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Benjamin Stora on French Colonialism and Algeria Today!

Translated Saturday 5 August 2006, by Henry Crapo, Hervé Fuyet

The colonial discourse has not been sufficiently analysed by political parties or by educational institutions.
Following one year of harsh debate on the colonial past, a historian, Benjamin Stora ( http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjam... ), studies the persistent weight of the Algerian war ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algeri... ) on French society.

Humanité: For what reasons have historical questions, in particular questions connected with colonisation, taken on such an importance?

Benjamin Stora: The first reason is the arrival on the political scene of new generations of descendants of colonial and post colonial immigration. The process started in 1983 with the « March of the Beurs ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beur ) ». At that time, the struggle was for equality of citizens rather than for the search of an identity. Twenty years later, these same above-mentioned French new generations were raising the same questions about their place in society and about the discrimination to which they are daily exposed. They search, go back in the family history, and always end up confronted with what was a colonial ideology.

The second reason is the obvious progress of historical research in the last twenty years due to the opening of archives. But this evolution took place in spite of the meagre means put at the disposition of researchers. Direct witness accounts from France or from Algeria also contributed to the debate on colonial history. They express the need to liberate the minds and speech, to allow communication. The history of slavery, in connection with the developing Black question, also gradually imposed itself. It is at the source of a process of politicization that has links with the previous movement of “Negritude ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negritude ) ” and with the Black intellectuals that were earlier carrying the struggle, like Franz Fanon or Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Humanité: After the adoption of the Law of February 2005, you warned against the danger of a “war of historians”.

Benjamin Stora: Shortly after the Algerian independence, a political consensus grew in France on the necessity of decolonization, considered as an obvious threshold. Only an extreme right wing minority refused to follow suit. Since the beginning of the eighties, that process has been gradually questioned, paralleling the rise of an extreme political right wing. In 1983, the “March of the Beurs” and the electoral triumph of the National Front ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation... ) in Dreux signaled the beginning of a battle on the subject of colonial history, which gradually became pivotal in French society. The February 23, 2005 Law has not been proposed by the National Front but by the UMP, which is linked, at least formally, to the history of Gaullism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaullism ). The ideology that claims to rehabilitate the colonial system moved from one political sphere to the next one.

Humanité: The void left by the national educational system contributed to the emergency of stories more or less fabricated or of phantasms?

Benjamin Stora: Many factors can explain the birth of movements basing themselves exclusively on “identity”. Colonial history that has not been dealt with as such by politicians has not been adequately treated either by the educational establishment. That double lack has contributed to the fabrication of a rebuilt fantastic identity that occults anti colonialism, independantist nationalism, the battles led by the colonized within the working class movement. This fantastic identity can be summarized most of the time as adopting the position of a victim. In addition the French Left is not perceived as having drawn lessons from its past positions on the national question. However, in 2004, Marie-Georges Buffet ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie-... ) acknowledged the communist vote of 1956 in favour of “Special Powers” was an error. More recently, when in Algiers, François Hollande ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C... ) recognized the obligation for France to present its excuses to the people of Algeria.

Belatedly the Left is increasingly conscious of the colonial question. It is extremely important since it will enable the Left to renew its links with the young generations.

Humanité: Nicolas Sarkozy ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicola... )confuses any return to the colonial question with “self flagellation”. What do you think of that?

Benjamin Stora: There has been recently in the political Right some significant progress. For instance in the speech of Jacques Chirac http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacque... at the Veld’Hiv in reference to antisemitism. It is also true in reference to colonialism when, for the first time,in July 2005 in Madagascar, a French head of State severely criticized colonialism. It is absurd on the part of Nicolas Sarkozy to refuse to talk about the colonial past. Such a refusal may result in a violent explosion of all that has been repressed.

Humanité: Has the pressure of historical lobbies always been that strong?

Benjamin Stora: In the Seventies, these groups were very powerful in the editorial space. With the exception of Yves Courrière, practically all books were written by French soldiers, nostalgic and bitter “Pieds-Noirs”. I counted almost 2,500 books of that type published between 1962 and 1982. No one came to disturb this cultural hegemony.

With “La Guerre d’Algérie” under the coordination of Henri Alleg ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Alleg ) , a counter trend asserts itself, under the pressure of those who got involved in favour of Algerian independence. They had published much during the war, with difficulty and under censorship. But once the independence won, their struggle in a way was over. They had won. Another history, that of the vanquished, was distributed to the public during twenty years.

