. Well, that’s why when they say, welcome home, come back … we feel that the old people who say that to you, they also remember the … there was a harmony.
JS : So do you think that there’s also a nostalgia on their side ? CJ : Yes! Maybe not nostalgia enough to say, we were French subject, not French, French subjects, but we had … we missed out. But the war, I mean, the Algerian insurrection caused a lot of damage! If the higher-ups had had a bit of intelligence, a bit of consideration or whatever, we could have fought differently! But … the feeling at the time was so intense that maybe now we can say that, but at the time, it was perhaps … not easy to do.
Luckily, there was a great man like de Gaulle who took it on himself to say, we are going to do! Because I think that the war could have carried on even longer … because you had a man like, I presented arms to Mitterand who was Minister of the Interior, in all of Mitterand’s speeches he said, Algeria is France! There’re publications, well. Then you had the … when Guy Mollet arrived in Algiers, they threw tomatoes at him … and he said, Algeria will remain … And people really believed it. If they say it, it becomes a reality, Algeria will remain … But from the beginning, we said to ourselves, no, everyone must have the right to live normally, the right to go to school, right to … what did we do? We built these social centres with treatments, all of that, for the Muslim population. They built the Medersa, the Qur’anic schools. In the end, we didn’t create integration, we created separation! While they should have said, there are only secular primary and high schools, that there are Muslims who attend because they can allow themselves, but … that could have been done! The central commissioner in Oran was a Muslim! The largest optician in Oran was an Arab! So there were people who were capable of having responsibilities! We didn’t know, we didn’t know! And for us, in our youth, we couldn’t analyse all of that because we were carefree! What mattered to us was going to the beach, sport, girls … with all the difficulties that that entailed! [He laughs]