Interview for the Ecomusée du Val de Bièvres
Exposition Pieds noirs ici, la tête ailleurs Date : Tuesday 13 September 2011
Interviewer: Alexandre Delarge
Inventory number : 2011.12
Alexandre : So 28th July, Emile Ecoffet, we are going to talk about Toit et Joie, but can we just begin – since it’s the subject of the exhibition – with your life story, your family life with regards to Algeria. Where do your family come from ? Emile : Well, my roots in Algeria go very, very far back since my first ancestor in Algeria was with Napoléon 3 and he was the [telegraph] line supervisor. I don’t know if ‘lines’ existed at that time maybe it was semaphores because there weren’t lines at the time. So it was decided by Napoléon 3 who decided, so we were there from that point, around ’42-43, 1842-43. And then, successive generations all worked in the PTT [Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones], since it had been my ancestor who had been assigned as such, as I said, he’d been drawn from the lot of military service.
Alexandre : Oh yes, at that time - Emile : He was drawn at random from his commune in Haute Saône
Alexandre : Not pot luck Emile : No, not pot luck, but she was drawn, he purchased it.
Alexandre : Oh he bought it Emile : He bought it his friends’ draw at the time
Alexandre : Oh to go in their place Emile : To go in their place because there wasn’t any work, he was a labourer, a farmer, over there when there wasn’t any work.
Alexandre : The one who was in charge of the [telegraph] lines? Emile : That’s right, under the thumb of the army at the time! It was the army controlled everything. And then, at some point, I’m not sure when, he took a concession, it was one of his descendants who had to take the concession. Because the army gave, controlled the allocation of territory, the gave out the concessions. But it didn’t work because you needed the funds to get started etc. … And then, still, he become a postal worker. It was called being a ‘box postman’ [ facteur boitier ], meaning that he picked up the [post]boxes, you know, in the little hamlets. He had a small office, but he did his rounds and then it was a dynasty of postmen until me.
Alexandre : That’s amazing, how many generations between you and the first one? Emile : Oh well, listen you’d have to count you know.
Alexandre : A bunch Emile : hm?
Alexandre : A bunch and all postmen? Emile : Yes, a bunch of them. My father was a head postman, a postal agent ‘courrier-convoyeur’, his father ended up as a receiver-distributor receveur-distributeur, that’s what it was called. So all these generations of postmen, from Napoleon 3, but in strange circumstances because he had been picked randomly.
Alexandre : And so they’re all carriers of the family name ? And on the mother’s side? Emile : Well there’s an interesting mix since, I’ll go from my father’s generation because I know it, before that it gets more difficult, I’ve made, if you like, an outline of the family, you see.
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : Every time that I found a date of birth or of death, I made a record of it. So, we can go back to my father. My father was a postman, he went on the postal service train, you see, and he delivered the post at each station. So he spent a large part of his life going round on the Algerian railway, that’s what is was called. He did that for a few years, he’d leave with his wicker basket, did Oran, the Moroccan border, Oran, Colombe-Béchar in the south, you see. I remember my father as always having a backet to hand, you know! And he’d leave with the basket.
Alexandre : Where he carried the mail ? Emile : No, it was to carry his food.
Alexandre : Food, oh I see. Emile : It was a wicker basket with a hinge like that.
Alexandre : Yes, I know the kind you mean Emile : and when he used to go on his trips across the country, he would sleep at the end of the road to take the last train all the while distributing the post to the towns – well, really they were villages because there weren’t any towns just occasional villages.
Alexandre : yeah Emile : And my dad met his wife in Algiers because he was doing an internship in Algiers. She had an Italian backgtound, so my mother’s side were Italian immigrants, from Ischia, a little island off the boot of Italy. And her father was a joiner-cabinet maker who worked in construction in Algiers, he made frames etc. So, that was all at the very end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, so around 1900 if you like.
Alexandre : And why did he come, to work? Emile : He didn’t have any work in Italy, there were no jobs in his line of work. So they made their roots [in Algeria], naturalised [as French]. My maternal grandfather whom I never knew, had had two sons who were French national. He was killed in the war of ‘14, you see, their stock was reduced.
Alexandre : That generation was reduced by half! Emile : Exactly, on my father’s side are from the Haute-Garonne, by Saint Gaudens.
Alexandre : So, the Ecoffets Emile : It was, the first ones are from the Haute Saône, like I said just now, the first ones enlisted if you like. And the second was created by my grandfather’s marriage, which was in Saint Gaudens, the Haute Garonne la Valentine, it was a little hamlet, a little village. And that branch of the family went out to Algeria, the guy who was a farm labourer.
Alexandre : So that was the maternal grandfather? Emile : The paternal grandfather, the maternal side is from Italy.
Alexandre : So they were the Ecoffets Emile : Ecoffet was a farm worker and the landowner for which he worked, was assigned a plot of land in Algeria, to clear out a plot of land, if you like. But he didn’t want to do the work, so he said to this great-grandfather ‘Could you go take on this plot?’. So he took it. He left with two children. And during the first year on this plot the two children died from Malaria. Because the land that they were given were not very healthy so the children died, and so he left this plot of land.
Alexandre : in Algeria ? Emile : huh ?
