GREAT MAINTENANCE. Why do the memories of the Algerian war always seem incompatible?

“It is no longer a matter of deciphering step by step a destiny already written in heaven, but of writing the present as a story that ages to come will be able to read”writes Alice Zeniter in her novel The art of losing which follows the epic of a family of harkis during the Algerian War. Sixty years after the signing of the Evian Accords on March 18, 1962, which declared a ceasefire and paved the way for Algeria’s independence in July, the actors in this war and their descendants remain divided over this painful story.

What are the traces and effects of the memories of colonization and the Algerian war on French society? What status should be given to everyone’s memory? How do you write a common story? Franceinfo interviewed historian Benjamin Stora, author of a report on the memory of the colonization and war in Algeria. He is also the author of France-Algeria, painful passions (2021, Albin Michel).

Franceinfo: How many people in France are currently affected by the war in Algeria?

Benjamin Stora: Among those who lived through the Algerian war, there is the most important group, that of conscripts from the contingent. More than one and a half million soldiers were sent to Algeria from France. Then there were a million Europeans from Algeria, the pied-noirs. During the war there were already 400,000 Algerian immigrants in mainland France, and there are 500,000 other Algerians who came after independence. In 1962, therefore, in France there were about 3.5 million people born or who had lived in Algeria.

We must of course see the large group of harki’s (Islamic auxiliaries of the French army) and their children, that is, about 200,000 people, then all mixed people, the opponents, those who built their political party during the war, the “suitcase bearers” (activists who support the National Liberation Front). With the descendants, it is estimated that between 6 and 7 million people in France were affected by the war today.

What was the attitude of France to the actors of this war at the independence of Algeria?

Very quickly, for various reasons, we had to turn the page about this war. France emerged from decades of conflict, World War II, the Indochina War and then the Algeria War. There was a very clear will of an immense majority of the population to know peace. Even if the Algerian War, long called “the events”, “the nameless war”, seemed far removed from mainland France, France lived in a situation of fear, fear of war, and there was a great desire to be forgotten .

When the 1960s marked the beginning of the Trent Glorieuses, a desire for consumption and travel arose. France wants to enter economic modernity. General de Gaulle wants to shift the geopolitical weight of France to the European construction and the Paris-Bonn (Germany) axis. For the political leaders there is a disinterest towards all the populations of the South, witnesses of an era that represents the old days, the time of the empire, of colonization.

in your work Gangrene and oblivionexplain how the State has organized this supervision…

There was a will on the part of the state to erase this history. Many amnesty measures were introduced in 1962. The first appeared in the Evian Accords, which stipulated that those responsible for abuses committed during the war could not be convicted. Then there is the 1968 law granting criminal amnesty to militants from French Algeria and the OAS, allowing them to return to France.

In 1974, under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, all convictions handed down during or after the Algerian War were expunged. In 1982, François Mitterrand reinstated the most important putschist generals in the French army, with ranks, pensions and awards.

“There has never been a trial over the Algerian war in France. No one has been prosecuted.”

Benjamin Stora

at franceinfo

At the time, oblivion was also desired by French society. People who experienced the war had an “interest” in forgetting, there was a desire to overcome mourning and hardship. There was no opposition to these amnesty laws, no demands. The demand for the repeal of these texts will come later with the remembrance of children and grandchildren in the 2000s.

What is the evolution of the discourse of French presidents on this subject?

For General de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and even François Mitterrand, the speech was very simple. He focused on the economic partnership with Algeria, a country that remained very important, especially in the extraction of gas and oil in the Sahara. Agreements have also been made on migration management between the two countries.

In the early 2000s, the discourse changed with Jacques Chirac. In 2005, the French ambassador to Algeria, Hubert Colin de Verdière, condemned for the first time the massacres of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata [répressions sanglantes survenues le 8 mai 1945, en Algérie, pendant des manifestations indépendantistes]† In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy condemns the colonial system in Constantine. In 2012, François Hollande acknowledged in Algiers the suffering caused by colonization. These speeches are gestures of recognition of history, they condemn colonialism, but without mentioning specific acts.

Is Emmanuel Macron marking a break?

