2012 not only will witness a crucial presidential election in France, but also marks the 50th year of Algeria's independence from its former colonial ruler.

The mass immigration from North Africa to France over that period has dramatically impacted French society - Muslims from the Maghreb and other nations in the Middle East now total some 5-million, making them the largest Muslim community in Europe.

In light of the recent massacre in the southwestern French city of Toulouse, Islamic militancy and the large Muslim immigration population are key issues in the current election. The incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy has already referred to the fact that there are too many foreigners in France, while the extreme right-wing National Front party has long called for a ban on immigration.

However, amidst all this noise and clamor, there exists in France a very unusual and unique sub-group of Muslims that does not receive a great deal of attention. The Harkis were Algerians who fought to preserve colonial rule in France during the war of independence. In March 1962, when Algeria gained its freedom, the Harkis were placed in a grave predicament - they were regarded as traitors by the Algerian nationalists, and were largely unwanted in France.

International Business Times spoke to an expert on French politics and history to explore the saga of the Harkis people.

Douglas Yates is a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as the American University of Paris.

IB TIMES: After the 1962 independence of Algeria, some Harkis and their families fled to France, while some remained trapped in Algeria. How many left and how many stayed behind?

YATES: In France, the term Harki has come to mean an Algerian who served the French during the war. They served in auxiliary units called haraka, so they were called Harki. In Algeria this old Arabic term came to mean someone who had collaborated with the enemy - that is, a traitor.

The numbers of Harkis are tricky, because in addition to 60,000 irregular auxiliaries, there were over 110,000 Muslims who served in the regular armed forces. For the French, these were regular forces, not Harki auxiliaries. But for the Algerians they were all Harkis, or traitors.

It has been estimated that in 1962, when the war ended, there were 263,000 Muslims who had engaged on the French side of the conflict. With their families, they totaled around 1.5 million individuals (out of a population of 8 million Algerian Muslims).

It has been estimated that around 20,000 Harki families, or around 90,000 persons, were able to settle in France. It is difficult to say how many stayed behind in Algeria, because they would not walk around saying I'm a Harki.

The main mistake people make is to confuse this term with an ethnicity or some kind of nationality. The identity of Harki is not transmitted from generation to generation.

IB TIMES: What became of the Harkis who could not leave Algeria? Were they persecuted?

YATES: Many people accused of being Harkis who stayed in Algeria, of course, suffered a veritable massacre. Estimates range from between 60,000 and 150,000 dead in 1962 violence alone. They were executed, along with their families, and sometimes entire villages. They were imprisoned, they were tortured. It was very bad.

French colonial authorities were aware of this violence -- we know of this, because they wrote about it in reports. But the French army received orders to remain passive.

IB TIMES: In contemporary Algeria, are the Harkis still regarded as traitors?

YATES: In Algeria the official discourse on the war distinguishes between the good guys and the bad guys. Nationalists were good guys; Harkis, bad.

But over the past decade the regime has started to revise the official history. Critical historical research published in France, including television documentaries and films, have penetrated Algerian popular culture. After the war, Harkis were discriminated against by the Algerian regime. Anyone identified as a Harki was prohibited from entering higher education. Those who died in France could not have their bodies returned for burial on Algerian soil. Even today for someone to be a candidate for public office the law requires they provide assurances that they do not come from a family accused of collaborating with the French against the national revolution.

IB TIMES: When the Harkis first arrived in France in 1962, they were forced to live in military camps. What is their socio-economic status in France now?

YATES: There were two kinds of territorial settlement. One was to ship them off to camps in the forests, called hameaux forestiers, in rural areas which had been used as army barracks during the war. They were supposed to be transitory shelters, but over time transformed into isolated, very poor communities, living off public welfare -- something like Indian reservations in the United States. They had no jobs, no income, no hospitals, and no schools.

When these camps erupted into riots in the 1970s, the French government officially closed them down. Many resisted -- they had nowhere else to go.

The second kind of settlement was to place the Harki families in suburban ghettos, cités urbaines, the kinds of slums you see in the news where riots today periodically break out. Here, their children could go to schools, and assimilate into the mainstream culture. But opportunities were limited, and they were haunted by their ethnicity, religious and national origins.

IB TIMES: When the Harkis arrived in France, what was their legal status? Were they immediately granted French citizenship?

