France and the Maghreb nations’ histories are deeply intertwined with one another.
YouTuber and fashion influencer Megane Celia describes France as “cosmopolite”—the kind of place where “people of all different backgrounds, cultures, countries, religions, and skin colors all live together.” As anyone who’s been to the country can attest, France is a place that draws people from all over the world. Some of them are travelers like you or I, perhaps stopping by to explore one of the most fashionable, romantic, and spectacular places in Europe. Others come not for a visit, but to make a better life for themselves and their families. While she herself was born and raised in France, Megane is someone from two worlds: her mother is French, while her father is Moroccan. She, like many others, is a testament to the shrinking of our world, as well a character in the stories of the Maghrebi immigrants that came to France during the 20th century and still live there today.
France’s historical relationship with the countries of the Maghreb—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—is a long and violent one. From the 16th to the early 19th centuries, pirates and slave traders from the North African Barbary States harassed European ships in the Mediterranean. From 1800 onwards Europe used these provocations as a means to weaken North Africa itself, culminating in the French invasion of Algiers (modern day Algeria) in 1830. The war spilled into Morocco in 1844, and while the country would maintain its independence throughout the 19th century, the rest of the Maghreb was not so lucky. In 1912 France would finally colonize Morocco with Spanish help, however Berber guerillas would fight on during the 1920s.
The Maghreb would become France’s most important colonial possession, with Algeria in particular seen as an integral part of the empire. North Africans fought valiantly in World War II’s African theater, and in 1947 full citizenship was granted to all indigenous Algerians. However the nations of the Maghreb hoped for independence, and in time relations deteriorated between France and its colonies. In 1954 widespread revolts broke out in Algeria, and France took increasingly brutal measures to put them down. This led to a political crisis in France itself, to the point that France’s postwar government collapsed entirely. In addition to the war in Algeria, there was also widespread unrest in Morocco and Tunisia. In 1956 both countries would gain their independence; Algeria would follow in 1962. Unrest in both Algeria and Tunisia would continue for some time, and many refugees from both nations ended up returning to France. Morocco meanwhile, would see many of its citizens immigrate to France due to greener economic pastures.
Today there are estimated to be about five million people of Algerian descent in France, and over a million Moroccans. Most live in the cities, with Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon in particular having large populations of North African people. Because of her dual heritage, Megane admits that her experience is not the norm. “It’s a bit different for me,” she explains. “My mother is French—blond with blue eyes—while my father is Moroccan, and has a darker skin tone. I was also born in France, and I lived there until I moved to England three years ago.” Today Megane lives in the United States. The way she sees it, her outward identity depends on where in the world she is. “In France, we tend to be seen as Arabic or Muslim, while in our respective countries we’re considered French… I think that every single person of Maghreb descent in France will tell you that.” Having been born at the intersection of two cultures influenced Megane greatly, instilling in her a great love of travel and learning about our world’s various cultures and languages.
Despite the successes of Maghrebi immigrants in France, they are often faced with heavy discrimination by native born French people. Maghrebi immigrants are often sequestered into ghettos and prevented from properly integrating into the country’s populace. Algerians in particular tend to be looked down upon by French society, partially due to the chaos caused in both countries by the 1954 revolution. This discrimination has caused Maghrebi immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, to isolate themselves further from mainstream French culture. “Racism has always been a huge problem in France,” Megane says. “When I was in school, I remember I’d often be called Arabic or brown.”
And as Megane laments, things have only gotten more difficult for French Maghrebis in recent years. In 2015, two Islamist terrorists of Algerian descent attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a popular satirical magazine that three years earlier had printed highly controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Twelve were killed in the shooting, and eleven more were injured. That same year terrorists were responsible for other attacks in Paris and Ile-De-France; the following year an even worse attack occurred in Nice when terrorists drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day. These events have given rise to Islamophobic and nationalist movements, not just in France, but in Europe as well.
Despite these troubling times, Megane remains optimistic. “Racism may be a problem in France, but you still have the chance to meet and befriend people from all different backgrounds and groups,” she says. “It’s that way no matter where you’re from, or how wealthy you are. It’s something beautiful that I’ve rarely seen in any other country I’ve visited.” And perhaps there is cause for optimism. In recent years Magrebi minorities have become increasingly visible in French society. For every Frenchman or woman who holds prejudiced views, there are countless more who look to the future instead of the past. Megane’s mother and father are but one example. France still struggles with the ghosts of its past. However for those like Megane, it remains “cosmopolite”—a place for all.