Algerian Youth in the colonies de vacances during the Algerian War
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In 1961, during a summer notorious for the violence perpetrated by the Paris police against Algerian migrants living in and around the French capital, one hundred Algerian children from the shantytowns of Paris spent their summers in the Corsican villages of Oletta and Baie de Saint-Florent. The boys played sports outdoors and participated in military-like drills and the girls learned French cooking and housekeeping skills. How, in the final months of the Algerian War, did children living in shantytowns that lacked electricity and running water and were subject to daily police raids end up spending the summer in the mountains of Corsica? The answer lies in the unique response of the French government to the threat of Algerian nationalism in the metropole and in the significance of colonies de vacances (recreational summer camps) in the French national consciousness. This paper argues the French government invested in summer camps because they offered a means of molding Algerian migrant children into loyal French citizens, a process that French leaders had deemed vital to stemming the tide of Algerian nationalism and, thus, to maintaining French control of Algeria.
The Importance of Social Action in the Fight against Algerian Nationalism
The summer camp in Oletta was one of a dozen or so run by private welfare associations that recruited Algerian boys and girls from the poor neighborhoods and shantytowns of Paris and other French cities to spend several weeks in the French countryside or as far afield as the Swiss Alps. These camps were part of a broader approach on the part of the Fourth and Fifth Republics to Algerian migration to metropolitan France, in which social action—ranging from slum clearance and housing construction to housekeeping classes and recreational opportunities—took on key strategic importance in France’s fight against the Algerian Front de libération nationale (National Liberation Front, or FLN). As the Algerian War escalated, tens of thousands of Algerians migrated to metropolitan France, drawn there by the promise of employment in the rapidly growing industrial economy and fleeing the zones of “pacification” to which the French military had forced thousands to resettle. A 1958 census recorded 318,400 so-called “French Muslims from Algeria,” the term used by the French government to describe non-European Algerians, a more than two and a half-fold increase since 1949. Many Algerian migrants, particularly families, lived in rapidly growing shantytowns in the industrial suburbs outside French cities. Top bureaucrats and local charity providers alike reasoned that Algerians who had assimilated into French culture would be more likely to choose loyalty to France over loyalty to the FLN, whose French Federation was using a welfare network of its own to win over Algerian migrants to its cause. To this end, state bodies such as the Ministry of the Interior reached out to the network of private social welfare associations and relied heavily on their expertise to forge the ties to the migrant community deemed essential to France’s maintaining political control of Algeria. The government’s efforts also served as political propaganda amid criticism, particularly from the left, of French involvement in Algeria. Investment in assimilationist initiatives such as summer camps boosted claims by the French leadership that Algeria, and all Algerians, were part of the French nation, claims that growing public awareness of the poverty and isolation of the Algerian migrant community threatened to undermine.
The French state’s approach to Algerian migration, and to the social, cultural, and political issues that accompanied it, consisted of a complicated web of agencies and programs ranging from the purely charitable to the repressive. In this context, the lines between policing and social action disappeared. 1958 marked the creation of a new administrative body, the Service des affaires musulmanes et de l’action sociale (Muslim Affairs and Social Action Service, or SAMAS), whose governing principle was that the integration of the Algerian Muslim population into French society was vital to fighting Algerian nationalism in the metropole. On 29 October of the same year, the newly instated Gaullist government established a special Fonds d’action sociale (Social action fund, or FAS) to fund welfare initiatives for Algerian workers and their families in France. One of the primary objectives of the FAS was to “Facilitate the harmonious rehabilitation and incorporation of young migrants into metropolitan society.” Summer camps were thus one in a group of state-funded initiatives, including youth shelters, remedial and domestic education, job training, and even sports teams targeted at Algerian children and adolescents.
