The following is an interview conducted when I was an exchange student in the south of France in March 2017. I traveled with my French host and her family to visit their Grandmother, who lives in a small French commune known for its market, bullfights, and a key place in the family’s history. Her Grandmother told me the story of how she fled from the Algerian War at age 19, when Algeria’s status as a French colony was transforming due to a popular desire for a revolution. Through many violent attacks, the Algerians won and gained independence from France in 1962. This is the story of how a French girl left behind in this newly independent country was forced to flee for her life. As this interview was conducted fully in French, it is a personal piece of history that has never known an English translation until now.
What was your life like growing up in France before going to Algeria?
We were a quiet family with a father and a mother and six sisters. My father died when I was four. My last sister was born four months later. After that, I had a difficult childhood. I went to school in Montpelier. I lived in a small village and had friends that were both boys and girls. I went to parties on Saturdays and Sundays. There was lots of music-with records spinning. I used to listen to a very famous French singer–Johnny Hallyday and my style was inspired by the icon Bridgette Bardot. There were many dances when I was young. I was carefree teenager. I smoked a lot of cigarettes back then, and also drank.
When I was 14, I started to work. I was alone with my sisters and my mother, and I had to work. Even on the holidays, I worked by gathering fruits. All of the holidays. During this, my friends were having fun as I worked. I was not very serious about school, because my mother also did not care about school. My mother worked hard to take care of her six daughters. She’d lost her husband at the end of the second world war.
Why did you go to Algeria? What was it like there?
When I was 19 years old, I had to work to earn money for my family. My sister got married, while I went to Algeria, a French colony at the time, to work. I went with my sister to Algeria because the man whom she married had a job in Algeria. In Algeria, I was a nursery school teacher for young children. I loved Algeria because the French people living there were very close and accepted me into the community. The time was during the fight for independence in Algeria. It started to become very dangerous. There were many bombs, shots of gunfire, and many French people decided to leave.
All the French people who lived in Algeria had to go back to France. This was an important period for France history. It was in 1962 when the France-Algeria conflict ended. The general Charles de Gaulle was the President of France, and he has accepted Algerian independence. The French living in Algeria lived in a war zone as Algeria gained its independence.
How did you escape the Algerian War?
We were told that we had to leave because it was too dangerous. One day, a man brought me to the airport. There were many many families with children who were waiting to go back to France. I was alone, with only my suitcase as company. I still have that suitcase today. The families went before me, and I had to walk 3 miles alone. A stranger took my heavy suitcase to help me walk. These same people waited for me at the airport with my suitcase. When I arrived at the airport, I had a ticket with a number. With my number, I had to wait in the airport for 5 days in the airport without food and water to get a plane.
A French soldier asked me if I was alone, because they had priority places in the plane. At 3 a.m., with two soldiers, I passed all of the police control with the soldiers for boarding a priority flight. I was in the plane and I felt very lucky. I arrived in Marseilles, with my family waiting for me. It was strangers and luck that got me home. I never saw that soldier who helped me again. He wanted a date with me, and I promised him one if he got me home. I have never seen him again, and the date never happened. I do not know if he is alive now or living somewhere in France.
If you did not marry the soldier, who did you fall in love with and how?
I fell in love in a stupid way. I was 14 years old. I was with a friend, and two boys came up to us. One of the boys was dating my friend. They left on a motorbike. So, to keep up with my friend, I got on a motorcycle with the other boy. We all went to a village festival together. When we come back, the boy who was dating my friend left the other girl to come with me. We left the other girl and she came back with the other boy. After that, we were enemies for life. I stole her boyfriend, and he became my husband. From that moment, we never were separated. He was the love of my life. The lesson of life–be careful with boys who have motorcycles.
What is your advice for the teenagers of today?
Be yourself. It doesn’t matter what they say. I always tell my grandchildren, “Work hard to have success in your professional life. Keep working hard in all that you do.” Talk to people. It’s always interesting to hear another person’s story.
Special thanks to my exchange host, Marie, and her entire family for making me feel right at home those 2 weeks abroad. Another merci for her Grandmother for sharing this fascinating story for publication. Vous me manquez tous!