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Algeria – France: ‘Apologising will not get to the heart of the issue’, says historian Benjamin Stora

By Renaud de Rochebrune
Posted on Tuesday, 26 January 2021 16:53

French historian Benjamin Stora. ©Vincent FOURNIER/JA

Ahead of Algeria's 60th anniversary of independence, French President Emmanuel Macron had commissioned historian Benjamin Stora in 2020 to write a report on "the progress made in France on the memory of Algeria's and the Algeria War". He has just submitted his findings on 20 January.

This past July, with two years to go until the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence and in anticipation of its celebration, French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned historian Benjamin Stora, a leading authority on Algerian history, to write a “report on the memory of the colonisation of Algeria and the Algerian War”.

Postponed on numerous occasions since last autumn, mostly due to the hospitalisation of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, with whom Macron had discussed the report before commissioning it, Stora finally submitted his findings on 20 January.

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When reading the mission statement describing Stora’s report, it sounds like a straightforward academic study on a specialised subject, but this is far from being the case. The project is the outcome of a joint dialogue between both countries’ authorities, with the Algerian president appointing Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director-general of the National Centre for Algerian Archives, as Stora’s counterpart tasked with conducting research from an Algerian perspective.

The report has clearly attracted a great deal of interest on both sides of the Mediterranean, where positive and negative commentary alike – uninformed by the report’s actual content – on the very future of its existence has been endlessly rehashed by the media. The historian even expressed his surprise at the number of political figures and the wide array of organisation leaders, not to mention military representatives – beginning with the chief of staff of the French army – and intellectuals and historians specialising in colonial studies who were bent on meeting with him before he wrote up his lengthy report (147 pages all told).

The scale of the report is unprecedented. Macron described it as signalling nothing less than a “willingness to promote reconciliation between the French and Algerian people”. It also serves as an extension of his recent initiatives, dating back to February 2017 (when he referred to the colonial system as a crime against humanity) and summer 2018 (when he acknowledged that the French government was responsible for the death of Maurice Audin, a mathematician with close ties to the Front de libération nationale [FLN], during the Battle of Algiers).

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The French president, like his Algerian counterpart and the report’s author, believes that issues stemming from the two countries’ competing memories about the Algerian War and colonisation need to be openly addressed for reconciliation to truly take place.

On the Algerian side, there are leaders who regularly call on the former colonial power to “show repentance”, and on the other, French figures who make a point to emphasise “the positive aspects of colonisation”, making it quite plain that the barriers that remain in place will not be easy to overcome.

But Stora thinks progress is possible, particularly if the series of concrete actions recommended in his report are taken – actions that would demonstrate that both parties intend to move forward for the greater good of their citizens – and if France and Algeria can bypass the “false dilemma between an excess of memory and a total lack of it”.

Beyond focusing at great length on “the scars, lingering legacy and after-effects of the memory of colonisation and the Algerian War on French society”, the report puts forward a series of new initiatives that France could implement to pave the way for a “reconciliation of memories”. While Stora’s work also examines Algeria’s side of the story, it is important to keep in mind that it was commissioned by the French government.

In the interview below – conducted after the report was completed but shortly before its submission – Stora discusses what shape an assortment of these initiatives could take. At the end of the report, Stora added an extensive list of goodwill “gestures” that France and, to a lesser degree, Algeria could make to improve the relations of the two former warring sides (see “Stora’s recommendations” below the interview).

The Africa Report: Why was the report on the history of the colonisation of Algeria and the memory of the Algerian War commissioned last year? Just because the 60th anniversary of the end of the war is approaching?

Benjamin Stora: Things are not as simple as that, but I’d say that this is definitely a special time in history. For starters, France has opened a significant and ever growing swath of its archives on the colonial period. This process began to take off in the 1990s, after Pierre Joxe pushed the government to open its military archives, a move that has taken historical research to much greater heights. Advances have even been made in sensitive areas of research, such as the justice system, torture and conscientious objectors during the Algerian War.

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The volume of archives available today is so much greater than what it used to be. I should know better than anyone since I’ve been working for more than 45 years on colonial history, with a special focus on Algeria. Of course, there are still some ongoing battles to expand the archives further, but great strides have been made.

Secondly, and this is very important, there’s the fact that the colonial past has become decisive, if not central to our understanding of the history of the French nation, whereas it had long been viewed as peripheral. This past, we’ve realised, is one that France was instrumental in fuelling.

Does the report also serve to tell the story of those who lived through this period?