Meanwhile, the Paris Police undertook their own social action initiative, but unlike those who earnestly believed in the power of social action to win over hearts and minds to the French cause, the police approached social action as a mere cover for cracking down on FLN activity. While the French administration, under the direction of Prime Minister Michel Debré, designed the policing and social service sectors to work in tandem, in practice their cooperation suffered from a lack of communication due to the top-secret nature of the police’s actions, as well as a fundamental difference in orientation. The same Algerian neighborhoods where reformers offered social assistance were also subject to constant surveillance, violence, and mass arrests at the hands of the police in the final months of the war. As Algerian independence became inevitable, administrators shifted their focus to maintaining French power going into independence negotiations, resulting in a marked crackdown on the activities of the FLN and the importation of colonial techniques of population control to the metropole. Rising tensions came to a heads on the night of 17 October 1961, when the Paris Police, under orders from Prefect Maurice Papon, violently attacked demonstrators marching peacefully in support Algerian independence, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Algerians and the brutal beating and detention of hundreds more.
Why Summer Camps?
The summer camps of the Algerian War years have their roots in the 1880s, when French Protestant reformers first sent sickly students from the working-class areas of Paris and its environs to reap the health benefits of a summer spent living with robust peasant families. Summer camps in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, about which historian Laura Lee Downs has written, were of various political and religious persuasions and their motives ranged from the purely hygienic to the pedagogical and political. Although, by the 1960s, over one million children from across French society attended summer camps, the movement began as a way to remove poor children from the filthy and unhealthy conditions in industrial cities. For instance, socialist reformers in the western suburb of Suresnes, like those of the Algerian War era, sent disadvantaged boys and girls on summer holidays as part of a larger project of urban social renewal. Nineteenth and twentieth century camp organizers, including those during the Algerian War, shared a common belief in the profound effect of relocation on children’s development. A local newspaper in Villeneuve, Switzerland, for example, described the Algerian campers of the summer of 1961 as “intelligent but poorly assimilated.” “Trapped day after day in a constrained world often without hope,” the article continued, “they need to be able to run about in a healthy environment that will give them the desire to escape from the miasma where they stagnate with their own kind.” But during the Algerian War, relocation took on urgent military importance. Summer camps offered a seemingly benign and apolitical pretext for reformers to remove children from the subversive political influences of the FLN to which they were exposed in the capital.
Furthermore, like their predecessors, the summer camps founded during the Algerian War welcomed poor children as a means of strengthening the political loyalties of entire communities, and promised to thoroughly imbue campers with French patriotism. They also served as a powerful wartime propaganda tool. While the Saharan oil fields and nuclear test sites may have been the primary interest of President Charles de Gaulle and Prime Minister Michel Debré, they also needed to appear to be defending Algerians’ belonging in the French nation. What better way than through pictures of Algerian boys and girls smiling alongside their European counterparts in an idyllic setting evocative of the “true France” of a bygone era?
Political and Religious Ties
Associations that organized summer camps for Algerian youth were primarily from the center-right and liberal center of French politics, though not all supported the war in Algeria. For instance, the left-leaning Groupe d’étude et d’action pour les Nord-Africains de la region parisienne (Study and Action Group for North Africans in the Paris Region, or GEANARP) whose members attracted the attention of the French government for speaking out against the Algerian War, ran a camp attended by one hundred Algerian youth living in shantytowns and temporary housing centers in the summer of 1961. Amitié nord-africaine de Nanterre (North African Friendly Society of Nanterre), whose papers tellingly omit any mention of the ties between France and Algeria, organized a camp for twenty children in Bordeaux, where they could “spend a month in a relaxing environment recalling the North African sky.”
Associations belonging to the broader movement of Christian opposition to the Algerian War were likewise active in the social action sphere, and some founded summer camps of their own. The one hundred Algerian children who spent the summer of 1961 in the Swiss alpine villages of La Lenk and Villeneuve arrived there thanks to the Cimade (Comité inter mouvements auprès des evacuees, an ecumenical Protestant migrants’ rights association), with the additional assistance of the Dominican sisters of Marseille. The Cimade also created night classes, clubs for adolescents and women, and a daycare center in Arenas. It ran into trouble with state and local authorities, however, who suspected its charitable work in the centres d’assignation à residence surveillée (detention centers/internment camps) of crossing the line between philanthropic and political action. Additionally, the Abbé Negré, a priest who had visited the Nanterre shantytown, turned a rural country house into a summer camp with the backing of the archbishop of Bordeaux. The mission of the center, which he named the Centre Girondin de Jeunesse Franco-Musulman (Girondin Center for French Muslim Youth), was “To battle the frightening misery that reigns in the shantytowns, and to participate also in the union of the French and Muslim communities.”
