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The French Algerians moving to Algeria ‘seeking freedom, opportunity’ | Features

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Fafa finally feels free in her attire, long scarves and abayas covering her head to toe.

The 28-year-old can wear them today in Algeria without the trouble she would have faced in France, her country of origin which she decided to quit in 2016, seeking more religious freedom.

Third-generation French Fafa, who comes from a Muslim family, says she never felt uncomfortable in France until she decided to become a practising Muslim as an adult.

According to German online portal Statista, there are more than 5.4 million Muslim French people, about 8 percent of the population.

“When I discovered Islam, I naturally adopted a religious lifestyle in line with my principles, and since then, I no longer felt at home in France,” she tells Al Jazeera.

“We could easily end up being snubbed, insulted, even attacked. We’re asked to change our lifestyle. We’re prevented from doing certain things or going to certain places because we are veiled.”

Fafa is sure the marginalisation she felt was not due to her “foreign origins”, but rather was only about her religious affiliation.

“My husband, who is of French descent and converted to Islam, felt the same. This sense of not belonging in France clearly comes from the fact that we’re Muslims,” she underlines.

a woman wearing an abaya walking in the streets of Paris
Muslim women in France have faced harassment for their choice of attire [File: Miguel Medina/AFP]

What was once a one-way street leading north to France now seems to be a two-way street with a noticeable number of people heading south to Algeria.

The mother of three says the move she took eight years ago is “the best decision” of her life.

“We feel fulfilled… The climate is much more pleasant and serene than in France, where there is an oppressive atmosphere. I feel at home and … so does my husband,” she confesses.

‘Arabs of France’

Many Algerians still believe in a better future on the other side of the Mediterranean and try to get out of Algeria in any way possible.

“The only people who try to dissuade me from coming to Algeria are Algerians. Most of them believe there are no opportunities here,” says Ahmad*, a 24-year-old French-Algerian political science student.

For some French Algerians in France, discontent with how their country is treating people who look like them is driving them away.

In December, the French parliament voted on a restrictive immigration law, triggering demonstrations all over the country and increasing the desire to leave France among the children of immigrants.

While the law was referred to the Constitutional Council, which decided on January 25 that one-third of its clauses were unconstitutional, the right wing, who had championed the law, has vowed to fight back and called for a referendum on it.

Market scene in Algeria
The people who spoke to Al Jazeera found the rhythm of life in Algeria more comforting [File: Ryad Kramdi/AFP]

The contested articles clawed back benefits like family reunification, social guarantees for foreign students, health-based residence permits, and social benefits like family allowances and housing assistance.

“It is a law that … spans from the right to asylum, obtaining a residence permit, creating new residence permits, and even defining an illegal stay as a criminal offence, which, in my opinion, is one of the most dangerous measures.

“Currently, being in an irregular situation in France is not a crime,” Magda El Haitem, a lawyer at the Paris Bar, tells Al Jazeera.

Ahmad sees a divide between before and after the Charlie Hebdo attacks: “Racism and Islamophobia became accepted after 2015. I was in high school … I remember my teacher comparing me to Hamas.”

A series of tragedies fueled the fears of the Muslim-Arab community, such as the killing of young Nahel by French police in late June. “Sadly, it’s not an extraordinary event. It was just filmed this time,” regrets Ahmed.

The increasing rightwards leaning of the French government does not reassure the community either.

“Gabriel Attal is known for his decision to ban the abaya in schools when he was the minister of education. Today, he’s been appointed prime minister. It seems that Islamophobia in France leads to promotions,” Ahmad adds bitterly.

nanterre protests
The killing of Nahel prompted protests that devolved into violence as police in riot gear faced off against demonstrators, on June 27, 2023 [Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP]

As those events raised tensions, conversations between French Algerians about moving to Algeria emerged on social media.

In addition to exchanging advice, many use them to share their experiences of Islamophobia. Some people have talked about the challenges their children face, such as not having any halal meat options at school or being told they cannot pronounce the one-word Muslim “Bismillah” prayer before eating.

For his last week in Algeria after a five-month internship, Ahmed is a busy man but wants to make the most of it. He is not sure when he is coming back.

“I’m sad to leave back to France. I’m honestly not ready to face the asphyxiant atmosphere again,” he confesses.

He calls himself “an Arab of France” because he does not feel completely French or Algerian.

“I’m both, but with the direction France is taking, I feel less and less French. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve grown up and see clearer or if it’s getting worse.”

Before this trip, Ahmed had only visited Algeria a few times. Second-generation French, he sees Algeria as a potential future home.

“If there’s an opportunity for me here, I will immediately seize it.”

‘Creative force’

For some dual citizens, the desire to return is driven by economic interests, as they are encouraged by the lack of competition and the unexplored Algerian market.

French Algerians moving to Algeria
Rym Bouguetaïa presenting her company in Algiers for the first time [Courtesy of Rym Bouguetaïa]

Like Rym Bouguetaïa, the 29-year-old entrepreneur behind Eryam Cosmetics who decided to return to the country her parents fled in the 1990s.

“It’s always been a dream… Even though I was very well integrated in France, my country of birth, I’ve always felt indebted to Algeria. I believe that it’s up to us, the children of Algeria, to help the country evolve,” she says.

Perhaps aware of this interest, Algeria issued a new law encouraging foreign investors in July 2022 and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune addressed several messages to the diaspora as a call for investments.

“You have been ignored for a long time; now you need to feel that you are an integral part of the homeland. You are a creative force. The country needs you,” he said in one.

Despite the government’s efforts, it is not clear sailing.

“I had to go through a year of paperwork before my project saw the light. I also deal with slow internet, especially during the Baccalaureate exams when the government cuts the internet for a week,” Bouguetaïa says.

“The diaspora should have more interest in Algeria while the government should provide more assistance and encouragement for the diaspora to return.”

The efforts among France’s far-right to increase the flow of people of Algerian origin or descent going to Algeria are continuing.

Those include working to cancel a 1968 agreement between Algeria and France that regulates the movement, employment and residence of Algerian nationals in France.

Women throw roses into the Seine river
France’s colonisation and Algeria’s fight for liberation bind the two countries. Shown is a commemoration of the brutal repression of an October 17, 1961, demonstration during which at least 120 Algerians were killed protesting in support of Algerian independence, in Paris, October 17, 2021 [Alain Jocard/AFP]

Baptiste Mollard, PhD candidate at the Center for Sociological Research on Law and Penal Institutions, feels that this ambition is to pressure the Algerian government to take back its citizens staying in France irregularly.

France’s government has a long history of measures aiming to set limits on what it sees as an influx of Algerians.

In 2021, France decided to cut by half the quota of visas, starting a long diplomatic crisis with Algiers. That year, only 63,000 visas were granted compared with 200,000 to 400,000 in the previous years.

Further back, the 1964 Nekkache-Grandval labour agreement led to the creation of the National Office for Algerian Labor (ONAMO), responsible for the selection of workers.

“Fear among decision-makers of a massive and anarchic immigration justified numerous discriminations, as well as large-scale repatriation or expulsion operations,” Mollard says.

“Arbitrary health checks were implemented at French borders. It often resulted in detentions of several days – not justified by any law – on the premises of what would later become the first French administrative detention centre in Arenc, Marseille.

“The French Ministry of the Interior also conducted a hunt for ‘fake Algerian tourists’. In addition to a special queue for them in ports and airports, Algerian tourists suspected of coming to work were subjected to insults and harassment.”

*Name changed upon the interviewee’s request.

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