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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Début d’une dangereuse guerre des mémoires

by Benjamin Stora, historian

Colonialism: A Dangerous War of Memories begins

Translated Sunday 15 January 2006, by Ann Drummond

With the passing of the law by the National Assembly on 30 November 2005, which asserts the "positive role of colonization", a new phase has begun in the relationship between France and its colonial past, one which is both complex and dangerous.

Following Algerian independence in 1962 and throughout the 1970s, a kind of fragile consensus was reached on the need for the transition towards decolonization. In the aftermath of the Algerian War, when the Republic was almost toppled by a military putsch in April 1961, the time had come for national reconciliation based on the humanist values of the French Revolution. The massive public protest against the deaths at the Charonne Metro in February 1962 (1) was a clear expression of the strength of French feeling for an end to colonial wars. The referenda on the question of self-determination in Algeria, which were overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate in 1961 and 1962, were similar indications of this trend.

The political right-wing around General de Gaulle and the main groupings on the left had managed to reach a consensus on the question of Algerian independence. It was only the active supporters of French Algeria and strong opponents of General de Gaulle’s policies who distanced themselves from this political arena, mindful of the end of the colonial era. The "events" of May 1968 further marginalised those still nostalgic for the lost empire, as new generations became engaged in radical politics, rejecting systems of social oppression and expressing solidarity with the peoples of the Third World. The colonial question then seemed to be under firm control, belonging to a past which had been swept away once and for all. The electoral results of the French Algerian old guard in the 1970s were, after all, pretty unexceptional.

After the left came to power, there was a sudden change in the course of events in the early 1980s. François Mitterrand, the French President, called, and won, a vote in the National Assembly in 1982, reinstating the four former generals who had led the putsch attempt in April 1961 (Salan, Jouhaud, Zeller and Challe). This divisive action led to the gradual breakdown in the consensus which had been reached in 1961-1962. The extreme right began to wake from its slumbers with its first significant electoral results in Dreux in 1983.

The children of immigrants started to shake the foundations of French class politics with their demands for equal rights and full participation as French citizens. Faced with barriers and refusals, they were beginning to take a closer interest in their parents’ own history and challenge the received version of the colonial past. Yet the consensus on the absolute need for an end to colonization held fast. In 1999, the National Assembly officially acknowledged that a "war" had indeed taken place in Algeria. Witnesses began to speak out, archives were opened up, and university theses were submitted. France learned to confront its past openly and resolutely.

This vote in 2005 shatters the consensus of the 1960s, rejecting General de Gaulle’s policies, and awarding an official place in the traditional right-wing political arena to the old guard of French Algeria. It legitimizes the battle they fought and lost. By putting a favourable slant on the colonial project, it denies the aspirations of colonized peoples who had gained a voice in the transition to political independence. In favouring one memory over another, this represents a dangerous step backwards. Such a fragmentation of the collective national memory opens up the possibility of further memory wars, with potentially more serious consequences.

By Benjamin Stora, historian. Most recent publication: Les Mots de la guerre d’Algérie, Presses universitaires du Mirail (Toulouse), December 2005.

(1) A peaceful demonstration in Paris protesting against the right-wing terrorist organization in Algeria, the OAS, was brutally broken up by police. It resulted in at least eight deaths, most of which occurred at the Charonne Metro station.

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