Conversely, Gaullists trumpeted the power of summer camps to instill patriotism and teach cultural mores to young French Musilm citizens-in-training. Indeed, the head of the security service for the President of the Republic, M. Canteloube, even founded his own charitable association, which specialized in the organization of summer camps. Another association, Jeunesse, Culture, Loisirs, et Technique (Youth, Culture, Leisure, and Technique, or JCLT) maintained especially close political ties to General de Gaulle. A group of the General’s supporters founded JCLT in 1960 as an extension of the Service d’action civique (Civic Action Service, or SAC), a Gaullist militia. JCLT was dedicated to its goal of “defending and making known the thoughts and action of General de Gaulle.” With centers in the twelfth, fifteenth, and eighteenth Paris arrondissements, the association fused politics and social action, taking Algerian youth out of shantytowns and placing them in summer camps as well as on their multicultural sports teams or in youth shelters, where, along with food, French language classes, and job training, young men also received indoctrination with French patriotism. Moreover, their devotion to social action as a method of retaining French political control over Algeria led some ardent Gaullist reformers to create recreational camps for children in Algeria. Dr. Sangline, the director of a youth hostel in metropolitan France, also created a children’s camp in Guynemer in Grande Kabylie. The camp, whose board of directors included Mrs. Jacques Massu, was designed for ten to sixteen-year-old “vagabonds” from Algiers and Constantine and was in operation for at least one session in 1961.
Common Purposes: Concerns about Young Men and the Need for Cultural Mixing
While both girls and boys attended summer camps, it was Algerian boys, particularly adolescents, whom the camps most actively recruited. In their 1959 annual report, the largest migrant welfare association, the Commission d’aide aux Nord-Africains dans la métropole (Aid Commission for North Africans in the Metropole, or CANAM) called for “vigilant attention” to be paid toward “protecting the physical and moral safety of young men.” Failure to help isolated, undereducated Muslim youth find housing and work and assimilate into French culture, the report’s authors argued, would have grave social consequences. In 1960, the Prefecture of the Seine undertook a plan it dubbed “Operation Polonceau,” which aimed to take charge of the “Bands of kids [...] who haunted the Barbès neighborhood during the summer, not knowing what to do with their free time, dynamism and desire for sun.”
The secretary general of JCLT, Robert Levillain, was especially proud of his organization’s summer camps and of the physical as well as psychological effects he believed they had on young men. Levillain chose locations far away from Paris, on the French island of Corsica, because there, he believed, the campers became “more ‘permeable’ to what the counselors want them to do.” In 1961, JCLT sent thirty-five children aged six to fourteen to Oletta. The association opened a new camp the same year at Baie de Saint-Florent, where sixty-five Muslim, fifteen European, and ten North African Jewish children spent a summer playing sports, swimming, and hiking on a regimented schedule that included daily military-style inspections. Campers were also shown patriotic movies while camp counselors recorded their reactions and reported them back to the SAC; they even made their own films to be used as recruiting material for JCLT. Levillain was so convinced of the necessity to get Algerian youth off the streets of Paris that he sent letters to regional prefects, asking them to recruit families who could “house a Muslim child during the holidays,” when children were left unsupervised and were, he feared, “prone to falling victim to the FLN.” In January 1960, Michel Debré personally wrote to Secretary General for Algerian Affairs Roger Moris requesting that the FAS fund Levillain’s efforts. Levillain used the 55,000 NF he received from the FAS to expand his association’s efforts, establishing additional youth education centers in St. Etienne and Roubaix as well as a sports center in Nanterre. By January 1962, over one hundred young people were living in the SAC’s centers in Paris. That same year, Levillain added a summer camp session for adolescents up to age twenty, noting that there were still too many uneducated Algerian youth on the Parisian streets, “whose only place to spend their vacation was the Place de la Bastille.”
