Macron orders declassification of secret archives of the Algerian war

By "facilitating" access to the archives of the Algerian war, Macron continues his policy of "small steps" in reconciliation
El presidente francés Emmanuel Macron AFP/YOAN VALAT

AFP/YOAN VALAT  -   French President Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron had entrusted the historian Benjamin Stora with a mission on "the memory of the colonization and war in Algeria", with the commission that this specialist present the president with a report with practical recommendations in order to promote "reconciliation between peoples French and Algerian "which includes the tumultuous periods of French decolonization in Africa, such as the Algerian War (1954-1962). Almost a month after handing it over to Emmanuel Macron, historian Benjamin Stora's report on the appeasement of memories of the colonization and war in Algeria seems to find a political outlet.

In a press release published on Tuesday, March 9, the Elysee announced that the French head of state had made the decision to allow the archives to declassify the documents of the Defense Ministry until 1971. “This decision is likely to significantly shorten the waiting times associated with the declassification procedure, especially with regard to documents related to the war in Algeria, ”according to the press release from the presidential headquarters, which explains that it will carry out a more agile declassification procedure; it will be per dossier and not sheet by sheet. The goal is for the declassification work to be ready before the summer of 2021.

el presidente francés Emmanuel Macron, a la derecha, recibe un informe del historiador francés Benjamin Stora  AP/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN
AP/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN-French President Emmanuel Macron, right, receives a report from French historian Benjamin Stora

This announcement comes a week after the recognition by the President of the Republic, "on behalf of France", of the torture and murder of lawyer and nationalist leader Ali Boumendjel by the French Army during the war in France.

Until now, this measure was reserved for elements prior to 1954. From now on, the period covered is "doubly interesting" in the eyes of the Presidency of the Republic. First, because it meets the 50-year term established by the Heritage Code.

Above all, "it allows us to cover a period that arouses a lot of interest in the news", namely the war in Algeria. "According to historians, the last French soldier left Algeria, after independence, in the late 1970s or early 1971," recalls an adviser.

The Elysee announced that the head of state intended to carry out "symbolic acts" to appease the memories of the Algerian war and try to reconcile the two countries, but he will not present the "apologies" requested by Algiers.

En esta foto de archivo del 15 de mayo de 1962, un soldado francés vigila una esquina en Orán, Argelia, en la pared hay un cartel de la Organización Armada Secreta nacionalista, que llama a los ciudadanos a tomar las armas contra la independencia de Argelia AP/HORST FAAS
AP/HORST FAAS-In this file photo from May 15, 1962, a French soldier watches a street corner in Oran, Algeria, on the wall is a poster of the Nationalist Secret Armed Organization, calling on citizens to take up arms against Algerian independence.

France proposes three ceremonies between 2021 and 2022 to promote reconciliation with Algeria since bilateral relations between these territories have been burdened since the European country was the colonial power of the African between 1830 and 1962.

Specifically, the events are planned for September 25, 2021, on the occasion of National Harkis Day; on October 17, commemoration of the so-called Paris Massacre for the repression of Algerian protesters in the French capital, and on March 19, for the sixteenth anniversary of the Evián Accords that initiated independence.

This report was expected. On the one hand, because the subject is highly flammable, so much so that it unleashes passions, while Algeria has been independent for almost 60 years, and on the other hand, because of the personality of Benjamin Stora, who has dedicated his career to the history of Algeria and of Maghreb immigration, he cannot be considered an insignificant observer, to the point that his past commitments - with the extreme left in his youth, with the left in his mature years - cannot be totally separated from his scientific work, which carries the mark of a principled anti-colonialism and undisguised empathy with Algerian nationalism.

 En esta foto de archivo del 27 de mayo de 1956, las tropas francesas sellan Argel, un barrio árabe de 400 años de antigüedad PHOTO/AP
PHOTO/AP- In this May 27, 1956 file photo, French troops seal off Algiers, a 400-year-old Arab neighborhood.

Stora's report proposes to appease rival memories around the Algerian war, which poison the link between the two countries, as well as the public debate within French society. Benjamin Stora, recommends in particular the creation in France of a commission "Memories and Truth", in charge of proposing "joint initiatives between France and Algeria on the questions of memory", returning to Algeria the sword of Abdelkader, hero of the resistance to French colonization in the 19th century, acknowledge the murder by the French Army of the lawyer and Algerian nationalist leader Ali Boumendjel in 1957 or bring the anti-colonialist lawyer Gisèle Halimi, who died on July 28, 2020, in the Pantheon that gives the welcome to the heroes of French history.

