COLONIAL HISTORY

The flight from Algeria

French 'pieds-noirs' emigrated from Algeria to Valencia following independence, while Spanish Republican exiles who had settled in the colony after the Civil War in Spain were forced to leave for France

French nationals born in Algeria, the 'pieds-noirs', campaigning in favor of Franco during a 1966 referendum in Spain.
French nationals born in Algeria, the 'pieds-noirs', campaigning in favor of Franco during a 1966 referendum in Spain. PERFECTO ARJONES

On July 5, 1962, José Falcón, his wife Hélène and their three children left their home in the Algerian port city of Oran, seeking refuge aboard the French aircraft carrier La Fayette, already crammed with hundreds of other Europeans and harki Algerian mercenaries who had joined the French army to fight against their countrymen's struggle for independence.

"The Moors were going around chopping the heads off Europeans, we had to get out," says 96-year-old Falcón, now living in the southern French city of Toulouse. Falcón had moved to Algeria in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. He had been a pilot in the Spanish Republican Air Force, bringing down the last German plane in the Civil War in February of that year. At the end of the Civil War, in April, he crossed into France, where he was held in a prison camp with other Republicans. He later emigrated to Oran, where his uncle already lived.

The day that Falcón fled, the day that Algeria declared its independence, the celebrations soon turned ugly, with groups associated with the Algerian resistance movement, the FLN, unleashing a killing spree that claimed the lives of up to 3,000 Europeans and others suspected of supporting the French.

Armed with machine guns, groups of men drove around the city spraying cafes with fire, pulling up cars and summarily executing their occupants, kidnapping, raping and mutilating people in the street. Eventually, French General Katz ordered his troops to impose order, sending in 18,000 soldiers.

Many Europeans would leave in the ensuing weeks, but some 100,000 Europeans remained in Oran, now Algeria's second city.

"There were terrified people all over the place, seeking shelter. I was told to get off the street, to hide in a doorway, or in a bar," says Sylvie Ambros, who was 35 at the time. She had been holed up in the Hôtel Univers, which was run by her father, but had risked going out to buy food. "I thought that the shop, rather than providing shelter, would end up being a rat trap, so I decided to go back to the hotel: there were soldiers staying there and they gave me a sense of being protected," she says.

The Moors were chopping the heads off Europeans, we had to get out"

Four weeks later, along with her daughter and parents, she boarded a ship out of Algeria. "It was thanks to a connection we had, because otherwise it was almost impossible to get aboard a ship," she recalls. Ambros headed for Alicante, 290 kilometers across the Mediterranean. Although she had French citizenship, she decided to return to where her family originally came from.

She now lives in the center of Alicante, which she says reminds her still of Oran, "although it is drier and hotter." For José Falcón, Algerian independence meant a second and equally painful exile. For Sylvie Ambros, it meant the loss of one home, and finding another, in the land of her forebears. For Spain, Algerian independence brought demographic consequences: of the 1.2 million Europeans who lived there, a good part were Spanish, or of Spanish origin. Some 65 percent of Europeans in Oran were of Spanish origin, while Algiers' Bab el Oued neighborhood was made up mainly of Spanish speakers.

Following France's conquest of Algeria in 1830, Spaniards from Valencia, Murcia, and Almeria headed across the Mediterranean in search of work and were soon granted French citizenship in order to help increase the number of Europeans.

The last major wave of immigrants came at the end of the Spanish Civil War, when the coal freighter Stanbrook left Alicante on March 28, laden to the gunnels with some 2,638 prisoners, just three days before General Franco announced victory. Meanwhile, the last Republican war planes headed for the west of Algeria. In total, some 7,000 Spaniards headed for Algeria at the end of the Civil War. Adapting to life in their new home was often far from easy.

"I was very surprised when I saw the Moors making their tea on the ship that took me from Marseille to Oran," says José Falcón, who had heard the stories about the killings committed by Moroccan mercenaries fighting for Franco during the Civil War. "I thought that I was going to see the African savannah and lions, but Oran was more like Barcelona," he says. When he returned to France, he decided to join the Gendarmerie as a mechanic. "It was a difficult decision for me, because I found myself working for the same people who had patrolled the camps where we were held in the South of France," he says, adding that he now has fond memories of his time in the French police.

"I was particularly struck by the ghosts on the streets of Algiers," says Antonio Asensio, aged 73, referring to the women dressed in the traditional long white tunics that covered them from head to toe, leaving only a sliver of the face visible. Asensio flew to Algeria from his home town of Valencia to join his father, already in exile there.

I thought I would see the African savannah but Oran was like Barcelona"

Republican exiles went to France in 1962, but tens of thousands of pieds-noirs, the French born in Algeria, along with Spaniards who had acquired French citizenship, and many who didn't, embarked ferries, freighters, tankers and even yachts headed for Spanish coastal towns like Santa Pola, Jávea, Águilas, Cartagena, and above all, Alicante.