Young Algerian men who were out of school and unemployed also caught the attention of retired General Jacques de Butler, head of the Association pour Encourager la Formation Professionelle des Adultes et l’Apprentissage des Adolescents Algériens (Association to Encourage the Vocational Training of Algerian Adults and the Apprenticeship of Adolescents, AEFPA). Like Levillain, de Butler believed that Algerian boys were particularly susceptible to recruitment by the FLN and asserted the need to “get them off the streets” and into his association’s centers before they were “corrupted” by nationalist militants. General de Butler was particularly concerned about older adolescents who had aged out of the French public vocational school system and were too young for job training. De Butler received funding from the FAS and the Ministry of National Education to expand the AEFPA’s operation (in 1959 it was comprised of only one center in Paris) and by 1961 the AEFPA was running a high school, three technical schools, and remedial education classes for approximately sixty primary school-aged children. The AEFPA housed a total of one hundred and eight Algerian children in places throughout France such as the Côte d’Azur, Cap Breton, and the Bouches-du-Rhône during the Easter, summer, and Christmas holidays. The association sought to encourage metropolitan ways of living at its camps, including feeding the children a French diet. “Everything,” de Butler explained, “will be done so that our pupils adopt the way of life of the place where they live, which is essential for guaranteeing a normal existence for them and a friendly reception by the metropolitan population.”
A second commonality among summer camps for Algerian children was their emphasis on the “brassage” (mixing) of Algerian and metropolitan youth, which was one of the primary objectives laid out by Social Action Delegate Michel Massenet in his 1959 social action plan. Charitable associations recruited poor youth from European as well as North African backgrounds, and sometimes paid for Algerian children to attend French camps that they otherwise could not have afforded. Whereas earlier reformers had sent city children to live with peasant families, believing their constitutions would be strengthened by a summer of traditional, rural life, during the Algerian War camp organizers housed Algerian youth with their French counterparts, hoping they would adopt properly “French” behaviors and attitudes. Summer camps were to be a site where Algerian youth could forge connections with French children, as well as with the European young men and women who served as camp counselors, and from which French culture would radiate outward through the entire migrant community. For instance, General de Butler hoped that his camps would increase interactions between the metropolitan and Algerian populations, bring about mutual comprehension, and start lasting friendships. In 1961, the Gaullist Service des liaisons sociales nord-africains (North African Social Liaison Service, or SLSNA) sent twenty-six boys and girls aged six to seventeen to camps in the French countryside where their “cultural deficiencies” would be remedied through socialization with their metropolitan peers. The Union Civique de la Jeunesse de France (Civic Union of French Youth) paid for fifteen Muslim youth from the Paris shantytowns and an equal number of their metropolitan counterparts to spend the Easter holidays together, and Rotary International Club of Paris organized a sports-oriented camp for which it recruited Algerian and metropolitan young men. JCLT’s brochures claimed that having North African and metropolitan kids play together facilitated “the integration of young Muslims into Parisian life” and, by “channeling enthusiasm and possibilities, [gave] them the tools they needed to help themselves.” Robert Levillain, like his Catholic predecessors, believed that organized sports encouraged character development and patriotism, and he likewise saw them as an opportunity for Algerian youth to feel accepted by their metropolitan peers.
The Transition to Algerian Independence
Following French recognition of the FLN as the leaders of a newly independent Algerian state on 5 July 1962, many of the associations that had served Algerian youth simply closed their doors once the need to assimilate migrants and relocate children from the streets of Paris had lost its political urgency. Others, such as the CANAM and the Cimade, followed the government’s lead in redirecting efforts to North African immigrants at large—whom French officials continued to view as in need of assistance in order to “move easily in a society from which they are separated by the handicap of language, poverty, and habits.” Robert Levillain continued his efforts unabated, explaining, “At a time when for many, the problem having lost its political topicality, it has also lost its interest,” he wrote, “we affirm that, to the contrary, it is brutally clear that the need for remedial education, job training, and assimilation, continues to exist.” In fact, the number of children from the shantytowns who attended JCLT’s summer camps increased in the three years following Algerian independence. Between 1962 and 1964, JCLT harbored sixty Algerian youth at its center in le Bleymard in southern France, including the children of harkis (North African soldiers who served in the French army) and those of functionaries chased from Algeria at independence. JCLT still operates today in Paris as a youth-services organization, and in fact manages summer camps to this day, despite their decline in popularity among the general French population.
