On February 16, 2019, massive revolutionary protests started in Algeria, which ultimately led to the resignation of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika — the revolution continues since then. The role of the Algerian diaspora in France has been significant, as explains one of its members, Kenza Talmat.
On February 22, 2019, several Algerian cities rose against the fifth term of the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in place since 1999. Supported at first by the youth, the protest gradually ignited all the bodies of the civil society, and extended to a radical critique of the political regime and the call for a second Republic. By February 23, the Algerian diaspora took the street worldwide to show its support to the “Revolution of the smile.” The historical “Wilaya VII,” i.e. the Algerian emigration in France who actively participated in the war of independence (1954-1962), is in its 2.0 version finding support in various parts of the world and flooding social networks. In France, after the “Yellow Saturday” of the Yellow Vests movement, the Algerian “Green Sunday” has been established since February 24 as a day of weekly mobilizations. Immigrants are joining the struggle, along with their children.
Same tune, every Sunday, at the still overcrowded Place de la République in Paris. At noon, from the subway, we can hear the clamor of the excited crowd as it welcomes passerby and demonstrators. People make haste. Some faces turn solemn, as others burst in resounding laughter. Here begins the parade of immigrants and their descendants, answering the call from all over Paris and elsewhere in France. The canes of the elders pound the ground in rhythm, as they lead with their aura, everyone towards the exit. Children are held up on shoulders or cling to strollers. Young people stick together and move arm in arm, with Amazigh or Algerian flags tied around their necks. These same flags are displayed at the exit of the metro station, joined by the Palestinian one, and by those of their Tunisian and Moroccan neighbors who came in solidarity.
In the air, it is a mix of cologne, optimism, and coal cooked meat. At La République, people eat, drink, dance, sing, paint and scream a lot. The harragas, the young adults who have reached Europe without a visa on makeshift boats, are here masters of ceremony. From the highest point on the statue of La République, conquered every Sunday from 12 PM to 7 PM, they stir up crowds as they do in Algerian football stadiums.
The darbouka tap along, and the crowd throws bottles of water and victuals to its conductors who are still agitating. At their repertoire, songs and slogans picked up from the Algerian streets following the local news. “Makach el-khamsa ya Bouteflika ! Dibou el-BRI zidou sa3ika!” (Bouteflika, there will be no fifth term! Even if you bring back the Intervention Brigade and the police elite troops!); “Y’en a marre de ce pouvoir!” (Enough with this power!); “Non au 4,5 mandat!” (No to the 4.5th term!); “Pas de 102, du sang neuf!” (No [article]102, new blood now!); “Bensalah Dégage!” (Bensalah get out!).
After 3 PM, it’s getting harder to move around the crowd as the square is so packed. The wifi is soon saturated. People encounter the acquaintances they planned to meet haphazardly, InshAllah. Meanwhile, they take a lot of pictures. Pictures of themselves, of other people, of the most beautiful signs, most of which were conceived the day before, inspired by the creative geniuses from the bled (the country of the ancestors) and the events of the week. Later on, everything will be posted online and relayed to family and friends overseas. I hold on to my grandfather’s jacket that doesn’t leave me week after week. It would never miss any gathering, like him, in his lifetime. Often annoyed returning home from his tajmaat (traditional assembly in rural Algeria) of exiles, but still coming forward, tirelessly. Algerians have a peculiar relationship with their country. Passionate. Relentless. Rancorous and vindictive. Algerian in sum.
Since February 22, the threads of time and space merge on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. Memories are everywhere. All called upon. Several ghosts are exhumed by the crowd to castigate “the confiscated independence” since 1963. On white sheets or cardboards signs, one can find side by side the names of male and female resistance fighters who died as martyrs or were evicted by the ruling power after the independence. While emphasizing the betrayal of revolutionary ideas, these ghosts call out on the difficult conditions of women in post-colonial Algeria despite their contribution to the war effort. Similarly, the memory of the Amazigh Spring is also invoked by the portrait of its leader, Mouloud Mammeri. Started after the cancellation of his conference on Kabyle poetry at the University of Tizi Ouzou in March 1980, the Amazigh Spring addressed the denial and criminalization of the Amazigh component of the Algerian identity ever since the arabization of the state engaged in 1963. In the air, the following struggles for democracy and pluralism in October 1988 are also brought back by the portraits of Matoub Lounès, Tahar Djaout, and Mohamed Boudiaf, assassinated during the Black Decade (1991-2001). Slogans from the past also revisit protestors’ lips, like “Ulac smah Ulac!” (No forgiveness!) or “Pouvoir Assassin!” (Murderous State!), in reference to Kabylie’s Black Spring where 128 protestors were killed for demanding democracy, social justice, and dignity for the Amazigh people under the regime of Bouteflika in 2001.
