Though France abandoned its colonial empire in the 20th century and withdrew from Algeria almost 60 years ago, the legacy of that period continues to haunt both countries.
From 1954 to 1962, France engaged in a bloody campaign of repression across Algerian territory to defeat the National Liberation Front (FLN), a group of rebels waging a war of independence. For its part, the FLN has governed Algeria since the French departure. Today, France seems far from ready to address the most notorious episodes of what historians now call the Algerian War.
The Algerian War claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, with some historians estimating it left 400,000 dead, but others placing the number of Algerian deaths alone at 1.5 million. War crimes also became a routine aspect of the conflict: French forces made liberal use of torture to obtain intelligence on their FLN foes, and the FLN rarely hesitated to bomb locations frequented by French civilians or to kill Algerians seen as collaborating with France’s colonial project.
Discussion of the Algerian War remains a controversial subject in France, where politicians have struggled to reconcile their country’s centuries-long promotion of social equality with the brutality that France demonstrated toward its colonies and Algeria in particular. Marine Le Pen, the leader of a political party at the forefront of France’s far right, has even argued that Algeria benefited from colonialism. Her father, fellow right-wing firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, served as a French paratrooper in the Algerian War and faces allegations of torturing Algerian detainees.
Politicians have struggled to reconcile their country’s centuries-long promotion of social equality with the brutality that France demonstrated toward its colonies.
French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to pursue a different path. On March 9, Macron’s administration said that it would “significantly shorten the time required for the declassification procedure” of secret documents from the Algerian War to “encourage respect for historical truth.” French officials may now clear documents for release as a group rather than having to vet them one by one, a time-consuming process that frustrated French historians.
However welcome the gesture, Macron’s move struck many historians as insufficient, and even redundant. A 2008 French law already promised the automatic declassification of secret documents 50 years from the date of their creation. A separate directive issued by the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security in 2011, though, obliges French officials to conduct a manual review of documents before approving them for declassification. These bureaucratic snafus have made it much more difficult for historians to do their work.
While expanding historians’ access to little-known archives may seem low on the list of France’s national priorities, the country has barely begun to wrestle with the most traumatic elements of the Algerian War. During the conflict, political violence often spilled from Algeria to the French mainland. In a handful of cases, the military architects of France’s counterinsurgency in Algeria also tortured French citizens suspected of siding with the FLN’s rebellion.
The military architects of France’s counterinsurgency in Algeria also tortured French citizens suspected of siding with the FLN’s rebellion.
The journalist Henri Alleg, one of the Frenchmen subjected to torture by his compatriots in Algeria, recounted his experience in the 1958 book “La Question.” Alleg described how French soldiers electrocuted him, waterboarded him, and threatened to execute him. Alleg’s friend and fellow Frenchman, the communist dissident Maurice Audin, died under torture in Algeria. Macron admitted France’s complicity in Audin’s death in 2018, saying, “Maurice Audin was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home.”
Even as Macron starts to reckon with the legacy of the Algerian War, he is also attempting to find the middle ground in one of France’s most divisive issues. He has said that France will make neither “repentance nor apologies” for its colonization of Algeria. At the same time, Macron charged a French historian, Benjamin Stora, with reporting on the “progress made by France on the memory of the colonization of Algeria and the Algerian War.”
Following Stora’s recommendations, Macron’s administration committed itself earlier this year to launching a “memories and truth” commission. France will also arrange three events in 2021 and 2022 to honor Algerians who fought on both sides of the conflict and to celebrate the Évian Accords, the peace treaty that facilitated France’s 1962 withdrawal from Algeria. Macron’s explicit refusal to apologize for French conduct in Algeria, however, raises questions about his willingness to reconcile with a country that France controlled for 130 years.
France’s internal debate over how to address its past in Algeria speaks to the conversations that have bedeviled Europe’s former colonial powers.
France’s internal debate over how to address its past in Algeria speaks to the challenging conversations that have bedeviled Europe’s former colonial powers. British museums are still making halting moves to return artifacts to Egypt, Iraq, and other countries in the Global South. Italy, meanwhile, has maintained a fraught relationship with Libya, where the fascist Italian General Rodolfo Graziani earned the nickname “the butcher of Fezzan” in the early 20th century.
One of the most important steps that France and its neighbors can take to account for their imperial pasts sounds like the simplest: allowing historians to do an objective review of how colonization affected countries such as Algeria and France, and their relationship today. Macron has already gone in this direction by commissioning Stora’s report. To ensure that historians can undertake an exhaustive analysis, though, Macron must also grant them quick access to all the French documents from the Algerian War that they require to study the conflict.
Rewriting the historiography of the Algerian War will give France the opportunity to reflect on its colonial past at length and re-engage with Algeria from a more informed position. As France seeks to preserve its relationships in North Africa, French policymakers will need to understand the contemporary consequences of their country’s centuries-long presence in the region. Only then will France have the proper tools to pursue a sustainable reconciliation with Algeria.