Summer camps for Algerian migrant youth served an important political function beyond giving children from the shantytowns and poor neighborhoods of French cities a few weeks of fresh air and recreation. By actively recruiting Algerian as well as metropolitan children, summer camps pursued the ‘mixing’ that de Gaulle’s government had deemed necessary for defeating Algerian nationalism and, albeit temporarily, removed them from the reach of the FLN. They therefore offer insight into France’s last-ditch, failed attempt to mobilize social action in order to forge France and Algeria into a single nation. Furthermore, the Algerian War is a telling example of the role of summer camps in the French imagination. Drawing on a history dating back to the nineteenth century, reformers in these years embraced summer camps as transmitters of Frenchness, idyllic refuges where children from the shantytowns of Paris would learn to love a version of France that, in 1961, existed only in the mountains of Corsica and Switzerland.
Between 1948 and 1953 the number of ‘Algerian Muslims’ living in metropolitan France doubled from 120,000 to 240,000 (including 5,000 women and 15,000 children). “Circulaire No. 232, Objet: Assistance morale et matérielle aux citoyens Français Musulmans originaires d’Algéire,” 26 June 1950, F1a 5056: Ministère de l’Intérieur, Services de l’Algérie et des Départements d’Outre-Mer, Centre d’accueil et de recherche des Archives nationales (CARAN), Paris.
“Repartition des Nord Africains en Metropole,” January 1958, F1a 5010: Ministère de l’Interieur, Cabinet du Ministre, Affaires sociales musulmanes en métropole, CARAN. The report showed 125,000 Algerians in the Department of the Seine. There were also high concentrations in Lyon, Metz, Lille, and Marseille.
FAS, “Projet de realisations sociales au profit des travailleurs d’origine algérienne en métropole,” article 9 of Decree no. 59-559 of 23 April 1959, article 2, versement 19770391, Centre des archives contemporaines (CAC), Fontainebleau.
The new police structures put in place by Prefect Maurice Papon in 1959 included the Service d’assistance technique aux Français musulmans d’Algérie (SAT-FMA) bureaus, where migrants living in the shantytowns and Algerian neighborhoods of Paris had to go to file for state assistance and to receive identification papers, and the Force de police auxiliaire (FPA), a police force made up of North Africans, which used brutal interrogation techniques to collect information on FLN operations with virtually no legal accountability. Additionally, associations that received state funding were required to submit reports to the police that included lists of the names, ages, national origins, and suspected political affiliations of the Algerian migrants whom they served. See Emmanuel Blanchard, La Police Parisienne et les Algériens, 1944-1962 (Paris: Nouveau Monde, 2011).
Michel Massenet grew increasingly critical of the invasion of policing into the social aid realm over the course of the war. While maintaining his commitment to French control of Algeria, Massenet worked to prevent future police violence following 17 October 1961, asserting that it was not only inhumane but also detrimental to the French position going into negotiations with the GPRA. See, for instance, Michel Massenet, “Déroulement des événements du mois d’octobre 1961 tel qu’il est apparu à mon service,” art. 8, 19770391, CAC.
For more on police brutality toward Algerian migrants see Linda Amiri, La bataille de France: la guerre d’Algérie en métropole (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2004); Blanchard, La Police Parisienne; and Jim House and Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006). For a first-hand account see Monique Hervo, Chroniques du bidonville: Nanterre en guerre d’Algérie (Paris: Seuil, 2001).
The numbers of French children attending colonies de vacances peaked at 1,320,000 in 1962. See Jean Houssaye, Le Livre des colos: Histoire et evolution des centres de vacances pour enfants (Paris: La Documentation Française, 1989), cited in Downs, Childhood, 292.
