Professor and researcher in history at the University of Burgundy, Christophe Lafaye is a doctor in contemporary history and an archivist. He specialized in his research work on the use of special weapons (nuclear, bacteriological and chemical) during the War of Independence (1954-1962). He returns at length to the question of memory and puts his finger on an important fact: for him, research on the colonization of Algeria produces interesting analyzes in the United States, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, etc. There is no monopoly of France and Algeria on this story. And that’s good!
L’Expression: Did you sense any evolution in the joint statements of Presidents Tebboune and Macron about the reconciliation of the memories of the two countries?
Christopher Lafaye: This official trip was expected in France and Algeria for different reasons. In France, this trip was to reveal the deep intentions of the President of the Republic at the start of this second term marked by a strong presence of the far right in the National Assembly. Were we going to find the presidential candidate who, in 2017, had qualified colonization “a crime against humanity”, before acknowledging, once in office, the responsibility of France in the disappearance and assassination of Maurice Audin? and to open certain archives on the missing and then to welcome Professor Benjamin Stora’s report? Or were we, on the contrary, going to witness a new stiffening of the French presidential posture after the “memorial rent” affair, which caused a lot of ink to flow in Algeria or that of the closure of the archives between 2019 and 2021 more to the crisis on “secrecy defence”? In Algeria, the “Hirak” has only increased the vital need to question History within the Algerian population, by reinforcing its importance in the public space. This demand for history is alive both in families looking for answers on missing persons or in citizens who are looking in the first known or unknown actors of the Algerian Revolution of all origins and confessions, keys to imagine a possible future. At the heart of these questions is the question of access to archives that is thwarted and sometimes impossible in France and Algeria. It is clear that the question of memory was perhaps not central to this trip – as has been announced – but it was politically unavoidable for the two Presidents.
Do you think all the archives will be open as President Macron has said?
The archives would be fully open in France and Algeria for the twelve historians designated to be part of the mixed commission. In France, this raises an ethical and legal question. Why restrict access to the archives to six historians designated by the act of the Prince? Wouldn’t it be more egalitarian to open them to all citizens to allow contradictory debates? The archives do not belong to the President of the Republic but to the Nation. Since the law of 7 Messidor Year II of June 25, 1794, the principle of the archives of the Nation has been enshrined. Citizens have the right to know what has been done in their name. The Heritage Code of 2008 and even the law on the prevention of terrorist acts of July 30, 2021 regulate the communication of funds, tightening access to certain military archives in particular. Is it tolerable in a democratic regime that the Executive can decide who has the right, through a commission, to access the archives of the Nation inaccessible to others? The members of the commission on Rwanda were not able to have access to all the archives. Will it be the same for the one on Algeria? As much for Rwanda, the temporal proximity of the facts (1994) could justify a partial declassification of the funds for the researchers, as much for Algeria we border on the ridiculous one. We are talking about a story that began in 1830 and ended in 1962. All the archives should already be accessible.
The challenges of memory remain the same, but does this mean that this commission signs the end of the debate initiated by the Stora report on the memory issues of colonization and the Algerian war? Like, we erase everything and start over…
In France, this commission wishes to provide answers, most of which already exist for those wishing to obtain information. The historiography is particularly abundant. The Algerian war (1954-1962) is one of the most studied by university research: 667 theses and dissertations in French are listed on this subject which constitutes the epilogue of the period of colonization. Begun at the end of the 1970s, university research on the Algerian war developed in the 1980s before intensifying during the 1990s and then experiencing a very strong development of the early 2000s to the present day. As historian Fabrice Riceputi points out: “All the political-memorial rhetoric relating to Algeria deployed by the Élysée in recent years is underpinned by an idea inherited from 60 years of denial: there would be an equivalence of responsibilities between the two parties in the misfortunes of the colonial war in Algeria. However, historical works show it: this idea which justifies a good colonial conscience is false. It is France that finally cannot agree to look the reality of this colonial past in the face. Do we need a new commission for this or more simply the political courage to open all the archives to allow historians of all origins to be able to work and defend their theses, whatever they may be?
Many observers fear the idea of a common story about a history that is certainly common, but which has been lived distinctly by the two peoples. What do you have to say about it?
The realities of historical research and democratic life are very different in France and in Algeria (access to archival funds, autonomy of research, etc.). This asymmetry and the political presence of the two States behind the commission, rather make me wonder about the possible concrete results of such an initiative. I would be careful not to give lessons to the Algerian authorities on the maintenance and communication of their archives. Each country must do its own thing. I stand in solidarity with all my Algerian colleagues in their request to be able to access funds in France and Algeria. You know, the historical method has no boundaries. To be able to carry out our work properly, we need to have access to public archives, private documents, oral testimonies and so on. all the elements that allow us to cross the sources and seek to administer the proof. It is at the end of this effort that bits of truth can emerge. You have to be able to work calmly, debate and write freely. There is no History but historians who question the past with the questions of the present. The “definitive” side of the answers that should be provided by the joint committee questions me. It is ultimately the complete opposite of the discipline of history. Finally, research on the colonization of Algeria produces interesting analyzes in the United States, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, etc. There is no monopoly of France and Algeria on this story. And that’s good!
The question of nuclear and bacteriological tests as well as the question of disappearances before and during the war in Algeria remain ignored by official France. What about your analysis?
You can also add to this list the question of the fumades of the conquest and that of the use of chemical weapons during the war of independence. France does not wish to expose these embarrassing questions. As part of my work, I come up against article L123-2 of the 2008 Heritage Code, which renders incommunicable: “Public archives whose communication is likely to lead to the dissemination of information allowing the design, manufacture , use or locate nuclear, biological, chemical or any other weapons having direct or indirect destructive effects of a similar level.” While it must prevent the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), this article is used not to communicate the elements relating to the use of toxic gases or napalm in Algeria.
France has used chemical weapons to fight against caves, caches, tunnels etc. of the ALN. It created in December 1956 a specialized unit: the special weapons battery of the 411th RAA, based in Sidi Ferruch (currently Sidi Fredj). In the spring of 1959, in preparation for the Challe plan, this unit formed numerous cave sections within the area engineering companies and even a unit within the marine riflemen demi-brigade (Dbfm). Since 1962, many books or testimonies have come to shed light on this little-known aspect of the war. But the archives remain closed, despite what the inventories reveal. The funds we are talking about mainly concern minutes of the creation of units, reports of operations, summaries produced for the staff of the armies on their operational use, etc. Finally, we are a long way from the “plans for nuclear bombs” or “sensitive installations” invoked during parliamentary debates in 2008 and 2021 to justify the existence of incommunicable archives. The exploitation of these documents would make it possible to find Algerian and even French missing persons – and to identify them – since the caves were used as places of detention. The communication of archives on nuclear and bacteriological tests would be likely – if the funds still exist – to decontaminate the sites but also to act concretely with the populations to try to attenuate the effects even today. But for that, we must agree to look the truth in the face, to open the archives to everyone and to let historians work together on both sides of the Mediterranean. Give civil societies in both countries the means to build this slow process of healing memories.