During the last years of French rule in Algeria, between 1956 and 1962 to be precise, the army recruited 70,000 Algerian Muslims to help with the business of keeping order. When the French gave up their colonial crown jewel, they evacuated not just these soldiers but also their families, some 300,000 persons in all. Known universally as Harkis (but bureaucratically as Repatriated French Muslims, or FMRs) they nearly forty years later have grown to a half million.
Their lot is not a happy one. Despised by Algerians and other Muslim immigrants as turncoats, they remain outcasts ("We Harkis are the only Muslims in town who don't have a place to pray"). As for the native French, any gratitude for Harki help in colonial Algeria long ago dissipated; what remains is a racist mistrust of them as lazy foreigners (fully 80 percent of the 18-25 cohort are unemployed). Muller, a talented young sociologist, has broached a subject few want to discuss. He shows the diversity of the Harkis, argues that in no sense do they constitute a single community, and outlines the range of their tribulations.
In part, he does so by pointing out telling details. One man, born in 1953 in Algeria as Mohammed Gueroumi, led a tormented existence in Algeria after his father was evacuated, at one point spending a month hiding with his grandfather in a cemetery. On arrival in France in 1966, Gueroumi found a father too ill to look after him, so he grew up in an orphanage where an employee decided to change his name to Jean-Pierre Guérin. Starting in 1976, he began a legal effort to gain back his old name (a French name and an Algerian face, ironically, had the effect of exacerbating prejudice), a campaign which over two decades later he is still fighting. The slowness of his case and the reluctance of the French authorities rather neatly illustrate the Harki predicament.