PARIS -- A quarter-century after France was defeated in the war to keep its long-time colony, Algeria, the French are celebrating a success story rising from that loss.
Algeria's independence, after 7 1/2 years of bitter warfare, sent nearly a million French settlers back across the Mediterranean, stripped of their property, to begin new lives in France. As newspaper and television documentaries have pointed out this month, many of those settlers, called pieds noirs, or "black feet," arrived with little more than a few belongings in cheap suitcases.
But the pieds noirs, long isolated here, have joined mainstream France.
When thousands of pieds noirs (the origin of the term is disputed) gathered in the southern French coastal city of Nice over the weekend, the memories they recalled were not of the Algerian war or the civil strife it generated in France.
The organizers of the pieds noirs reunion focused on their accomplishments during the decades of their settlement in North Africa: ports, railroads, schools and hospitals constructed.
The organizers said they were motivated less by nostalgia than by a desire to remind their offspring of their heritage.
Many of the pieds noirs were not even of French stock, but were Spaniards, Italians, Maltese, Swiss or North African Jews who had acquired French citizenship under colonial rule. Having pressed France to pursue a colonial war that, in the end, had drained the country and threatened civil war at home, the pieds noirs had done much to alienate the French on the mainland.
The Algerian issue and rebellious pieds noirs had helped bring down France's Fourth Republic and then return Charles de Gaulle to power as the only man to save France from civil war in 1958. Later, when de Gaulle concluded that France had to give up its Algerian colony, the pieds noirs, feeling betrayed, had threatened to topple his government.
The settlers came to France with a reputation as extremists who had supported the far-right Secret Army Organization, a terrorist network that had conducted sabotage in Algeria and France in its fight to "Keep Algeria French." But, once here, they eschewed such militancy, and proved intent on making their mark economically, rather than in politics.
They proved hard working. They -- and France -- were lucky that their massive arrival came in the midst of the biggest economic boom in modern French history.
The settlers helped revitalize agriculture in Corsica and much of southern France with the modern methods they brought with them from large-scale mechanized farming in North Africa.
Pieds noirs invigorated everything from fashion, in which Yves Saint Laurent became an international household word, to politics, in the persons of government ministers or presidential advisers. French literature was marked, too, by Albert Camus.
In recent years, however, many settler families, especially among the heavy proportion of pieds noirs who have remained in southern France, have become an important base of support for the right-wing National Front of Jean-Marie le Pen.
They have organized an influential lobby that has wrung from reluctant governments more than $4 billion in indemnities for property they were forced to leave behind in North Africa. The lobby last week extracted from parliament a promise of a further $5 billion to be paid over 15 years. Andre Santini, the junior minister for pieds noirs affairs, boasted his job would soon become "biodegradable."
Indeed, the pieds noirs have become so assimilated into mainstream French society that, increasingly, the government is concentrating on the plight of the so-called harkis. They are the often-neglected Algerian Moslems who fought alongside France and then fled across the Mediterranean rather than risk retribution from Algerians who had fought for independence and considered them traitors.
The harkis and their descendants now number 450,000 and feel they have gotten a raw deal, often forced to live in remote rural areas, far from educational opportunities and good jobs.
"In Algeria the French gave us a rifle," remarked one bitter harki, "and here in France they give us a broom."
Their greatest complaint is that many Frenchmen draw no distinction between them and the more numerous Algerian immigrants here whose sympathies lay with those Algerians who had fought France for their independence.