Benjamin Stora, specialist in the contemporary history of Algeria, returns this Wednesday, January 20 to Emmanuel Macron the report of a mission which the Head of State charged him in July on the colonization and the war in Algeria . The historian, who advocates the creation of a “Memory and Truth” commission, gives us concrete proposals. He will publish on March 4, “France-Algeria, painful passions”, with Albin Michel.
In July, the President of the Republic entrusted you with a mission on relations between France and Algeria. For what purpose precisely?
As early as the 2017 presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron had already taken up the question since he had then thrown a stone in the pond by considering that colonization was a “crime against humanity”. In 2018, there was this advance in the Audin affair (Editor’s note, the Head of State officially recognizes the responsibilities of the French state and the French army in the assassination of the mathematician militant for Algerian independence, who disappeared during the Algerian war). My mission was first placed on the register of state-to-state relations between France and Algeria. At first, it was the diplomatic advisers of the Elysee who approached me. But then I met Emmanuel Macron who insisted on the Franco-French aspect of my mission.
What does this mission mean for the Head of State?
It is obvious to the president that this is a question of the French past which has not been settled, which nobody really wanted to face and which must be faced. I had no instructions from the Head of State and I was completely free in my work. The central question for him is to take stock of everything that has been done on the issue and everything that could be done. Emmanuel Macron’s will is indeed the reconciliation of France with its past, its history.
But what is the link with France today?
There are many. France today lives on institutions resulting from the Algerian war! All the men born between 1932 and 1943, or some 1.5 million people, fought this war and they then passed on their memory for several generations. The Algerian war is also the birth of mass immigration from the Maghreb to France since, over the period, it has doubled. And there we fall into another world which remains a History of today. The Algerian war is also all the decomposition and recomposition of the French political system. The left, the PCF, and especially the SFIO which is fractured with the birth of a “second left” around Mendès France and Rocard, disappears from the political scene. But the right is also fractured with a nationalist branch pro-French Algeria and, of this crisis, the right, with the persistence of an extreme right, has still not emerged.
Only a young president, like Emmanuel Macron, could face such a heavy collective past?
Macron indeed embodies a third generation of French politicians who arrives at the helm after two major sequences in the history of our country, the generation resulting from the Resistance, Vichy and collaboration, like de Gaulle or François Mitterrand, then that of the Algerian War with Jacques Chirac or Lionel Jospin. This third generation is uninhibited. And no one in the generation born after the end of the Algerian war says they are in favor of the colonial system and slavery. Except for the radicalized far right. What is in question today are the conditions of this reconciliation.
Because it is a process of reconciliation?
It is not a reconciliation, but a will to do something with the Algerians. We will never be able to write a common history between Algeria and France (Editor’s note, as there is a Franco-German history textbook), the French pro-French Algeria and the others. There are indeed two different imaginaries, even opposites. No one is proposing to write a common story. We can certainly touch on education, by adding historical facts, on what happened at the origin of the colonial conquest, on the contribution of the French of Algeria to French history … But my mission, it is to build bridges, not to merge memories but to decompartmentalize them, because memories have become communitarized. Otherwise, as General de Gaulle said, the “box of sorrows” will never close. My goal is to find concrete bridges.
I propose that on symbolic dates, such as March 19 for conscripts, July 5 – independence for Algerians, but also the date on which Europeans were kidnapped in Oran – October 17 for immigrants (massacre of Algerians thrown into the Seine in Paris in 1961, Editor’s note), everyone can come to the commemoration of the others. It is impossible to find a single date, unanimous because the tragedy is that each group considers itself the only repository of the wound in history. The Pieds-Noirs complain of never having been recognized, the Algerians of having been victims of colonization for 130 years, the conscripts of having been misunderstood, the immigrants ignored.
Should we erect new statues rather than destroy?
This is what I advocate. Find new entrances to the Pantheon, new recognitions of people murdered in one camp as in the other. Repatriate associations have asked me to honor the memory of doctors, athletes, engineers, artists born in Algeria.
For example ?
Cheikh Raymond, Gisèle Halimi, ultra-known for the defense of women but not at all for her anti-colonial struggle. Likewise, it was not until her death that people discovered that Simone Veil had taken care of Algerian women detained, before the independence of Algeria – where she also received a tribute. There are so many characters who have played a role … We must move forward, live with these tragedies.
Which recommendations are the most important?
There is the issue of archives, we must take advantage of the digital revolution to pool this extraordinary heritage for ancient knowledge of Algeria.
You don’t fear unpleasant surprises when opening the archives?
Of course there will be. France carried out napalm bombardments that the military called “special cans”, and laid mines at the borders. The one who lifted the veil on this affair is Nicolas Sarkozy, he delivered the plan of the deposited mines to the Algerians. There are also the consequences of nuclear tests, including several in the open air, and finally, the French and Algerian missing, the cemeteries, these are real questions.
Do we need a speech of repentance?
There have already been several important speeches, in astonishing ignorance. Regarding the apologies, it would suffice to read the speeches of the heads of state, Sarkozy, Chirac, Hollande… Now, we must move on to practice.
The case of Europeans who disappeared in Oran does not risk rekindling antagonisms?
At some point you have to face history, name things, formulate them.
Will Algeria agree to a treaty of alliance and truth as you recommend?
It is obvious that if my report does not meet with any echo from the Algerian side, there will be no friendship treaty. History is also important for Algerians, they have their own fractures. But I made this report at the request of Macron, not of President Tebboune. The virtue of this report is to provide a method, to apprehend the Franco-Algerian question not through ideological discourse, but from concrete memorial acts.
If you had to keep only one measure, which would it be?
A Franco-Algerian youth office. To interest young people in their history, to make them circulate in reciprocal historical tales, through novels, through residences on both sides of the Mediterranean. To stop living with this burden, these misunderstandings, this hatred too, because communalized memories lead to separation and hatred.