After the Algerian War of Independence, the near-revolution of 1968 Paris, and England's embrace of Brexit, Scotland feels like a haven – Jean-Luc Barbanneau
Images of war-torn Ukraine, of riots on the streets of Paris – there has been no avoiding them. A bombed restaurant, burning cars, baton-wielding police. All triggers of difficult memories of periods of my life when I twice found myself in the eye of a historical storm – the Algerian War of Independence in my childhood, and the near-revolution that shook France in May and June 1968.
My life has been a seven-decade-long journey from south to north, encompassing three exiles across four nations – one enforced from Algeria to France in 1962, and then two more or less chosen: from France to England in 1969, and finally, following Brexit, from England to Scotland. And now, having found a conducive and welcoming haven in North Berwick, I have reflected, in true immigrant fashion, on the main events that have got me here. The result is a recently published memoir, To This Northern Shore.
The Algerian War (1954-62) ended up being a three-way conflict. On one side, nine million Algerians, the mainly Arab population, Muslims, who quite justifiably wanted independence for their country and launched a guerilla war to achieve it; opposing them, the French government vainly attempted to quash the uprising before finally negotiating – a move that provoked a last-ditch rebellion by the one million European settlers, the pied-noirs, the tribe I was born into, desperately and foolishly clinging to the fantasy of keeping Algeria French.
Images of young Palestinians involved in the troubles in Jenin were a reminder that in urban wars children are on the streets, on the frontline. A childhood lived in such intensely dramatic times fast makes them grow old beyond their years. It will also mark them for life. My own involvement was no less intense for being on the wrong side of history and the scar it has left is all the deeper as the cause behind it is impossible to claim with pride. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong fight.
Later in Paris in 1968, my political involvement was at least on the progressive side of history. I embraced the hopes and aspirations of many of my generation who campaigned for a more equitable, more open society. This inevitably brought young French people into conflict with de Gaulle-era France, a sclerotic, morally repressive society.
So, when the government, in typical fashion, tried to suppress students’ relatively mild demands with violence, tens of thousands resisted. It is a repeated pattern in France – keeping a tight lid on social change and then suffering explosions of anger and unrest. We have recently seen another round of this on the streets of major French cities, though in contrast to the buoyant optimism of the 1968 events, this has been marked by a more nihilistic anger born of the despair and hopelessness felt over many years by a particular section of French youth – the children of Algerian immigrants. Back in 1969, in my own troubled time, when I left Paris for Brighton, you could say I had seen history from both sides now – from right to left!
It may come as a surprise but Britain at the time was in many ways a more liberated country (at least in terms of social mores), more tolerant, more open to evolutionary change – and I fell in love with it. It felt like I was escaping a France full of asperities for the softness of England. In Brighton, I found warmth and conviviality, informality and friendliness, as well as a way of earning a moderate living as a French teaching assistant – all of which made life there a soothing contrast to being an impoverished student in post-conflict Paris.
Perhaps the seed had been planted in the fertile ground of my frustrated early adolescence, when shortly after my exile from Algiers, during a school exchange visit to England I was given my first proper kiss (I was to find out later that the British called it a French kiss!) by an English schoolgirl to the sound of the Beatles’ Please, Please Me! It turned out to be more than a passing infatuation as I stayed on and took up British nationality in 1975.
Over the following years, there were to be many trips north of the Border but it took the insanity of Brexit and the social and political awfulness of its aftermath to make the lure of a final move to Scotland irresistible. The advent of Thatcherism in the 1980s had already brought a foretaste of disaffection with what had become the predominant culture in England – the rise of selfish individualism, the denigration of and attacks on public services.
By contrast, Scotland seemed a place steadfastly adhering to the belief that contrary to the Iron Lady’s infamous saying, there is such a thing as society. Community is in the air and in the mood here, not just because the public good is still valued but also in commonly displayed attitudes – it’s never difficult to find evidence of a society imbued with a profound sense of solidarity. The beauty of the scenery is of course an added bonus. It is wild and rough and, like the weather, changeable and unpredictable; it is a beauty that has real substance, like the people here.
So, every morning, as I walk along the shore, as close as possible to the water’s edge, the hypnotic sound of the lapping waves, the ever-changing awesome spectacle of sea and sky, the sounds of teeming bird life washing over me, I am reassured that I have left my tumultuous times a long way behind.
Jean-Luc Barbanneau will be in conversation with journalist Isla Aitken at the Fringe by the Sea Festival in North Berwick, on Wednesday, August 9.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.