For instance, the City of Paris first deployed summer camps as part of a larger strategy of shaping future citizens of the republic in the 1880s, and, during the interwar period, the communist government of Ivry made the appealing offer to send the children of poor residents on a summer holiday. See Downs, Childhood, 19 and 241.
See http://www.lacimade.org/. The Cimade was founded by Christian student groups to meet the “material, psychological, and spiritual needs” of refugees. Its earliest work was in the Nazi internment camps in France and the evacuations of Jews to Switzerland. During the Algerian War, the Cimade provided aid to residents of villages controlled by the SAS (Sections administratives spéciales) and to patients in French military hospitals in Algeria, and it brought public attention to the squalid conditions of the resettlement camps imposed by the French army. The organization exists today and primarily advocates for the legal rights of undocumented workers in France.
Letter of 27 May 1958 from the Préfet des Bouches-du-Rhône to the SAMAS, ref. no. 6332, AM/JB, F1a 51015, CARAN. For more on the activities of the Cimade in the Larzac Detention Center see Jean-Philippe Marcy, “L’aide aux internes: La Cimade au Camp du Larzac (1959-1961),” in Raphaëlle Branche and Sylvie Thénault, eds., La France en guerre 1954-1962: Expériences métropolitaines de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne (Paris: Editions Autrement, 2008), 382-9.
“Centre Girondin de Jeunesse Franco Musulman,” art. 4, 19770391, CAC. For more on the Christian antiwar movement see Geoffrey Adams, The Call of Conscience: French Protestant Responses to the Algerian War, 1954-1962 (Wilfried Laurier University Press, 1998) and Sybille Chapeu, Des Chrétiens dans la guerre d’Algérie: l’action de la Mission de France (Paris: l’Atelier, 2004).
Letter of 26 September from M. Revol (FAS) to Michel Massenet, art. 4, 19770391, CAC. Social Action Delegate Michel Massenet visited the center in 1961 and the FAS awarded the association 125,000 NF. General Jacques Massu commanded the French forces during the Battle of Algiers and also led the generals’ coup during which he seized power in Algiers and threatened an assault on Paris unless de Gaulle was placed in charge of France, leading to the creation of the Fifth Republic.
The reformers’ disproportionate attention to young men over young women probably speaks more to their own gendered assumptions than to reality, given Algerian women’s active participation in FLN activity. It should also be noted that Algerian girls and women received significant state attention due to their perceived inability to adapt to modern French society. Social action administrators saw women as particularly key to the integration of Algerian families and funded programs, such as domestic education classes, that specifically targeted women and girls. For more on welfare programs that targeted women and girls see Amelia H. Lyons, The Civilizing Mission in the Metropole: Algerian Families and the French Welfare State during Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).
Service d’action civique, “Colonie de Vacances pour Adolescents ‘Oletta,’” 31 August 1961, art. 4, 19770391, CAC. The Rue de Polonceau is a street in the 18th arrondissement in what was at the time a heavily North African neighborhood.
“Rapports sur l’Action sociale pour la migration algérienne en métropole, remis à Monsieur le Secrétaire Général pour les Affaires algériennes le 25 novembre 1959: Programme d’action sociale pour l’année 1959,” art. 2, 19770391, CAC. As Social Action Delegate, Massenet was in charge of coordinating the diverse state and private services involved in providing aid to Algerian families.
The SLSNA, for instance, opted not to continue its services after 1964, “there no longer being any reason to pursue [its] action.” SLSNA, Letter of 12 June 1964 from M. Gandrille to the Ministry of the Interior, F1a 5106, CARAN. Between Algerian independence in July 1962 and the asosciation’s dissolution in April 1964, the SLSNA restricted its services to black Africans, ‘Malagaches,’ and European settlers returning from Algeria. See “Note d’information pour Monsieur le Ministre de l’Intérieur, Objet: Activité passée et orientation future du Service des liaisons socials nord-africaines,” art. 4, 19770391, CAC.
Laura Lee Downs has explained that camp enrollments began their decline during the prosperity of the late-1960s and early-1970s, as more and more families were able to afford to vacation together during the summer months. See Downs, Childhood, 295.