Alexandre : in Algeria? Emile : Still in Algeria, on this plot of land that the boss, that had been given to him, he had lost his two children in the first year. So he found a job, moved nearer to the coast, and put down roots near Oran in a place called Sainte Léonie, a little village. And so they’re the roots of the Ecoffets. So talking of immigration, on my wife’s side there is a Spanish connection, Spanish origins. And then the mixing gave, in a general sense, in Algeria, a lot of mixing among these populations. There wasn’t a great deal of mixing with the Algerians, you know, it was the Algerians on one side and the Europeans on the other side. But, uh, there were language and cultural barriers, but on the other hand, all these immigrants, uh, you could them Christians, immigrants of Christian origins -
Alexandre : Yes Emile : - it was easier to assimilate with them, if you like, but when you see …
Alexandre : On this point, what are your wife’s Spanish origins? When did they arrive and why? Emile : They arrived at the start of the century, around 1915. Less so on my mother-in-law’s side …
Alexandre : So these are her parents ? Emile : Her parents, yes. And before that, there was a strong connection to the Spanish civil war and all that, but I’m …
Alexandre : It’s not … Emile : But it’s still destitution …
Alexandre : Yes, that’s it Emile : There were no jobs
Alexandre : Yes, it’s economic migration ! Emile : Economic immigration, yes!
Alexandre : Okay, yes, so we were at the mixing of Christian immigrants. Emile : Yes, I think that facilitate this mixing and they married amongst themselves.
Alexandre : And on this subject, because you mention Christians, but there were also a number of Jewish people. Emile : Oh of course, the Jewish diaspora in Morocco, there were a lot of Moroccans who moved to Algeria because it was better off economically. Compared to Morocco, it was under French domination which translated in different French départements, so Morocco was a protectorate, and they had Moroccans laws and Jewish Moroccans, in France, they … under ‘Blum Burletter’ they were naturalised as French.
Alexandre : Crémieux Emile : Crémieux yeah.
Alexandre : That also brought in the Jews in Algeria. Emile : Yes
Alexandre : In ‘46, in 1846 something like that [sic, 1870]Emile : Yes, that’s it. So, if I can just digress briefly. It was quite a large political mistake because the Algerians didn’t have nationality and then they gave nationality to the Jews. That was one of the elements which allowed the rebellion to grow, which is completely understandable. Even de Gaulle, in ’45 after the war, he wanted to compensate the guys who had fought. He wanted to naturalise a number of Algerians. I don’t remember the number of people he settled on, I don’t want to make it up off the top of my head but less than 200,000, less than 100,000, people who satisfied a certain number of -
Alexandre : criteria Emile : several recruitment criteria, there was educational level, engagement in the army, or …
Alexandre : public service ? Emile : Work for the French state. And what put off a lot of people, what prevented that from happening, was that you needed a written letter of recommendation that you had accepted French nationality and for a lot of them, in particular for the elite. Because they had, all the same, an underlying feeling that it would be a blow to the Algerian nation. And so they refused to sign it, forcing de Gaulle to abandon the project in ’45-’46. There was no naturalisation in that way, another mistake. While others had obtained it without asking for it, while they had to ask for it.
Alexandre : And it wasn’t for everyone Emile : They made some political errors …
Alexandre : I would like to ask a question about the terminology, how people, the Christian Europeans, I don’t know how to call them, those immigrants, what would they call themselves? What would they be called when they were in Algeria? Emile : Ah
Alexandre : Amongst themselves ? Emile : Amongst themselves
Alexandre : Amongst yourselves, what would you be called? Emile : Europeans
Alexandre : Europeans ! Emile : Yeah
Alexandre : And what did the – I don’t know - Arabs call them? Emile : The RoumisAlexandre : Yeah Emile : The RoumisAlexandre : And so was the term pied-noir used in Algeria? Emile : No, no, it was very marginal. You’d have to really scratch your head to recall the term, without really understanding why some people were called ‘pied-noir’. We came across one explanation which said that the first French soliders wore boots.
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : So is that true or is it an explanation like any other?
Alexandre : It’s the most common one Emile : Well, yeah, that’s the story
Alexandre : So when was the first time that you heard the term ‘pied-noir’? Emile : During the War of Independence
Alexandre : It’s linked to that Emile : Yeah it’s linked to that
Alexandre : Eventually to the repatriation Emile : They arrive in France and they’re ‘pieds-noirs’. Yeah, that’s it, it’s linked to that time when people started to pack their bags.
Alexandre : So it’s really about the departure Emile : Yes it is
Alexandre : Well, I wanted to talk about Toit et Joie [housing estate] actually. Emile : Yeah
Alexandre : So what was your arrival like? When did you arrive there? Emile : Well, I should talk a little bit about my personal situation.
Alexandre : Yes, yes Emile :
I was departmental secretary for ‘Force Ouvrière’, at the regional level. So I had an idea of how independence was going to happen, I was never under any doubt, nor on the 13th May . I didn’t protest in the streets with flags etc. My personal understanding was that it was inevitable. And I was still persuaded that if we didn’t mess things up, we could go back to normal, and maybe continue to exert … a part of … So, when the Evian agreements came, and even at the time, I had a contact in the union, with the MTLD, Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties [Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratique] . The party which had separated from the FLN which, if you like, which was the political part controlling independence, which Abbas belonged to. So there were – you could say - secret trade-union contact with the representative of MTLD in Oran as well as Constantine. The stronghold was in Constantine. And we’d meet up to discuss the future for Algerian workers, you know, how the trade-union movement could carry on with the creation of the UGTA, l’Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens [the General Union of Algerian Workers]. And so we working on how the handover of power – because this was quite far along, in 1960, you know, so independence was in 1962.
Alexandre : Oh so this is in 1960 Emile : huh ?
Alexandre : You ere contact in 1960, around 1960.Emile : Yes, informally in contact, if you like.