Through those several exhortations of history, the demonstrators turn away from ‘official’ accounts which have made the FLN (National Liberation Front) the only legitimate holder of the revolutionary inheritance, and so far justified its holding of power. They claim back a militant Algerianness, embedded in the conjuring of the post-colonial pact and tried through sacrifice and oppression. Since February 22, memory is not only invoked to call out the illegitimacy of the Algerian government, but also the recourse that allows the understanding of immigrant condition on this side of the Mediterranean Sea. At La République, the memory of displacements from Algeria to France is vivid. One is reminded of the calling for cheap workforce by France from the early 20th century until 1974, and undertaken by the economic envoys to offset the destruction of the traditional agricultural fabric started by colonial France. Also comes to mind the continuous brain drain since the 1990s, the desperate flights during the Black Decade, and the perilous escape of the harragas imputable to the failure of the Algerian State to redistribute the resources from land rent. “No one leaves their country by choice,” seems to scream all these summoned memories addressed to multiple recipients, driven by historical misadventure, oppression and the horror of social and political death.
Since the general uprising of Algerian civil society, memory has been searing, alive, palpable. A warning shot calling Algerians from one bank of the Mediterranean to another, to win back their dignity and continue the unfinished business of 1962.
As in several Algerian cities, immigrants and their descendants are invited to express their wishes for tomorrow’s Algeria on colorful post-it notes. To this general awakening of consciousness, bitterness gradually gave way to relief and hope on the side of the first hours’ opponents to the regime. And so, everyone allow themselves to dream. On pieces of paper, Facebook posts, at dinner tables… What will Algeria look like tomorrow? No one knows. However, people dive head first despite everything, at the risk of being swallowed up, forgotten once again… although not without fighting. They set up feminist squares at demonstrations, combine the Amazigh and Algerian flags, recall the “Mecca of the revolutionaries” and advocate for the awakening of a pan-African consciousness to stop being “deserts of humanity” for Black people.
At the 2.0 Parisian tajmaat, the mic is passed among an heterogeneous crowd that calls out, proposes, argues and also cries sometimes, in Tamazight, Derja and French. There, as tightly packed as in the municipal meeting rooms, the coffee-debates, and student general assemblies, the spectre of the commitment of the historical Wilaya VII is manifest.
What role for the “Revolution of the Smile’s” ambassadors all gathered here? This fortunate plot twist in Algeria’s history has undoubtedly encouraged immigrants and their descendants to revisit their biography and identifications. Readily introduced in the French media as the “Algerian diaspora,” the response of the zmigri (immigrants) and their children to the invitation to reconnect with their Algerianness has however necessarily varied according to the result of these subjective arbitrations. Some took days off to provide support as a physical presence. Others preferred to give a distant one, assuming not being the main protagonists of this conversation.
These identity quandaries were particularly tricky for those born of second and third generations, who, like me, grew up in the dustbins of France because of their Algerianness, but usually know Algeria at best through one-month visits on summer vacation and the renewal of their identity papers. Consequently, their hands are more hesitant in front of the colorful board of dreams, their voices less heard within the assemblies, those eternal illegitimate children always questioning their legitimacy. Nevertheless, some are still running to every meetings, making workshop signs, organizing movie-screenings, with quotes by Frantz Fanon in mind, and the memory of their grandfathers on their back.
In this fifth round towards democratic transition in Algeria, our ambassadors, with good awareness of their strategic position, have over the weeks identified their mission. By gathering at La République every Sunday, they affirm on the one hand their choice to make themselves the echo and not the lighthouse of the current change, working in synergy alongside the forces on the Algerian territory from their situated position. On the other hand, these gatherings are meant as a warning. A warning that the Algerian colony of France will be the guardrail of her attempts to interfere in Algerian affairs.
On April 2, the popular mobilization achieved the impossible by pushing the dying president to leave the scene by the back door after 19 years of regency. The wooden puppet is gone, but his puppeteers are still on stage. Getting rid of them is an arm wrist that promises to be tight. ■