The reconciling attitude of the president, celebrated in Algeria, is not without controversy in France, since there are still many voices that criticize these works of historical memory and denounce that this type of act is a lack of consideration towards the French soldiers who participated in war.

After welcoming Stora's report, considered "below expectations", the Algerian authorities and media praised the announcement about Ali Boumendjel last week, calling it "a step in the right direction", according to the El Watan newspaper. Algiers then insisted on recovering all the archives from the colonial period and, beyond that, on obtaining "recognition of colonial crimes" from Paris, which until now has ruled out offering "apologies."

En esta foto de archivo del 14 de diciembre de 1960, soldados franceses armados, en primer plano, se enfrentan a una turba de argelinos que gritan a la entrada de un barrio en Argel PHOTO/AP
PHOTO/AP-In this file photo from December 14, 1960, armed French soldiers, in the foreground, confront a mob of Algerians who shout at the entrance to a neighborhood in Algiers.

To preserve the information that continues to be ultra-sensitive, "the Government has begun legislative work" to strengthen the "communicability" of the archives "without compromising national security and defense," according to the Elysee. Furthermore, information about the nuclear tests carried out by France in the Algerian Sahara in the 1960s will remain secret, much to the chagrin of Algiers, which claims them. For the experts, opening the files should not lead to big revelations. "About Algeria, we know everything!" says an intelligence member, citing military operations, infiltration of the FLN or torture ... And today, the French Army "does not defend at all what has been done in Algeria" and wants, on the contrary, "to get away from it", according to him.

But on social media, although many French historians have highlighted the positive aspect of the report's recommendations, they also pointed out that, in practice, "they will be in vain" if the General Interministerial Instruction 1300 on the protection of the secret of national defense ( IGI 1300) is not reformed. As the archivists 'association explains in a press release published on January 17, “for more than a year, the systematic application of IGI 1300 (…) has led to subordinate all communication of documents prior to 1970 and bear a seal' secrecy 'to an administrative procedure called declassification. "In less technical terms, access to documents dating from the colonial period" is thus blocked for months, and sometimes years. "

For the Algerian newspaper L'Expression, this work of memory is "a difficult but necessary exercise" and allows the two countries to have "a common horizon turned towards the future." "Benjamin Stora in his report explored the dead ends that led to misunderstanding on both sides, before advocating solutions capable of going beyond them and allowing the passage from a community memory to a common memory", enthusiastically summarizes the daily life.

vista del Maqam Echahid, un monumento de hormigón que conmemora la guerra de independencia de Argelia, el 21 de enero de 2021 en Argel AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI
AFP/ RYAD KRAMDI-view of the Maqam Echahid, a concrete monument commemorating the Algerian war of independence, on January 21, 2021 in Algiers

Le Quotidien d'Oran is more critical, stressing that the "reconciliation of memories" desired by the Elysee is not for tomorrow. "It is a process of recognition, but it is not a matter of regrets and apologies, declared the French Presidency, relying on the opinion of Benjamin Stora who cites as an example the precedent of the apologies presented by Japan to South Korea and China in the Second War. World Cup that did not allow to "reconcile" these countries "laments the newspaper.

Asked about the RFI channel, the Algerian essayist Akram Belkaïd was also moved by the issue of the archives. "It is obvious that there is a ghost in Algeria over the archives. Some still think that France keeps shameful secrets about betrayals, people who have played a double game or people who have served the interests of France while they were in the FLN," he summarized . While, in France, access to documents has become more difficult in recent months, the writer also highlights the difficulties on the Algerian side: "Very few Algerian researchers have access to their own archives in Algeria, so much so that some prefer that still remain in France for fear of being tampered with or covered up. "

Will this past finally pass? The mess, being diplomatic (vicissitudes of the relationship between Paris and Algiers), identity (integration of young people of immigrant origin) and historiographic (insufficiently open archives), condenses a complexity that is at least delicate to unravel.

Emmanuel Macron and his counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune are committed to working together on the issue of memory. But, so far, Algiers has not announced any reciprocal gesture, and Benjamin Stora's alter ego, Abdelmadjid Chikhi, has not presented his report.