Alexandre : Yes, yes. Emile : Because is was in secret, the MTLD wasn’t well established, but they had some intelligent people, a number guys who were part of the my trade-union organisation. Because, I should explain that during the Algerian War, eh, the CGT Confédération Générale du Travail [General Confederation of Labour] was banned at the time. I’m not sure when exactly, if it’s around the time of Lacoste or a bit before, but the CGT was banned because the Secretary General fo the CGT in Algeria … there were 3 guys for went into the Algerian maquis [resistance] and from then on there was suspicion. So they banned the CGT from exerting its influence over workers.
But they weren’t in a good state, most of were in public services, with a majority of 81% at the time. After the FO, Force Ouvrière [Workers’ Force] was create in ’48, we were the majority. I remember a little trade-union at the time CFTC, The French Confederation of Christian Workers [ Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens ], I used to call them the ‘church donations’ [le denier du culte]. Listen I’ll tell you something funny. The guy who ran the CFTC at the time was called Monsieur Mignard and we’d say to him, ‘drinks on you with those church donations’ and he would always reply with ‘drink on you with those American dollars’. Because, you know, at the time the FO was suspected of receiving funds via the Mediterranean committee -
Alexandre : from the AmericansEmile : - to hold of the CGT, and that had to with the bridge that was built with the Americans after the war, you know. What’s the ‘plan’ that they put together?
Alexandre : Marshall Emile : Yes, the Marhsall plan, which brought materials, etc, to France after the war. And since the CGT had the ports, uh, there was a real problems so they financed sections of the trade union, especially around Marseille and in the ports so that the FO could oppose -
Alexandre : counter act Emile : the power of the CGT at the time which was really benefitting from the freedom from the hiring monopoly. You know that the CGT, even today, has the monopoly on the ports and in the press as well, you know, so in order to counteract it, they said that the Americans had broken through … Which is true in part, I don’t know the top-secrets, but I’m sure that it’s something that they tried. They helped Marseille especially with the creations of certain trade unions sections to counteract the CGT, so, there you go, I’ll stop digressing.
Alexandre : Okay, the context. Emile : Um so to go back to my family. I was secretary of the trade union and my goal was to keep everyone in order, I mean, what was interesting was that it was a nice union of the 3 communities, you know! The Jewish community, the European, Christian community, and the Muslim community. And, more or less, I had 30% of the members from each group, it’s amazing. You know, it was a Fench département and the recruitment was national. So that means that when there was an exam, all the French ones, you know, in the département could take it. And in general, the postal service recruited large numbers of people at the time. Every year they recruited about 10,000 to 12,000 people, 15,000 at one point.
Alexandre : At the national levelEmile : Yes, at the national level, so, a lot of them found themselves posted in Paris, in Alsace etc. And they came back [to Algeria’ after there … the postal workers were all mixed together, if you like, which meant that there was a general tolerance for each other, you know, because the Algerian postal worker would be posted in Paris Nord as well, do you see what I mean?
Alexandre : So he also went ot Paris Emile : Yes, he went to Paris, of course, he would go.
Alexandre : He worked there for a while Emile : In Paris, at Montparnasse, at Saint Lazare and then he of of course asked to be transferred and then he’d come back.
Alexandre : Yes, but for some of the French Muslims, they had acquired French nationality? Emile : Yes
Alexandre : They had French nationality Emile : They didn’t have the nationality but the fact that they had been accepted to take the exam, they couldn’t be civil servants without being French.
Alexandre : So they gave them nationality? Emile : Yes, that’s how, you see, so it was a way for them to conserve -
Alexandre : and to acquire Emile : or to acquire it, yes. So my number one concern was to keep this unity. Despite all the attacks that we had had at the time. We lost a lot of people. Because in the morning, when guys go to work at the crack of dawn, who is there? The dockers, the priests, and the postmen, and they were targets for the terrorists – who were at one point the FLN, but then who were the OAS. They were the ones who left first thing in the morning for work. Because it was easier to kill them in the morning, than to kill them when there were crowds about. So we lost a lot of guys. When I say a lot I mean that it must be around 11 or 13 postmen who were killed in that period. Postmen I was in charge of.
Alexandre : What period is this? The start of you … when you say period? Emile : What do you mean? I don’t understand.
Alexandre : When did they start, the - ? Emile : ’60, in 1960
Alexandre : in ‘60 Emile : ’60, ‘61, ‘62, but the most dangerous part were the first months of ’62, after the Evian agreements.
Alexandre : The OAS Emile : Things got worse
Alexandre : It was more the OAS ? Emile : They really stirred up trouble, and after all, you didn’t know who was who, who did what, you know. Listen, I’ll tell you a couple of anecdotes if you have 5 minutes.
