History and the politicians

The historically fraught relationship of metropole and colony persists between France and Algeria, as a recent “symbolic” gesture reveals.

Image credit Calvin Smith via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

In July 2020, Emmanuel Macron commissioned the eminent historian, Benjamin Stora, to write a report on the memory of French colonial history in Algeria and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) in “a new spirit of reconciliation between the French and Algerian peoples.” In the introduction to the report, published in late January this year, Stora lists the symbolic actions already taken by Macron to this end: his description, as a presidential candidate in 2017, of colonialism as a “crime against humanity;” the recognition of the torture of young communist mathematician Maurice Audin by the French military during the war; and the restitution of the skulls of Algerians killed during the French conquest from the Musée de l’homme in Paris to Algiers. The commissioning of such a report therefore joins a list of symbolic measures taken to normalize state relations between France and its former colonies. The report was not, however, officially addressed to the Algerian government, for whom “it is as if it did not exist,” as Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director of the Algerian National Archives, commented last month following a long silence from Algerian authorities.

In his report, Stora finds himself in the peculiar position of the professional historian, concerned with documenting the empirical, addressing the statesman, concerned with steering people towards normative ends. Hence Stora’s main prescription to Macron boils down to one of the few normative claims a historian can make in good faith: let’s do more history. Accordingly, he recommends the full opening of France’s colonial archives through 1962, which should, in fact, already have been opened, given the lapse of 50 years stipulated in French law. Stora also echoes Fouad Soufi’s call for jointly-held Franco-Algerian archives to be grouped under the legal category of “common heritage,” which would do away with the current distribution of colonial documents, divided across the Mediterranean after independence according to a tenuous legal distinction between “sovereignty” archives (France) and “management” archives (Algeria). Further, the national education curriculum, writes Stora, ought to “emphasize the understanding of that very French history of colonialism.” Full transparency, he argues, would allow for a properly historical understanding of colonialism and the war, as opposed to the fractured mémoires that emerge from the many self-referential communities—National Liberation Front (FLN) militants, Jews, harkis, pied-noirs, French metropolitan soldiers deployed to Algeria—born of colonial cleavages and wartime decisions. Fleshed-out history, argues Stora, ought to replace claims to “have been right in the past” (avoir eu raison dans le passé).

Of course, the report is far more than a historian’s advice to a statesman; it is also a very public affair. And public reaction was predictably critical. In France, the Union nationale des combattants applauded the historian’s decision not to recommend any act of apology, but ended with an obligatory condemnation of his reading of wartime events and a slippery slope argument warning against recognizing Algerian nationalist (“terrorist” reads the op-ed) demands. In Algeria, it was precisely Stora’s emphasis on “recognition” as opposed to “repentance” that was the most criticized element of the report; in this country so brutalized by the colonial encounter, anything short of an apology will not do.

The most astute critiques addressed the ambiguous status of the report as a kind of scholarly-review-cum-policy-proposal. On the one hand, Stora strives to be non-judgmental, thereby leaving justice, which demands judgment, to politicians. On the other, the recommendations in his report do, in fact, reveal some kind of judgment. He judges reconciliation, for example, to be a good thing—this is not necessarily an obvious idea in Algeria—and as a result, he tepidly allows himself to play the political game of proposing symbols of Franco-Algerian brotherhood (the mythical Kahéna, for example, or Émilie Busquant, the European wife of early nationalist Messali Hadj, who, together with him designed the Algerian flag).

Media reaction in Algeria seemed to ask: If the report was intended to be political, then why not propose that France apologize? And if it wasn’t intended to be political, then why write for Macron in the first place? Stora, for his part, has said that his report had the modest goal of encouraging people to think beyond the terms of memorial conflict to engage themselves in “practical works” of historical research. Despite this basic confusion, the report’s candor won Stora some mitigated approval; to some it signals a sincere French attempt to finally move past the sour Franco-Algerian relationship. It does, after all, publicly state facts—regarding the repossession of land, the systematic devaluation of autochthonous language and culture, as well as torture—otherwise conveniently ignored by various groups formerly committed to an Algérie française.

What then of the man who commissioned the report? In Algeria, the French are now a diplomatic issue; but in France, Algerians are still a domestic one. Domestically, this most recent episode in Macron’s turn towards France’s colonial past can seem incongruous in light of continued policing of populations of immigrant origin, the shutdown of the Pantin mosque (reopened on April 9), and rightward shift as elections approach. There is, however, a logic to Macron’s two-step dance with the colonial past, which was first introduced by the man who led France as it lost its empire, Charles de Gaulle. France’s colonial problems, de Gaulle posited, could be resolved by cutting off political accountability to colonial subjects by granting independence to colonies, while their profitability could be maintained through preserved economic ties with newly independent states. (Stora notes that Algeria and France have remained strong economic partners despite political problems.) By the same token, as Todd Shepard has explained, Algerian independence justified a logic of cultural difference, espoused at one point by both De Gaulle and the FLN: French and Algerians were too different from each other to live together as one country. If Algeria could not be made French, it had to be amputated.

The Stora report and anti-immigrant policies, together, can therefore be read as an attempt by Macron to regularize relations “over there” in Algeria, while enforcing Republican values “over here.” In a word, it is an attempt to fully amputate. They are both efforts to scrub France clean of its colonial past which, stubbornly, refuses to go away, chiefly because French and Algerians still live together in contemporary France. Immigration to France from Algeria, as with elsewhere from the former French colonial world, is continuous and exists in sundry forms. From the macroeconomic level, this again has seemingly everything to do with how the money flows. The funneling of resources from colonial periphery to metropole continues, and as labor follows, France will be forced, again, to ask itself the legal and cultural question born in colonial Algeria, so far left unresolved: can Muslims be fully French? In contemporary France, where Algerians with any number of historical links to the former metropole live, the question takes many more specific forms. Can harkis, native Algerians who fought on the side of France, be recognized as French heroes of a war rather forgotten? Can children of Algerians who opposed the France they later emigrated to escape social marginalization in the country they know best? And can the more recent Algerian immigrant, whether student or worker, obtain the citizenship papers that will guarantee him a sliver of colonialism’s spoils?

Further Reading