Today in France we have young people who are second-, third- or fourth-generation immigrants and they want to discover their history and get a glimpse of the past. They want to know what their fathers, grandfathers, etc., went through and find out how they ended up here, why they have one identity or another and where they stand in relation to the rest of French society.

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This desire to understand and to be a citizen is something new. What’s more, Algerians who lived through the colonial period are dying out. That Algeria will soon be no more. Algerians who are 70, 80 or 90 years old want to pass on, explain, talk out and rationalise their past. They’re no longer satisfied with the conventional, convenient narratives that up until recently gave them permission to be silent and to think that, by being this way, it would protect the younger generations.

Another reason behind this shift is that the world has changed. The flow of ideas, information, knowledge, archives, accounts and even people have been taken to a new level over the past 20 odd years. So it should come as no surprise that colonial history now occupies a prominent place in French political, intellectual and journalistic circles

How has France’s relationship to the war and colonisation changed from one French president to the next?

Macron represents the third generation of French politicians who have dealt with or who continue to deal with the fallout from the Algerian War.

The first generation was that of General Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, as well as others who held office during the Algerian War, like Guy Mollet, or those who saw the events of the war unfold, such as Jacques Chirac, Michel Rocard and Joxe. Their view of this history was inevitably coloured by a sense of regret for the lost empire, even though they all tried to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with the newly independent nation.

Then, a second generation of leaders – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande – came to power. These men were born during the war, in the middle of the 1950s, but did not wage it. You would think that these leaders would be free of complexes but, even indirectly, French Algeria left its mark on them. They were invariably shaped by the scars this history left on France through the 1970s and 1980s – scars that are evident in their political careers.

But now with Macron at the helm, we’re dealing with an entirely different generation, the third, and they are curious about the war like young people in France today. They are interested in origins and the past, but aren’t prisoner to it. There’s no longer a reason to bite one’s tongue or uphold taboos.

This latest generation is unabashed. Why not talk about the horrors of the colonial past and the positive aspects that may have existed during that period? The new generation isn’t crushed by the weight of history, and that makes all the difference.

But why has Macron made this subject a key part of his platform?

Because it’s a subject that cuts across France’s collective memory. And it doesn’t just concern, as the president pointed out, young people who have a connection with Algeria, but every young person whose parents are from a former French colony.

Everything that happened during that particular time in history is linked to problems we are facing today – problems we cannot avoid addressing head-on: segregation, social hierarchy, racism, south-north relations, the relationship to authority and the place of religion, especially Islam.

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If the issue of reconciling memories is still so acute, isn’t this also because people on both sides of the Mediterranean have been drowned in hearsay and stories, i.e., an emotionally fuelled account of the events of the war, more so than informed by historical research?

It’s important to understand the situation in which historical research has long found itself.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were just a few of us working on the subject. And that wasn’t only due to the fact that most of the archives were closed. No one in the political, intellectual or cultural establishment was interested in examining this part of the past and it was considered far off and subordinate.

Separatist nationalism, and thus the Algerian War, was seen as an outdated issue. After waves of interest in socialism and revolution during the era of Third Worldism, the issues on the agenda in the 1980s dealt with the republic, French identity and the nation. So these trends contributed to a dearth of historical research.

If there was censorship, it came first of all from society, which didn’t want to face up to a traumatic past, largely as much as from the government, which jealously guarded its secrets. It’s important to keep in mind that at the time in France people were saying that there weren’t enough films about the Algerian War, when in reality there were more than a few. People simply weren’t watching them.

That said, the four volumes of Yves Courrière’s La guerre d’Algérie [The Algerian War] series were immensely successful in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That’s true, and Courrière did more than just that four-volume series on the Algerian War. He went on to be the managing editor for several years of the review Historia Magazine – La Guerre d’Algérie, whose circulation peaked at 500,000. One might conclude that it was in fact a symptom and I discussed this in my book La gangrène et l’oubli [Gangrene and Forgetting].

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That meant that despite the fact that society was consciously or unconsciously creating a state of amnesia on the issue in the public realm, the Algerian War refused to fade into the background. Courrière lifted the barriers. It’s the manifestation of an untenable forgetfulness that emerged a few years after the war ended. But there were barriers and he derived his success from them.

Is what we’re seeing today a form of revenge of history against this state of amnesia, and will it make it possible for historians to go about their work relatively unimpeded?

Revenge is too strong of a word, but it’s true that for a long time the big names – the likes of Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Germaine Tillion – writing on colonialism and the Algerian War were more than anything else guardians of memory. These committed public figures played a vital role, hands down. Today, as time continues to pass and eyewitnesses die out, it’s easier to take a step back and to rid ourselves of official accounts and ideologies.