Alexandre : Yes, yes, go ahead. Emile : In my trade union role, it was about protecting people’s lives. I mean that, in the last few months, postmen – we’ll say the Algerian postmen if you like, the postmen with Algerian origins – they tried to keep them in their neighbourhoods, to deliver the post in their neighbourhood, so that they didn’t go around the town and come to the main office. There were 130 postmen, plus 30 in finance, plus the packages and all that. […] And maybe around 50 Algerians who lived in the native neighbourhoods, in the Arab quarters, where, you were at risk. The danger for them was to cross town, to the European town if you like, because that was where these guys [the terrorists] wanted to attack. They didn’t target them because they wanted to kill ‘Dupond’, ‘Durand’, or ‘Muhammah’ and all that, they attacked so that the newspapers would print a headline about how they’d killed a guy, you know, it was to keep the pressur on people, to force the Algerians to keep gathering – because obvisouly they also paid for it, as well, when there was a … But it wasn’t the point, it wasn’t the people, the man, you know …
Alexandre : The postmen Emile : A postman
Alexandre : Whoever then Emile : or a dock worker, you know. So for me, at that time, as I had a professional level in the sense that I was in charge of the distribution, I was in charge of this category of guys, I spent my time at the prefecture getting men to guard these areas in the morning so that we could transport people you know. I was in constant contact with the central commissioner and the head of police. It wasn’t just the town, it was the whole département. In my role at the trade union, I was in contact with the chief of police. And he was called Lambert, I was quite intimate with him – intimate isn’t the word – but we had a very close correspondence, if you like, we understood one another. So, I wanted to save these guys’ skin. I didn’t want them to get shot while delivering the mail. I knew guys who were shot down. A young telegraphist, 18 years old, who was crossing the road – because you had raods that were cut in half, you see! There was one part that was guarded and all that – this was in ’61, at the end of ’61, start of ’62. On one side it was, you could say, the Europeans, who went with the OAS, who opened fire on guys crossing the road you know. You had a boulevard that was, went along the village Nègre, what we called the village Nègre, and which was under fire from both side, one side was the FLN who had a sniper
Alexandre : So the odd numbers, on one side, were the FLN Emile : Exactly
Alexandre : The even number Emile : So, you couldn’t cross the road, you know. You had to stay in your zone, they, they shot blindly, they killed the first idiot to go by. So, to keep all of that, I had to work for months, to organise the postal routes and all that, it was my job. And especially to manager, but I had meetings with the trade union until the middle of ’62. I don’t know if you follow, in March-April, ’62, you had to transport guys to the village Nègre by putting them in the back of the post van, lying down at the back of the van, and we transported them across the European part of town, letting them go at the edge of the of the zone. We went through some moments which we were -
Alexandre : scary, oh yeah Emile : exactly
Alexandre : But, at the time, because you mentioned the trade union, what was your job exactly? Emile : I inspected the delivery and transport, which means I took care of the distribution routes for the mail – it’s in the name – so they the mail arrived but also when it left for the offices, etc. So organising the routes for the départements.
Alexandre : Okay, yes. Emile : And then the train stations, everything to do with the delivery routes if you like, at a the level of the département.
Alexandre : Yes, so everything goes safely Emile : That’s it, with my trade-union hat on and my professional job, I really went to the heart of it, you know!
Alexandre : So until the very end, there were - Emile : Until the very end, there were -
Alexandre : there were postmen of all persuasions ? Emile : Well, listen, I should tell you something else … So they killed the director, Monsieur Debard
Alexandre : He was targeted, I suppose Emile : Yeah, he was a target. So, I’ll explain why they killed him. The heads of department weren’t falling over themselves to come to Algeria, at the time.
Alexandre : During the war ? Emile : They called him a a ‘metro’, a fresh metropolitan arriving in Algeria. He came to Oran as Head of Department, he was called Monsieur Demarbe or Demard - yes, Demard – there was an ‘R’ in it. This brave man arrived and I introduced myself as a trade union rep … His office as Director was there and you went down the corridor and there was my office. He went passed several times a day, so, I got to know the guy, what kind of person he was, if you like.
Alexandre : So between ‘60-61 Emile : A good public servant, if you like, he’d gone over there looking for a promotion.
Alexandre : So that’s around ’60-61 right ? Emile : Yeah
Alexandre : That’s it Emile : So, he got there at the start of ’60. And this brave man, he wasn’t very subtle. At the time there were what we called the barbouzes, who were the government guys who worked for the police service. They hid themselves and spied all over the place, you see. A number of them we ‘for’ – they weren’t pro-OAS, the OAS hadn’t reached full force. But he was rather on the side of ‘French Algeria’ if you like. And I said to this brave man ‘Watch out, be careful, because your reputation has preceded you, you’re surrounded by the barbouzes’. Rumour had it that his chief of staff was a barbouze who’d come to spy on people. I never got to the bottom of it, but what was surprising was that when this guy got his role in management, his administrative file never arrived … There were these lower level civil servants who dealt with personnel and it meant that, his file never turned up. So I said to Demard ‘be careful, because there may be barbouzes in your team’. And he said ‘Well, what’s a barbouze’. So I explained it to him, plan and simple. And then a few days later, they blew up my house … they planted a bomb which exploded.
Alexandre : Was anyone there ? Emile : It ripped apart the front of the building, I lived next door to my sister and my sister’s place was littered with things. But we got out, the kids weren’t there, they were coming home from school. I was in a union meeting somewhere else, I don’t know, which carried on without a hitch. And the next day he said to me, ‘a bomb went off in the neighbourhood’ and I said, ‘Yes, it was at my house’. He lived in the area, because I lived in what they called the ‘PTT Hive’? They were these little houses that had been built with credit union, we built these little houses that we called the ‘PTT Hive’. I said to him ‘Yes, it was my house’. ‘Oh well’. ‘Take care of yourself, you know, because –‘, And then, he was a bit disorganised, you know, a civil servant. He thought he was still in France, and he could give orders like that. And one night, the FLN destroyed all the telephone lines between the département of Algiers and Oran, they had cut down all the telephone poles and you couldn’t use the telephone. We were still the PTT at the time, not just the ost office -
Alexandre : poste, télégraphe, téléphone Emile : So he gave the order the lines team to go and repair it and they said ‘We’ll go if we have a military escort’. Because they requisitioned the same guys to repair what they had cut down the night before.
Alexandre : And they’re set up onEmile : And the guys, 6 of them died. They got to the pole, they were booby-trapped, and these 6 guys died. So the OAS pointed the finger at Demard and ordered his execution. We learnt this afterward. A commando arrived in Orléansville, and they shot him.