The local newspaper in Alicante ran a headline on July 1, 1962: "2,200 Spaniards arrive from Oran." Between April and August of that year, some 50,000 people arrived in the southeast of Spain from Algeria, and 70 percent of them made for Alicante.

By June of 1962, when the arrivals from Algeria began to increase, Abatángelo Soler, then mayor of the city, called Foreign Minister Fernando Castiella, asking him to provide assistance to the thousands of Spaniards trying to get out of Oran. After 20 minutes, Soler was told: "Send two ferries to Algeria escorted by warships to bring those people back."

The order had come from General Franco, but France's General de Gaulle, then president, took three days to authorize the two ferries to dock in Oran. When the ships returned to Spain, their passengers disemabarked singing the praises of the military dictator. They were then registered and accommodation was found for them: the Red Cross looked after the injured or sick, and the local media published all their names in a bid to help relatives find them.

Many of them had left Algeria with little more than the clothes they stood in. Leo Palacio, one of the refugees, remembers that the banks offered loans "that they would never have given to Spaniards." The impact on the local economy was significant. The new arrivals used the loans they had been given to open supermarkets, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, laundromats, jewelers, and a host of other businesses. By 1970, some 20 percent of bars and restaurants were in the hands of "our compatriots" according to the French consul in the city, Petiot de Laluisant, in a report sent to the ambassador in Madrid.

Robert Tabarot, perhaps the best known of the exiles in Valencia, opened a pizzeria in the resort town of Benidorm. The authorities there gave him a special license allowing him to stay open until 6am "while all his Spanish competitors had to close much earlier," says Palacio.

The OAS were beyond the reach of French law here; none were extradited to France"

Thirty years earlier, the coal freighter Stanbrook had been kept waiting for 72 hours outside the port of Oran despite the terrible conditions aboard and the lack of food. When its passengers were finally allowed to disembark, the women and children were initially kept in an abandoned prison, while many of the men were conscripted to help build the trans-Saharan railway. The contrast between the welcome given by Spain to the émigrés from Algeria and by France to Republican exiles is, to say the least, notable. Little wonder that Le Courrier du Soleil, the weekly newspaper set up by the French in Alicante, described Franco as "a modern-day Moses" and translated into French many of the editorials from Arriba, the regime's official newspaper.

Such was the level of support for Franco among the pieds-noirs that they turned out en masse to support the dictator in the 1966 referendum, the first timid step by the regime to seek popular support. The émigrés took their cars out onto the streets of Alicante in long processions, waving placards and banners emblazoned with "Oui=Si." Agatángelo Soler, the mayor, said at the time that a handful of émigrés from Algeria presented themselves at the town hall "to tear up their French passports." These were among the more radical who felt betrayed, accusing France of selling them down the river by ceding the land where they had been born.

A large part of the senior command of the OAS, the so-called Organization of the Secret Army, a paramilitary group set up in Madrid in 1960 with the blessing of Franco by French dissidents opposed to Algerian independence, and responsible for many atrocities and at least 2,200 deaths during the independence struggle, either ended up in Alicante, or spent some time there. "They were beyond the reach of French law here, and not one of them was extradited to France," says Juan David Sempere Souvannavong, a lecturer at the University of Alicante and a specialist in the pieds-noirs in Spain.

"When they first arrived they had to register on a daily basis at the El Campello police station in Alicante," says François Andugar, aged 75, the son of Spanish émigrés from Algeria and a former member of the French parachute regiment as well as a member of the OAS. "The Spanish police kept close tabs on members of the OAS," he says.

Even so, around 50 OAS members managed to make contact and set up a ring that at the end of 1962 began training at a camp in the remote village of Valfogona, in Lleida, Catalonia. "We also learned how to hold up banks because the idea was to get the money needed to rebuild the organization in France, and to eventually assassinate De Gaulle," he says. The project came to nothing.

Andugar's story verifies rumors in the French press at the time about the existence of OAS training camps in Spain, but these were never proved. "There was another training camp - it didn't last long, in Vistahermosa, close to Alicante," says Jean Leonard Decouty, now 81, and another former member of the OAS but who was never in Algeria. "I fought from France," he says.

Eventually he fled to Alicante, where he opened a small restaurant. Decouty remembers that two senior members of the OAS, Joseph Ortiz and Pierre Lagaillarde, also lived in the town. The latter found work in the shop of the French school opened in the city by the pieds-noirs. His wife gave physics classes.

"Nobody has any doubts that the French college was linked to the OAS," says Manuel García, aged 77, the son of émigrés from Algeria and director of the school in the 1980s. "The French Ministry of Education was not happy about the place," he says, adding that it would be eight years after it was set up before the French authorities officially accredited the institution.

Support for the OAS, and hostility toward Algerians and Moroccans, remains strong among the pieds-noirs still living in Alicante. Alain Lavarde, the son of a member of the OAS, rallied support among the French community in Spain for the anti-immigration Frente Nacional, set up by Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the French legislative elections in June. He is proud of the result. "Around 22 percent of my support came from Alicante alone. That is around three times the number of supporters in the rest of Spain," he says.