How is it possible to “reconcile memories” – the purpose of your report – when people on both sides of the Mediterranean tell a different version of the events of the war?

I don’t shy away from this question in my report, but I don’t purport to solve it either. The idea isn’t to write a collective history of France and Algeria. I don’t believe this is possible given the extent of divergence in people’s views and imaginaries. You cannot reconcile the irreconcilable and I don’t claim to do that. We’re referring to a colonial history where, on one side, people had their land taken from them and there were massacres and deportations, and on the other, you have people who thought they were a civilising and cultural force, one that built a country by constructing roads, hospitals and other infrastructure.

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Clearly, these are two opposing visions that cannot be reconciled. But underneath these visions, there’s nevertheless a cultural mixing that has taken place, ties that have been forged, contact that has been established and a togetherness that has existed: almost 150 years of French presence in Algeria, spanning five generations, is no small thing!

So, there’s still a history we can draw on, not as a way to bring about reconciliation, which cannot be, but to find common ground. If we tap into this history, we see that there are things that bridge us together and potential avenues for cooperation, and that allows us to envision a sort of future together, with the help of specific initiatives. These initiatives can take the form of paying tribute to those who were killed or went missing in the war, promoting literature, etc.

Speaking of literature, how does one go about writing stories about the war that will be well received on both sides of the Mediterranean?

French continues to be widely used in Algeria. And if you recall, the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine famously wrote that the French language is “our spoils of war”. I think it’s possible to write fictional stories that are well received on both sides of the Mediterranean and it has already been done. To take but one example, Alexandre Arcady adapted Yasmina Khadra’s novel What the Day Owes the Night into a French film, even though this particular director was considered more close-knit with the pied noir community than Algerians. The movie was a well-deserved hit.

It’s possible to work collectively to take on representations and imaginaries that will convey stories of passion, separation, hate and even love. Condemning the realities of colonialism in Algeria doesn’t preclude literary opportunities.

Isn’t the issue of repentance, which a great deal of Algerian public figures call for, a major stumbling block for both countries?

This demand doesn’t have unanimous support in Algeria. In the report I explain why issuing a formal apology is an option worth considering. In Constantine and Algiers, respectively, former presidents Sarkozy and Hollande gave addresses in which they alluded to France’s wrongdoing, so that was a step in this direction. But I don’t think apologising will get to the heart of the issue.

The problem of colonisation goes much deeper. Fundamental historical forces are at work: the embedded colonial ideology in French society, the belief that one is superior to the colonised, the invention of French nationalism through the colonial empire, and, later on, the sense that France’s empire was contracting and losing its status in the world. A mere formal apology wouldn’t fundamentally change the situation.

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The apologies Japan has regularly made to South Korea and China regarding the crimes it committed during its colonial rule have had little impact on these societies. What’s more, they don’t stop Japanese leaders from periodically paying their respects to war criminals. No one has topped Aimé Césaire’s brilliant 1955 indictment of the colonial system. Some 65 years or so later, his speech remains unrivalled in its message, arguments, thoroughness and complexity.

What do you think needs to happen?

We have to wake up to the fact that we have a long road of work ahead of us, one that involves taking concrete actions. For one, we need to better inform the public through school curricula, films, conferences, etc. To get the ball rolling on such initiatives, it would be helpful to set up an assortment of joint bodies, one of which I suggest be called a “Memory and truth” commission.

What concrete actions could be implemented quickly? The report refers to four areas: nuclear tests, archives, cemeteries and missing persons.

There’s no hierarchy of priorities. But I would add another item to the list: the creation of a sort of Franco-Algerian youth organisation, which would be in charge of coming up with and directing audio-visual productions. And, of course, it’s important that we facilitate people’s movement between both countries.

Why is it so difficult to examine the human and material cost of the nuclear tests performed in the Algerian Sahara during and after the independence movement?

Indeed, we should initiate an inventory of the actions that need to be taken on the ground and identify the people concerned. We’re definitely behind on that front.

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This is France’s fault, though Algeria also had its part to play, as the tests continued post-independence pursuant to the Évian Accords. What I can say for sure is that France has prioritised addressing the impact of nuclear tests in Polynesia. Now we need to make up for lost time.

What work is there left to do on the archives front?

We shouldn’t get hung up over the issue of opening more archives, although we need to continue to work towards that goal. It’s almost become a mantra, if not a fantasy, because a horde of academics conduct research and publish their work thanks to the vast amount of documents at their disposal. Probably the area that needs the most immediate attention is the time-consuming nature of consulting the archives: a lot of documents are classified as “state secrets”. We’ve got to overcome this obstacle.