Alexandre : So the OAS ordered it Emile : Oh it was the OAS for sure. They ordered it. They turned up on the doorstep, I was at the door, at the doorway. I can still see it clearly. His car had arrived, we had a meeting with the boss, we were suppoed to see the Central Police Commissioner to carry on with our security analysis. There were two rows of guys, they came up to him and ‘bang bang’.They took out the Director, like that, and the driver. I saw him. He went into a panic, accelerated the car, drove to a clinic on the corner of the road to try and save him, but it was clearly – he took three bullets to the head, so I witnessed his death, which really affected me. But they guys always … they always knew is was the OAS. But the police – what they did or did not do, that’s another story. So this idiot, stupidly got himself killed, you see. Do you know how many came to his funeral?
Alexandre : No Emile : 3 of us
Alexandre : They were scared ? Emile : They didn’t want to go to the burial. Me, I said ‘I owe this guy because he was all the same a brave man’. Well, he’s dead. I wrote to Paris and said ‘Stop sending guys like that, try and send someone native to be the Director’. Because he didn’t have – he didn’t know, and they hadn’t told him.
Alexandre : He didn’t understand anything, then! Emile : Exactly, you’ve summed it up. He didn’t understand anything at all ! Exactly, the bad times were made all the more grievous by these kinds of things, on top of it all postmen were getting killed.
Alexandre : It’s so strong, what was the OAS’s logic in going after you, because - Emile : They wanted revenge for the 6 guys who had been trapped, because he had given the administrative order which sent them without an escort. That’s it.
Alexandre : Right, it was stupid but - Emile : He should have waited 24 or 48 hours. The poles weren’t – we weren’t forced to take of the pole. So, human error, I went through it … a couple other anecdotes, if you like. I mean I don’t know if you want to talk about it, if not I won’t mention it.
Alexandre : Yeah, yeah Emile : You can do what you want
Alexandre : Yeah, yeah Emile : So given my position, the OAS guys had sent me a couple of nice messages to my house, you see, and I kept some of them. ‘For you, death. For your wife – ‘. You see, little encouraging messages like that.
Alexandre : Great ! Emile : But I was still respected by the ‘pieds-noirs’ because they knew that I was’t part of any of it, you know, I really tried to just defend people’s interest, uh. I think I was saved by that, because they could have shot me dead when they wanted. I didn’t have any protection, so, that’s to say, that if they really did spare me, it’s because they thought that I was honest, you know. And one day, a guy came to see me, I knew him, he was a postman who lived in a little village where my sister had been a postmistress. And he said to me, ‘You know, they’ve decided to kill him on Monday’. It was Friday or Thursday. ‘Tordjman’, who was postmen rep who – Tordjman is a Jewish name, you know, he was Jewish – and he was heavily involved in distribution, he had huge amount of influence. He wanted to make an example, he wanted to killed someone who represented something.
Alexandre : The FLN Emile : No, it was the Arabs, it was te FLN
Alexandre : Yes, the FLN Emile : Yeah, the guy was part of the FLN, he was in the committee. He came to see me, and told me ‘Tordjman’.
Alexandre : Right Emile : He let the cat out of the bag, let’s sort this out. Alexandre : Yes, yes. Emile : I said ‘You’re talking nonsense’. ‘No, no’, his postal route does through a quiet area, they’re going to kill him there on Monday morning. ‘You can’t convince them?’, ‘No, no, if I did they would suspect me, you know, if I mess up’. So, with this information, I was kind of screwed. I went to see the Police Chief Lambert, the same Chief of Police, I told him ‘Look, this is what is happening’. ‘Oh, he said, we’ll protect him, we’ll protect him’. I said, ‘No, you can’t protect him, you have to send him away, send him to France, you can’t leave him here, if they don’t get him today, it’ll be tomorrow, you know!’. So, at the weekend, we arranged for him to leave, I explained to his wife, who had four children. I explained that ‘I am sending him to Paris for a conference’. I lied to her, you see, but if Tordjman ever came back. He obviously stayed in France because …
Alexandre : It was the point Emile : That was the point. They sent him away, okay, he settles in. My friends in Paris take him in. He is appointed to Nîmes, he stayed, he lived out his years somewhere else. But a few days later, the source came to me and said ‘I have to leave’. Because they knew he let the cat out of the bag, you get on well with Emile, so you were the one to have told him the plan. Everybody knew, the guy took a plane, you can’t hide that, the next day he wasn’t at work. Once again, I got my source out to Paris, some friends picked him up and he was assigned to Saint Lazare or Barbès, I’m not sure where exactly. And he stayed there until independence and then went back to Algeria. So you see, these two anecdotes show that we hung onto life by a thread. It really was an incredible time! But there were moments of satisfaction, when guys came to tell you things like htat, you say to yourself ‘Bloody hell, I saved someone’s life, you know! But I had problems with that kid.
Alexandre : But you don’t spill the beans like that to just anybody Emile : No, no, just guys you trust
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : Yeah, I knew I wasn’t going to go fat. I had problems with Tordjman, not straightaway but a few years later.
Alexandre : When he was in France ? Emile : Yeah, he was asking if any of it was real.
Alexandre : If it was real? Emile : Yes, he had his doubts. It was probably his family who were wanting to know how he spent a year and half away from his family.
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : Because his family were repatriated after the war, in ’62. They weren’t sure, although it was never said outloud to my face. They never asked, you know, but I could see that in his attitude, that he wasn’t transparent with me. Whereas before we were honest with one another.
Alexandre : And so in that case, why didn’t the family follow him ?Emile : Well, you have find tickets for the boat. The rush had already started, you know!
