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France’s Algeria Evacuation: Caution Flag or Ray of Hope?

What Europe today might be able to learn from a refugee experience in 1962.

September 22, 2015

What Europe today might be able to learn from a refugee experience in 1962.

Massive flows of refugees are not new – and Europe has absorbed them before. In 1962, after withdrawing from North Africa, mainland France had to find new homes for 700,000 refugees. This hastily evacuated population accounted for 1.5% of the mainland population at the time.

Initially, 450,000 French Algerian settlers – known as “Pieds-Noirs” – landed in Marseilles alone. The hostility of the local French population was very high.

The refugees expected that their French citizenship and identity would make them welcome. But they had not grown up in Europe and were still seen as outsiders.

Remaining tensions from the bitter Algerian War for Independence, which ultimately saw the French government switch from supporting the settlers to supporting the independence forces against a settler resistance, also did not help.

Gaston Defferre, the mayor of Marseilles, declared: “They should readjust somewhere else.”

The public administration was completely overwhelmed by the influx. In Marseilles, it could only take care of 90,000 of the refugees, according to the historian Jean- Jacques Jordi . The Catholic charity organization Caritas tried to help the others as it could.

Successful integration

The conditions were harsh for the former settlers. The price of a night in the hotels of Marseilles multiplied threefold. They were also accused of being criminals because some refugees had belonged to the mafia of Oran and Algiers and committed crimes after relocating to France.

Eventually, however, 80% of the Marseilles refugees would leave to live somewhere else in France and were integrated into society. One strategy involved the French government giving incentives for French Algerian refugees to move to the north of France, which had a more dynamic economy at the time.

Interestingly, the 120,000 refugees who ultimately stayed in Marseilles actually had a positive impact on the local economy. Jordi argues that the “pieds-noirs” even contributed significantly to the city’s economic renewal.

When a large number of refugees arrives, even when they share as much common identity as in the 1962 case, there will be tensions and uncertainty. With firm support and an adjustment period, it is possible to move forward together.


In 1962, 700,000 “pieds-noirs” refugees from former French North Africa moved to mainland France.

Eventually 80% of the 1962 Marseilles refugees were integrated into society elsewhere in France.

The 120k refugees who stayed in Marseilles after 1962 had a positive impact on the local economy.

With support and adjustment, it is possible for refugees and hosts to move forward together.