Benjamin Stora gave President Macron on Wednesday the report commissioned in July 2020 on the memory of the colonization and the Algerian war (1). A “Memory and Truth” commission responsible for promoting joint memory initiatives between the two countries will be set up. It will bring about twenty recommendations aimed at the recognition of the colonial fact and the appeasement of memories between the two peoples. A turning point on the road to reconciliation?
Your report on the memory of colonization and the Algerian war (1) is eagerly awaited. For what reasons, according to you?
Benjamin stora For many years, reports on the memory issue between France and Algeria have been uncertain. They became difficult in 2005, when, in France, the so-called positive colonization law was passed, while a year earlier, a friendship treaty was about to be signed. Relations then improved a little with François Hollande. A boost was given with Emmanuel Macron and his positions on the Audin affair. But a delay of about fifteen years has been made. Important files are pending. The more there was delay, the more time was wasted in learning about this history and the colonial system. So the gap widened, especially in the construction of imaginaries. In France, we have witnessed a powerful nationalist retraction on the notion of a lost empire, of memory of revenge. On the other side too, there have been retractions. Each group carrying this memory is locked up there. This is a real problem.
What was your approach to go beyond this field of selective memories and still vivid wounds?
Benjamin stora I favored an educational approach. I propose a method of public discussion which consists in approaching the historical reality starting from very concrete problems. Rather than speeches with trick words, like that of repentance that the extreme right has imposed for more than twenty years in order to prevent any discussion of what was the reality of the colonial fact. On the subject of repentance, I took a detour through Asia to understand why the apologies that Japan tried to make several times to China and Korea failed to “reconcile” these countries. They were experienced as hypocrisies, because they were not followed by concrete actions.
The hopes for your mission show how these subjects are as sensitive as they are important. How do you explain it?
Benjamin stora They are important because the colonial question, particularly Algerian, has become central in France insofar as it poses French issues: racism and discrimination, France’s relationship to its minorities, the place of religion, etc. The memorial question is not only past history, it has become, on a global scale, a topical issue that concerns societies in the present. As we see, there is a youthful effervescence on these issues. France must hear it. Much remains to be done, particularly at the level of national education, to look at the entire colonial past of France, to understand the difficult decolonizations.
Is knowledge and recognition one of the strengths of your report?
Benjamin stora The Algerian war ended sixty years ago, and it has been barely fifteen years that we speak about it in school books. What is the colonial war, the regroupment camps, etc. ? The Algerians know French history, the French ignore Algerian history, they ignore that the Algerians were beheaded during the colonial conquest. We also ignore the very important role of the political and diplomatic battle led by the Algerians for their independence, as well as the great figures of Algerian nationalism. I am thinking of Messali Hadj, Ferhat Abbas, Hocine Aït Ahmed, Mohamed Boudiaf, Abane Ramdane, Krim Belkacem. We cannot quote them all. Knowledge of this history must be emphasized. It also involves the multiplication of political and symbolic gestures.
You recommend a certain number …
Benjamin stora They all are, but I will mention three in particular. The recognition by France, following the declarations concerning Maurice Audin, of the assassination of the lawyer Ali Boumendjel, political leader of Algerian nationalism, defenestrated by the French officer Paul Aussaresses during the battle of Algiers in March 1957 Gisèle Halimi’s entry into the Panthéon: she is known in France for her feminist struggles, but less for her anti-colonialist commitment and against the Algerian war. The battle will be difficult, but this would make it possible to show the new generations that there was not a homogeneous France, that France is not just Bugeaud or Gallieni. It is also those who refused the colonial system: Louise Michel, François Mauriac, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Gisèle Halimi, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, etc. I am also thinking, as a strong symbolic gesture, of the repatriation of the bodies of members of the family of Emir Abd el-Kader, buried in the castle of Amboise, after his defeat. Thus we would explain what was the action of the Emir, after his captivity, in favor of the populations of Eastern Christians who had taken refuge in Damascus in 1860.
Since the friendship treaty aborted under the Chirac presidency, is a new treaty possible?
Benjamin stora Why not ? As the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence approaches, in 2022, a treaty between the two peoples would be welcome. Because it is a question of development for the future of the two countries. The question of archives can be the product of a concrete treaty. How to lift the bans, how to have access to their digitization, what restitutions? What other archives can be explored?
Can your report be a turning point in France’s relationship with its history?
Benjamin stora I hope so. We must take this turn by files. But remember that several million people are concerned: the actors in this story, their children and grandchildren. Algerian immigrants and their descendants form an important mixed space which irrigates the two societies. I think that historical work can act as a backfire to the fires of inflamed memories, especially in youth. France today must succeed in the interbreeding – or “living together” – – which it denied in colonial Algeria. It is a major issue.
The ambivalence of Macron’s speech raises fears that your report is buried or emptied of its substance …
Benjamin stora This is the question many of you are asking. The same is asked about the attitude of Algeria. In this mission, as a volunteer, I am not a representative of the State. Let’s not say we can’t do anything. Let us move forward with the potential that there is in civil societies. We have the possibility of doing concrete things on the archives, the missing, the nuclear tests. The European and Jewish cemeteries in Algeria, an essential issue for many families, are a common heritage. I met about fifty associations and as many actors concerned from the world of culture, heritage and research. Mention was made of work on images, a Franco-Algerian collection in publishing. There are bridges that allow people to take steps together.