Alexandre : When was it ? It was already quite late. Emile : Well, it was the start, maybe, of ’62. End of ’61. So it was touch and go !
Alexandre : And for you ? your family ? Emile : I made my family leave in June ’62. They moved to Marseille, with my sister-in-law. I stayed behind on my own. Because I really wanted to stay. I wasn’t ashamed, I’m independent, I stayed until the end of July when I nearly got myself shot. But I stayed until 5th July. I flew to France.
Alexandre : Why the 5th? Emile : Because, you know, that in July there was this massacre in Oran.
Alexandre : Ah yes, yes Emile : So you know the July 5th
Alexandre : Linked to the OAS Emile : Pfff, they’d all left !
Alexandre : Really ! Emile : Most of them. They had left for Spain by boat. They all left with their weapons and bags. Then all the hold-ups that they had done in the banks before going – the OAS, there were no more OAS
Alexandre : yeah, I thought … Emile : l The 5th July was about revenge for a certain number of Algerian groups, who had been shut up in their ghettos. Because eventually, they weren’t allowed to leave their areas any more. They were getting shot. It was about revenge. They armed the local population, handed out weapons, they came down to the town and they shot at whatever moved, you know ! That day, I was picked up by a group -
Alexandre : But you were in Algiers ? Emile : No, I was in Oran
Alexandre : Oh you were in Oran Emile : I was in Oran – the region of Oran. And so I got picked up by this group, unaffiliated. Another strike of luck, I was saved by a guy from the ALN, because between the 3rd and 5th July, the National Liberation Army had moved from Morocco to Algiers. And they took what the the French Army gave way, handing over the power to the Algerian army. And so the Army was on the move, and they were beginning to take over. And in that space between, these guys managed to slip in, looking for revenge, shooting, killing. So I was picked up by this group, not controlled by anyone, and I was saved by the ALN guy. So believe me or not, I was up against the wall and they were going to exterminate me, you see…
Alexandre : Oh really, it was the final moment … Emile : Oh yes, they had killed the guy before me. They were in a car with the door open. I had gone to find my brother-in-law who was going to take me to the airport. I was really about to leave, wearing shorts and shirt. This guy stops me, puts me against the wall, and I say ‘What are you doing? The OAS left a long time ago’. ‘Not you’, he says. Then this ALN column arrives, one of them sees me and asks, ‘What are you doing there?’ and I say to him ‘Ask these idiots, can’t you see?’ It turned out to be a guy I had hired as a telegraphist, he arrived just in time, he saved me life! It’s amazing. I explained to him, and he talked down the guys and all that, made them leave. And then he said ‘Get in your car, I’ll escort you’. He took me to about 200, 300 meters from the Police Station and he said, ‘Leave your car wherever, and run to the central Police Station’. It was that in a nutshell, because things were still kicking off. So I left the car and started running. I got to the Police Station, there were injured people everywhere, people with stab wounds, it was horrendous the 5th July. Thousands dead, you know.
Alexandre : Yeah, yeah Emile : According to the Red Cross figures. After it calmed down a bit, I said to myself, okay that’s enough. So I left, I was supposed to leave on the 5th but I managed to leave on the 7th with a contingency of the Garde Républicain, we called them the ‘Garde Mobile’ at the time. We called them the ‘Rouges’. They repatriated the military. I knew a rep from central telephonic whose husband was connected to that stuff, so I called her and said, ‘Look, I’m screwed, I had a place but this is what happened’. And she said ‘Don’t worry Mr Ecoffet, you’ll go with them’. So hte contingency of the Garde Mobile was taking coaches to the airport. So I sat with them and ended up in the airport. I got in, found a plan, and left for Marseille. First Lille-Paris, in the end I had to do this long trip to end up in Marseille. And there you have it, I’ve never set foot on Algerian soil since.
Alexandre : And your family were in Marseille right ? Emile : My sister-in-law lived in Marseille, my children were with my wife, so.
Alexandre : They’d already been there for several month ? Emile : Not several months, since the end of May, mid-May in ’62. Because it was already getting nasty. They stayed over there, my son went to school for the next year in Marseille. So I got to Paris afterward. I saw my friends and said, ‘Well, what do we do?’. I had been posted to the Regional Management at Montparnasse, so my carreer carried on with its various stages. I reintegrated into the administration around that time, found somewhere to live. I rented a studio from a friend which had been his grandfather’s. And that was towards the end of the year, so around October. I went back to work, end of September, start of October, October-November-December ’62, until I found this flat in Toit et Joie [housing estate]. They had started to take the first renters at the end of December ’62 and I was among the first beneficiaries because I had three children. I had my mother-in-law with us as well, you see, so we benefited from a brand new housing.
Alexandre : Okay Emile : And the Toit et Joie part started there.
Alexandre : Was constructon work still taking place at Toit et Joie ? Emile : It wasn’t over, there was still rubble everywhere
Alexandre : But the flats were finished Emile : The first lot of renters arrived in December ’62 and that stretched out into the first 4 months of ’63. And since Toit et Joie was administered by the PTT, it was a PTT co-op. The administration had bought it, given money for the land etc. And so, it was in charge of it for about 25 years, in charge of housing people. The business was a co-op first and foremost, which then became your classic ‘HLM’ [social housing’ with assigned housing. Now, there aren’t any more of them, there are still some contingencies, if you like, that are managed by La Poste, by telecommunications, but they rent to whoever they want.
Alexandre : Okay, it’s separate now ! Emile : The holdings of each are separated.