The children of immigration also challenged the old interpretation of events. This movement is well illustrated by the battle for the recognition of October 17, 1961. In 1995, with the beginning of Chirac’s years of power, the nostalgics of French Algeria were reawakened. Chirac closed the page of Vichy without really opening the page of Algeria. A new battle of memories was starting. The Far Right takes advantage of the nostalgia of the Pieds-Noirs and gradually worms its way into the inner circles of the UMP.

Humanité: You yourself have been the target of pressure and attacks.

Benjamin Stora: The attacks against me do not come only from Harkis or Pieds-Noirs quarters. Islamist also join the gang with violently antisemitic writings. It affects me a lot for I try to write history with exactness and intellectual honesty, without compromise however on the non negotiable condemnation of the colonial system. Even those who attack me know that I have an intimate knowledge of Algeria end its history. They can’t attack me on those grounds.

Humanité: On the Algerian side, does the discourse of Bouteflika ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouteflika ) correspond to the state of mind of the Algerian society on the colonial past?

Benjamin Stora: The Algerians feel they have gone beyond that page of history. However many families were affected by that war. It is an intimate wound that is always present and the Algerian authorities are fully conscious of that, and they know how to take advantage of it. It also corresponds to a genuine feeling in the population. It is impossible for the Algerians to give up their criticism of the colonial system, since that war for political independence legitimizes the existence of Algeria as a nation. The nationalist interpretation of the war of independence cannot disappear magically. It does not mean that Algerian society is obsessed by the colonial question. It is preoccupied by unemployment, the hardships of life, the lack of infrastructures,democracy, freedom of the press.

Humanité: During the revolts in the poor suburbs of France, the government reactivated a 1995 law and decreed a state of emergency. Is the Algerian war still haunting the political unconscious?

Benjamin Stora: That war is a foundation stone of contemporary French political culture. The 5th Republic, an emergency government construction, which gives enormous powers to the president, and restricts the role of parliament, was born from the Algerian war. This constitution, voted in time of war, continues to rule our political life. Colonial France, a rural France, lived its grandeur only through its empire. This France no longer exists. Thanks to decolonialization,the nation has entered another form of modernity, with a new relation to the rest of the world. The extraordinary sequence of events in the war in Algeria previewed all subsequent political changes. it was the first major French war, with a contingent of troops sent, with numerous casualties, with the exodus of a million people. And not counting the abandon of the Harkis, which nourished a guilty conscience. And finally, it was those who fought the war in Algeria who subsequently came to power in France.

Huma: Do you believe it will be possible to develop a shared memory of that war?

Benjamin Stora: I long fought for such an approach. But in the nineties, a terrible phenomenon made its appearance: compartmentalization. The struggles of my generation are now fought in isolation. Now everybody counts his dead and refuses to hear of the sufferings of the others. I feel a sort of hardening in that direction with the development of a form of historical communautarism.

Huma: Is this compartmentalization a consequence of depolitization?

Benjamin Stora: The international situation, the non settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rise of Islamism and of Christian integrism weights enormously. Everyone concentrates on one’s origins, one’s ethnic or religious community. On the other hand, the international situation offers also very positive potentialities in the guise of a kind of globalization of the desire for justice. We witness everywhere an indictment of guilty States, as if the Mothers of May Square in Argentina had conquered the whole world. The hope for political democracy and the desire for social justice did not disappear even if depolitization feeds on ethnic and religious compartmentalization. The situation is neither simple nor fixed.

Humanité: Is the colonial past determining the relationship of French society to immigration?

Benjamin Stora: The so often repeated line on immigration waves that supposedly integrate one after the other is contradicted by facts. Even after three or four generations, the children of Algerian immigration are not considered as full fledged French citizens. That constitutes a problem and takes us back to our colonial history. It is difficult to accept the presence of former colonized on the territories of the former colonizer. September 11, 2001 and the civil war in Algeria in the nineties unfortunately comforts stereotypes and negative representations. The fear generated in the minds unsettles the usual markers: social struggles, universality of the rights of the person, attention given to the others, political pluralism. One is forced to choose one’s camp, one’s religion, identity. It is a difficult situation. One must keep in mind the social thread, the thread of colonial history, of political equality of the citizens. If we don’t do that, barbarism might well prevail.

Interview by Rosa Moussaoui.

(1) See Benjamin Stora, "Le Livre, mémoire de l’histoire. Réflexions sur les livres et la guerre d’Algérie" (The Book, and Historical Memory, on books and the war in Algeria), Éditions Le Préau des collines, 2005.

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