A second problem revolves around the need to further facilitate the movement of researchers and their access to documents. Finding a way for Algerian researchers to come to France and consult the archives and for international researchers, particularly French ones, to gain access to Algeria’s archives is another key question on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Why are cemeteries a thorny issue?

It’s not always easy to preserve and maintain the hundreds of cemeteries that date back to the colonial era. And the very high cost isn’t the only issue.

For example, a long time ago my father asked me to pay a visit to my grandfather’s grave in Khenchela. What was once a small village of just a few thousand inhabitants back when he was buried there had become a city with a population of more than 100,000.

The cemetery was located in what used to be the outskirts of the village, but over time the area had become the city centre. So, the issue of preserving the cemetery had morphed into a very different problem altogether. Some time ago we had considered combining the European and Jewish cemeteries to simplify their upkeep. However, the various organisations concerned were opposed to disinterring and moving the dead, which is understandable.

It’s also hard to talk about those who went missing – people who, more often than not, were tortured or summarily executed – during the war. What needs to be done?

It’s inaccurate to think that nothing has been done, but the problem hasn’t been sorted out entirely. For instance, a collective of anti-colonial historians created a website, “Les mille autres disparus” [The one thousand other missing persons], after Macron acknowledged that the French government was behind Audin’s disappearance – hence the name “the one thousand other missing persons”, as he was just one of more than 1,000 individuals who have been documented as missing in the aftermath of the Battle of Algiers.

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The collective reached out to the public so that the families of these missing persons, almost all of whom were Algerian, come forward. In addition, the French authorities, working in cooperation with organisations, have tried to establish a list of the Europeans who went missing during the war or shortly thereafter, such as in Oran in the summer of 1962.

There are many such cases, no two of which are alike, and the only solution to deal with this issue involves going through existing organisations, reaching out to families and gathering witness accounts. Obviously, this is a difficult process because the war wasn’t your typical affair where people counted the dead and then proceeded to preserve and bury the bodies. Many people went missing in this conflict, which in certain respects seemed like a civil war: an invisible war with invisible casualties.

So, the most important thing is political will?

Of course. And we have a good reason to demonstrate this political will, as Algeria is a key partner for France and Europe, whether we like it or not. With its 1,400-kilometre-long coastline, it has the longest maritime border with Europe. What’s more, the country is home to/borders on the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, whose strategic importance is evident. We really need to find the ways and means to move forward, one step at a time, so that memory will no longer be an impediment to cooperation or to Franco-Algerian reconciliation.

After the election of presidents Macron and Tebboune, is there a real window of opportunity for France and Algeria to make strides in these areas?

Absolutely. I can’t say for sure that this window of opportunity on the issue of Franco-Algerian history and memory will be open for a long time, but it definitely exists.

Stora’s recommendations

In addition to putting forward an overarching recommendation on the “need for the two countries to form a new reconciliation pact”, the report suggests a wide array of significant symbolic measures, including:

  • The establishment of a “Memory and truth” commission to “encourage joint initiatives” on history and memory
  • The construction of a memorial in Amboise in commemoration of the military leader Emir Abdelkaderas as well as the restitution of his sword to Algeria
  • France’s admission of responsibility for the murder of lawyer Ali Boumendjel during the Battle of Algiers
  • The publication of a “guide of missing persons in connection with the Algerian War”
  • The creation of a commission of Franco-Algerian historians tasked with shedding light on the kidnapping and killing of Europeans in Oran in July 1962
  • The location of the sites where Algerian prisoners executed during the war were buried; new remembrance days in France marking such events as the crackdown on Algerian protesters on 17 October 1961
  • The participation of European-Algerians in World War II, etc.
  • The conversion of the French colonial administration’s internment camps for Algerians into memorial sites
  • A greater emphasis on France’s history in Algeria in school curricula
  • The creation of a Franco-Algerian commission tasked with establishing the history of the famous Baba Marzug cannon and studying its possible restitution
  • The revival of plans for a Franco-Algerian history museum; the organisation of conferences in 2021 (on African independence movements
  • The rejection of the Algerian War by major French figures from Mauriac to Aron and Sartre to Ricoeur and Mandouze
  • The establishment of an archival collection jointly held by both countries and open to the public;
  • The formation of a Franco-Algerian youth organisation
  • The entry of lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who provided legal defence for FLN activists, into France’s Panthéon

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