Alexandre : And so, you were one of the first to arrive, to move in, and you were all ‘pieds-noirs’ ? Emile : Yes, well if there was a scale, if you like, it was that those who had the highest housing ratio ...
Alexandre : Oh for allocatingEmile : for the allocation. There were 250 dwellings, there was a scale … the city had 15% of the housing, which they assigned as they saw fit. And then the rest was up to the administration.
Alexandre : Who said ‘there’ll be a percentage of pieds-noirs’ ? Emile : No
Alexandre : Ah no ? Emile : They created a housing ratio. I’m not sure, I could be making it up. 10 points per child, 10 points per adult.
Alexandre : Okay ! Emile : That gave you a figure and then with that they allocated [housing]. But it was above all a way to justify their choices in case they were contested.
Alexandre : Right Emile : So, we were one of the first. There were maybe 60 pied-noir families. That number got progressively lower but it was a core group of 40 to 45 people – I’m referring to families, I mean !
Alexandre : And then afterwards? Emile : Well, some friends and I had the idea of keeping our connections going. So we created the ‘Amicale’, which kicked it off, a way of having …
Alexandre : For the residents, for the tenants ? Emile : We called it L’Amicale des Locataires de Toit et Joie [Toit et Joie Tenants Club]. The first priority was looking after the kids, so we started with Christmas parties. All the families got together. There were even some marriages, across the families if you like, some of them already knew each other. Some of them had worked together and met up again, so the links were already there.
Alexandre : You said that it was set up with friends, was it from the start organised by ‘pieds-noirs’ ? At the start? Emile : No, because there were non-pieds-noirs on the committee. My successor as President was René Thomas
Alexandre : he was pied-noir ? Emile : He was a gold old Frenchman!
Alexandre : Oh right, I thought he was also a pied-noir. It was an odd story because he was in Algeria for a little bit. Emile : So, René Thomas, it’s funny because he was conscribed as a soldier. And he spent time in Oran, so we often talked about Oran because he new the post office and that’s how he got involved in the committee. He worked there for years and then took over as President for quite a few years. No, he’s a good egg.
Alexandre : So where did the idea come from ? in the committee? Emile : It came from three people, me and two others. One of them left to raise chicked in Israel. And the a third person, Monsieur Serano, whose origins you can guess from the name …
Alexandre : Spanish Emile : Spanish, exactly.
Alexandre : So the initial idea, nonetheless, came from three pieds-noirs ? Emile : The basic idea came from the three of us.
Alexandre : Did you know each other from before ? Emile : Serano, yes. He was a rep in Périgaud, one of the long distance lines. He was the union rep from Périgaud. I knew him by name, from correspondence. And the René Thomas, I’ve just explained. And then the third one, he was an inspector in Algiers.
Alexandre : The Israeli ? Emile : He moved very quickly, he wanted to change job, so he moved to Israel because he was a religious guy. He left for Israel, moved there. Actually, he came from Israel for the 20th anniversary of Toit et Joie.
Alexandre : Oh yeah ? Emile : He came back to see us, there was the same group of people. And it was the women who gave it the push it needed.
Alexandre : what do you mean ? Emile : They started a women’s club who met weekly in some premises that I got from the company. So besides chatting and drinking tea or coffee, they organised the parties, made costumes for the children, helped them reherse their little plas that they would perform at Christmas. They turned living rooms into dance studios, you know, in their homes. All the families mixed together, got to know each other really well. So for example, there was a group who were supposed to do such or such dance, they met and practices in dinning rooms, where they pushed all the furniture to the side so the kids could dance there. So it’s was about helping each other ot … And then on Wednesdays, I’m not sure if it was Wednesdays or Thursdays, I think that it was a week day in any case, when they would meet to make the costumes. There were two leaders, Madame Lenoir who is still alive and lives in Fresnes. And another women who made, she made hats, she could sew. She knew how to make the costumes, so these ladies worked on that and it created a fantastic community.
Alexandre : So what were the activities organised by the Amicale Emile : It was about celebrating, having parties at Toit et Joie, so we did these fetes.
Alexandre : At christmas? Emile : No, the fete was in May. Because we needed the good weather. We had a fete in May before the Parish’s one. The weather held out for us but it rained on the Parish’s fete! The Priest asked himself some questions!
Alexandre : The lord works in mysterious ways ! Emile : He came to see us, to see Morali (the father of those girls). The priest said to him ‘But why is it you always have good weather while it always rains for us’. And he said ‘We don’t pray to the same Lord as you!’ which is what everyone had remembered, you know, he was a funny guy but a bit jealous all the same, a bit competitive.
Alexandre : You had stands for the event in May ? Emile : We did our own proper fete, with games for the kids, sack races, all you could image, everything we wanted to put on.
Alexandre : And it was for people in Toit et Joie ? Emile : It was for the children in Toit et Joie , yes. I mean there were 50 dwellings in Toit et Joie, each with families of 2 to 3 children – that starts to be a lot of kids, you know!
Alexandre : Yes, around 100 kids Emile : It wasn’t a religious thing
Alexandre : Yes, I understand, even if you prayed to the Lord, but not the same as the other guy Emile : We had some things but
Alexandre : But it was open. It wasn’t open to people outside though ? Emile : Oh yes, yes, we had a dance in the evening. On the Friday or Saturday, there was a public dance.
Alexandre : Okay, so the fete was for the kids Emile : For Toit et JoieAlexandre : For people from Toit et JoieEmile : It started on Wednesday, their friends came sometime, we weren’t sectarian! We had the dance on Saturday night, open to everyone.