YATES: Although this was a subject of great debate, most intellectuals and historians now agree that not enough was done for the Harkis. No evacuation plan was set in place to protect them, and the government was unprepared for their arrival in France. The government did not take care of the Harkis.

However, a 1962 regulation allowed people who originated from Algeria to declare their French nationality, so long as no other nationality had been given to them before then. Thus the Harkis received French citizenship.

IB TIMES: Within France itself now, is there a schism between the Harkis and the other Algerian immigrants?

YATES: No, that is not the dividing line. Today the distinction is between the first-generation immigrants who maintain close contacts with their families and villages of origin in Algeria, and their children and grandchildren, who have grown up French, and don't feel close to Algeria. The mechanisms of cultural assimilation in France are very strong.

IB TIMES: Have any Harkis reached prominence in France; say, in politics, business, arts, sports?

YATES: No, because Harki is not a national or ethnic identity. It was a role played by a certain generation of colonial subjects who were abandoned by their colonial metropole and left to their fate -- massacres and discrimination in the former colony; racial discrimination in the colonial metropole.

Their children have been assimilated into French culture, and are not denoted by the term Harki.

IB TIMES: Have any Harkis renounced their collaboration with France?

YATES: In Algeria no one is going to admit they collaborated with the French who does not have to. There, you have total renunciation. Being a Harki is to have the status of a traitor. In France the situation is different. Their relationship with France in complicated by their betrayal by the French government, and their rejection by French society. It is rather the case that the French have renounced their debt to the Harkis.

Since the identity is not hereditary, their children are simply French, not Harki. But many of them have written books and made documentaries about their experiences.

IB TIMES: Has France paid reparations to the Harkis?

YATES: Francois Mitterrand was the first French president to recognize the sacrifice of the Harkis in 1994. Then Jacques Chirac created a national day of honor for the Harkis in 2003. Finally, a controversial law was passed in 2005 by the government of Lionel Jospin to pay a pension to all former colonial subjects who had served in the French armed forces, but did not particularly recognize the Harkis.

This would be paid all at once -- but it was a pittance, a symbolic amount. Still, it closed the matter legally.

IB TIMES: After the March 1962 Evian Accords ended the independence war, did any Pieds-Noirs (Algerian-born French) remain in Algeria? If so, what became of them?

YATES: At first, there were those who refused to go. They were prepared to fight for their land. They formed the Secret Armed Organization, or OAS. They fought a dirty urban guerrilla war against the FLN. They were defeated, and at that point, a veritable flight of all whites occurred.

Over 1 million French Algerians left for France and became what are today called the Pieds-Noirs. Those who stayed behind were executed. It really became impossible for anyone to stay. They all left.

IB TIMES: What was Charles DeGaulle's attitude towards the Harkis and their migration to France?

YATES: He said that France could not integrate them all, that if all of the Arabs and Berbers of Algeria qualified as French, it would be impossible to stop them from settling in the metropole, where the standard of living was higher. He distinguished between the French Algerians who were being repatriated and the Muslim and Berber Algerians, who were refugees. The former received preference over the latter. History shows that De Gaulle abandoned the Harkis.

IB TIMES: Marine Le Pen, the head of the extremist right-wing National Front, has praised the Harkis, as have some other French nationalists. Thus, while the National Front opposes Muslim immigration into France, do they accept the Harkis?

YATES: Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a veteran of the Algerian War. Scandalous revelations about his participation in torture left no doubt that he wanted Algeria to remain French. For him, the Harkis were his military allies.

For Marine, however, the semiotics are more nuanced. The Harkis can been understood symbolically as those North Africans who were loyal to France. Since Harki is a socially constructed category, it is the perfect way for her to integrate France's large North African Muslim population into the electorate of the National Front.

If you will, Marine Le Pen defends the Harkis against their abandonment by the Gaullists (her political enemies on the right) and flatters their collaboration with the French as a positive virtue (French nationalism). For the National Front, a Harki means a good Arab.

IB TIMES: What differs the Harkis from the Évolués?

YATES: An evolved person was a colonial category for any subject of the French empire anywhere - Asia-Pacific, Africa -- who assimilated into French culture and civilization. A Harki is an Arab or Berber who fought for the French in North Africa. The two categories can overlap to the extent that a Harki could be assimilated. Otherwise, they are distinct terms.