Analysis

ANALYSIS - Stora Report: France denies Algerian history once again

The report purely and simply omits specific significant factual data, particularly during the war of conquest

Francois Burgat   | 17.02.2021
ANALYSIS - Stora Report: France denies Algerian history once again

The author is a political sociologist and Senior Research Fellow (Emeritus) at the French National Centre for Scientific Research

AIX EN PROVENCE, France 

Year after year, at the end of long decades of silence, the divide created by the sequence of colonial wars between France and its neighbors in the southern Mediterranean, and more importantly, the divide within France, which shows itself in the imaginations of millions of its fellow citizens of all origins and all faiths, has revealed itself as a decisive but rarely admitted cause of the tensions that tear France's national fabric.

This sequence of colonization, the Algerian page, is the longest one (132 years) and much more violent than those written, particularly in neighboring Tunisia or Morocco, and it can be considered as the one that left the most essential and urgent memorial questions fallow.

Therefore, the willingness of President Emmanuel Macron to officially reopen this file could consequently only be welcome. To understand the scope, but more realistically, the limits of the "Report on memory issues relating to colonization of Algeria and the Algerian War," which was given to him at his request by historian Benjamin Stora, it is essential to recall the short-term political context of its drafting. This context is simply that of the will of a president elected in 2017 to maintain contact with as broad a spectrum as possible of the electorate that brought him to power, keeping in mind his re-election in 2022.

However, the Yellow Vests crisis having enabled him to measure the repudiation, by his left-wing electorate, of policies deemed too liberal, the president has openly launched -- especially since his Mureaux speech on Oct. 2, 2020, on the prevention of "Muslim separatism" -- in a policy of seducing the right-wing and far-right electorate.

The report entrusted to one of his advisers could not, therefore, be allowed to run the risk of slowing down or contradicting this trajectory. Thus, no surprise emerges to disturb the reader of the 157 pages of the text solemnly submitted to the president on Jan. 20, 2021. Suppose there is still any chance to bring closer certain French actors or the descendants of the actors who are still very divided. In that case, there is much less to do for significant progress between the Algerian and French shores for the reconciliation of memories.

Much has been said about the reasons for this credibility deficit, underlined and amplified since the publication of the rejection in principle expressed by the president of any possibility of an official apology from France to Algeria. Suppose it is necessary to designate the main dimension of the problem revealed by this approach of the "official" French historian. In that case, we will say that Benjamin Stora, as it is true of so many others before him, in no way preserved himself from the temptation of euphemizing one of the constitutive dimensions of French violence against Algeria. The magnitude of his constitutive dimension, although quite exceptional, is also accused of minimizing, as, more fundamentally still, its intrinsically unilateral dimension.

Regarding this first level of reading, Afaf Zekkour and Noureddine Amara, two Algerian historians, have logically focused their criticisms on two aspects. The first attribute a certain "revisionism" to Benjamin Stora. They then accuse him of "a propensity to want to 'make a nation' before having 'made history.'" In other words, they reproach Stora for wanting to achieve reconciliation that would close the colonial divide without really having taken the time to clearly and completely state its factual foundations and its historical significance.

In the Western historiography of colonization, the bias that all history from the moment it began to be written by the victors has obviously been nothing original or new. It is notably at the heart of the truncated representation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In France, for the doxa of the dominant gaze, it is recurrent to give in to the pernicious facility of bringing the colonizers and the colonized face to face, and so the victims and the executioners or the craters and the cannons, and this can be seen in the works of Plantu, the star cartoonist of the newspaper Le Monde as well as on grand news channels.

As in most of his work on the war of independence, Benjamin Stora, himself from a family originating in Constantine and affected by the turbulences of the war of liberation, cannot avoid the mistake, which consists of opposing, on the same level, to the 130 years of martyrdom inflicted on a population crushed by the military, political, economic cycles but also, more durably still, cultural cycles of implacable exploitation on the one hand and, on the other hand, the outbursts of resistance or counter-violence mounted by this colonized society to alleviate its suffering or to try to end it.

In fact, the report purely and simply omits specific significant factual data, particularly during the war of conquest and the terrifying actions of Marshal Bureau's "infernal columns" committed because of the scorched earth policy. The vocabulary that he uses - qualifying as "exactions" - of the significant criminal episodes of this long and bloody war of conquest clearly betrays, as Olivier Lecourt Grand Maison points out, this first prejudice to water down policies which should all be assimilated into the war crimes register. And the manifestations of counter-violence of the Algerian population, which have occurred occasionally, especially in the context of the liberation war, are not constructed as such but as a parallel or even an equivalent of the violence, which was much more structural, of the colonizer.

"The historian Benjamin Stora capitulated (thus) to the Benjamin Stora who became an advisor to present Emmanuel Macron with a commemorative program congruent with his electoral plans." Of the many commentators on the report, Olivier Lecourt Grand Maison is the one who then most clearly targeted not only the relative "revisionism" of the approach but also, in the context of the right-wing shift of the presidential candidate for re-election, the political bias adopted in a rather pernicious way by his adviser in the depths of his report, and in doing so pointed out the damage done by "the adviser" to the scientific scope of the service of the "historian."

Stora's writing is indeed in line with the rhetoric of criminalizing "post-colonial" or "decolonial" approaches, which has recently brought together the discourse fabricated by rights to discredit, or even criminalize, any demand expressed by the French descendants of the victims of colonization.

B. Stora writes OLG "endorses the thesis, repeated ad nauseam by political forces (right and far right), according to which threats of extreme gravity weigh on the unity of the Republic because of the irresponsible mobilizations of various 'community groups' and generationals."

The persistent lockdown on access to archives also remains a point of contradiction between the proclaimed desire for transparency and the measures taken to establish it. Algerian historiography's total impasse can only be surprising concerning the stated expectations of "reconciling" or even of "making a dialogue" ... the divided sections of Mediterranean memory.

The other measures all offer temporary benefits. But these measures are struggling with recognizing even one of the countless extra-judicial executions committed by the French army, the formation of bilateral commissions, or the commemoration of 'a French personality' (Gisèle Halimi) hostile to the Algerian war. These measures, against the obvious responsibilities of old policies, fail to possess the strength of a symbol capable of expressing the expected rupture from the old failings of France.

A memorial structure built economically on an unbalanced foundation logically struggles to rise to the demands of history. And that is a shame!

*Translated by Baran Burgaz Ayaz from French

**Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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