Unlike his predecessors, Emmanuel Macron calls people and places. He recognizes the murder of Maurice Audin [mathématicien communiste militant de l’indépendance de l’Algérie] by the French colonial system, the murder of Ali Boumendjel, lawyer and nationalist militant. He recognizes the shooting in the rue d’Isly on March 26, 1962 against Europeans, the massacre of Algerians in Paris on October 17, 1961, the abandonment of the harki…

Historian Benjamin Stora reports on"memories of colonization and the war in Algeria" to Emmanuel Macron, at the Elysee Palace, January 20, 2021 (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/AFP)

There is a change of tonality caused by concrete things. This makes it possible to make progress in the knowledge of history in a practical way, it is an important change. Since submitting my report [sur “les mémoires de la colonisation et de la guerre d’Algérie”] in January 2021 there were more concrete actions than in sixty years. These gestures are a response to citizen movements, immigrant children’s associations, harkis, returnees, pied-noirs, who have fought for years to get these events and personalities recognized.

“These recognitions make it possible to name things. As Albert Camus said, ‘Missing things is contributing to the misfortune of the world’.”

Benjamin Stora

at franceinfo

There was also the wider opening of the archives, the result of a commemorative struggle that historians have waged for a long time. Of course there is still much to do. In my report, I also proposed to examine the nuclear tests carried out in Algeria and their effects. I propose to improve the maintenance of the European cemeteries in Algeria, write a guide for those who disappeared during the war.

What is the state of suffering of people who have experienced the war and their descendants? You speak of “communitarization of memories” and “victim competition”.

Since the end of the war, there has been no strong and communal discourse on the war, but amnesty laws, which have caused strong resentment. Each group made a character identity, a date, but there was no common story. Even within these groups, fractions occur.

Today we have certainly fallen out of obscurity, but only to fall into a kind of “war of memories” that took place in disorder and in the withdrawal of identity. I also read this situation as the weakening of civilian fighting that benefits a particular group. We are now more used to being in victim rather than combatant status.

“Each group wants its truth to be recognized only to the detriment of the others. The great danger is not to find bridges, to separate memories.”

Benjamin Stora

at franceinfo

These bridges need to be rebuilt. “Dividing memories, uniting history”, as the historian Pierre Nora says.

How is this memory handled in Algeria?

This memory of the war is rooted in a very long time, more than 130 years, from the beginning of colonization in 1830 to 1962. The war of independence is called “revolution” there. Memory is anti-colonial, it is characterized by the expropriation of borders, massacres, abuses, migrations. Unlike France, there is no positive aspect, it is a painful memory.

After the war, different memories came into contact with each other. On the one hand there were those who were the pioneers of Algerian nationalism – Messali Hadj, Ferhat Abbas – and on the other hand those who started the war – Mohamed Boudiaf, Krim Belkacem – and who lost their place after independence and were excluded from the political scene. Algeria must reclaim the work of the founders of the war and of Algerian nationalism.

It must also see how it situates the French memory in its history, find a place for the Europeans of Algeria, the native Jews (in the sense of the time) separated from the Muslims by the Crémieux decree. It is a very difficult task, the traces of which are beginning to appear in the demands of the Hirak movement.

Algeria makes the question of the apology a precondition for any discussion with France. What do you think ?

I am not against the principle of the excuse, but in general it is used as an ideological argument that stands in the way of concrete progress. All the great speeches of condemnation or apology that we have seen in other wars have failed to settle the legacy of the past. The Japanese made many apologies to the Chinese, the Koreans after World War II, the Americans to the Vietnamese after the Vietnam War. This did not stop the memories from bleeding, the demands continued to be voiced.

“I’m more for practical work than moral condemnation.”

Benjamin Stora

at franceinfo

There are people who can only exist by holding this attitude. Staying in the conflict keeps them alive, on both sides of the Mediterranean. For me, we need to move forward with concrete actions. In particular, I proposed the construction of a museum on the history of France and Algeria in Montpellier to centralize the knowledge of this war in one place.

In France, some refuse to face this colonial past and advance the theme of ‘repentance’. What do you think ?

It is an ideological discourse, created and supported by a section of the French political class. No one has ever asked for repentance, but for an acknowledgment of what has happened. We need to get out of this trap with concrete measures, as I propose in my report.

What do you think of the repair questions?

Repair is necessary, but first we need to know who we are talking about. How many people have disappeared? How many were affected by the nuclear tests in the Sahara? Reparations must be based on well-argued facts. Another form of recovery could be the lesson of the Algerian war. Education began to take this history into account twenty years ago. We need to focus more on colonization now.