Alexandre : People from Fresnes came ? Emile : One year, I can’t remember when, we had a fight break out. With a group of young thugs who came from Châtenay. It almost ended quite badly. After that we stopped doing the evening dances. I mean, we put two guys on the doors of the gym where we had the dance inside and it was by invitation only. So people from Toit et Joie had a paper invitation, but they could invite people along but be responsible for them. It was like that for 5 or 6 years.
Alexandre : And, roughly, how long did it last like that ? Emile : oh about 15 years
Alexandre : Okay so until around ‘75-76 Emile : Yeah, I left in ’79. I left to work as a postmaster in Province and Thomas took over. There were cuts straightaway. But he carried on with town fetes, with stands and all that.
Alexandre : Oh so it fused with the town ? Emile : The town had started to do its own summer fete, and we participating from time to time. I was a town councillor, you see. We had learned the ropes a bit.
Alexandre : So the two major occassions were Christmas and the fete, right ? Emile : Well, the children put on a performance of everything they had learned that school year. The priest lent us his room, we asked the Parish for a room.
Alexandre : The cinema Emile : The old cinema room
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : Which has been demolished
Alexandre : Yes, in front of the modern church Emile : In the room, there were old seat and all that. We worked like slaves [translator note: racist language employed in original French], because we didn’t trust the electricity, we worried about an electrical fire. So one person was put in charge of heating. In the week leading up to Christmas, he came to sort out the heating system. It was an old wood burning thing. There were electricians working on the cables, so we didn’t use the electricity for fear of a fire. One friend’s wife was a postal worker but for EDF. So he lent some cable which we laid under the roof to supply the installations that we had set up. During the performance, we put someone on each door with an extinguisher because we were still worried about problems. So around 20 people were working, it wasn’t just me. We had around 20 volunteers.
When we held the fetes and the dance, we had guys come with Baramine [wood treatment] to sort out the lighting in the dance hall. So to light it, we needed poles, to put in poles, we needed cables, and so we worked hard. It was quite funny, because the guy who came with the Baramine was Monsieur Rozine, from the Caribbean, and we’d joke saying ‘René, you’ll get a tan’. He still lives here, Monsieur Rozine. So it was a great time, that’s why people remember that time, even for people who left, they still talk about it. But you couldn’t do the same thing today, without a huge amount of support from the start, you know. It was the fact we all found ourselves together there and that the women all mixed together as well. I don’t think it could have been done otherwise, if there wasn’t, something there from the start.
Alexandre : Yeah it doesn’t happy on its own Emile : No, it doesn’t happy on its own
Alexandre : So, apart from the fetes in the summer, Christmas was for the children’s performances ? Emile : Yes, prepared by the women
Alexandre : The women etc. Emile : By the women.
Alexandre : But beyond these two occasions, nothing happened during the year, aside from preparation. Emile : Yes, well they socialised, they had meals, couscous which we shared door to door. Jewish festivals, with cakes, there was always something. There were weddings, baptisms, funerals sadly. We were always there.
Alexandre : With everyone Emile : Everyone came, yeah, everyone came, there was a great deal of solidarity. But the Jewish community, personally I don’t like the word community because it means, but the Jews observed – even if they weren’t particularly religious – they observed traditions, cake parties, uh, the new year and all that.
Alexandre : Oh yeah Emile : So to go back to Morali, the father of the two girls. When he was younger, he had a serious accident and they thought he was going to die. He got better and every year at the same time, he had a party at his house, the Rabbi would come, he invited his friends. So, we got to his around 7pm and the Rabbi gave a speech for about 5 minutes, thanking God for saving Monsieur Morali’s life and then we had a party throughout the night.
Alexandre : His daughters told me he wasn’t Jewish. Emile : Morali was.
Alexandre : It’s odd, but perhaps I misunderstood what they said, but they said their mother was Jewish. Emile : He di dit anyway, he kept up that tradition in the family.
Alexandre : Oh well, maybe Emile : Oh maybe that’s what they said anyway
Alexandre : I don’t know, i think that … Emile : But it’s an example that shows the Rabbi was around.
Alexandre : Yeah, it’s interesting Emile : And every year, although I can’t remember at what time of year
Alexandre : He celebrated that he got better Emile : He would come to my house and tell me ‘Don’t forget that it’s tomorrow night’. Well, I was there everytime. I officiated his daughters’ weddings.
Alexandre : Yes, I know that. Emile : I married his daughter Zakine, I married a lot of them, the Gomès girl, I married the Albertini girl, I mean loads.
Alexandre : And so, at the bottom of it all, what your talking about this atmosphere, it was the three of you - Emile : Nostalgia
Alexandre : Nostalgia, but it was a bit like over there ? Emile : no
Alexandre : no Emile : We were a lot more separated
Alexandre : ah yes Emile : Because, we were spread out, these were cities, Oran had 3000 inhabitants
Alexandre : So, it wasn’t a direct transposition of a way of life Emile : No, on the other hand, the way of life in one’s mentality. Effectively, the mentality of parties, you know what I mean? Inviting people over for anisette [aperitif], it was quite an ordinary thing to do, here, if you visit someone they offer you a coffee. Over there it was ‘Come over and have some anisette’. If you ordered an anisette, you ordered several, you know. It was warm, you’re outside, it’s not, no, the dominant feeling from that time is nostalgia.
Alexandre : Yeah Emile : You must have got that impression from the girls [Morali sisters]
Alexandre : Well, yes, they’re actually quite ambivalent about it Emile : Yeah
Alexandre : What they told me was that, until they were adults, they resented their mother for having conceived them in Algeria ! Emile : Ah well !
Alexandre : But they’re nostalgic for Toit et Joie. Emile : Well, you see, it was that time.