Keeping the Algerian war under wraps?

In the wake of the French ambassador’s acknowledgment of “horrific massacres” in French-ruled Algeria, historians and politicians are facing off over freer access to information about the Algerian war.



On April 27, French Ambassador to Algeria Bernard Bajolet acknowledged that “massacres” were committed in colonial Algeria, marking the first time a French official publicly used to word to describe some of the darkest chapters in France’s colonial history.


The admission, along with a declaration that “France no longer intends to cover up” its historical track record, made the headlines across France and Algeria.


But just days after the historic public admission, French MPs were examining a much overlooked draft law that could keep key historical files under wraps for up to 50 years.


In the interest of protecting the “privacy” of individuals, the law stipulates that documents that could harm personal privacy, pass “value judgments” or tarnish a person’s reputation could be kept locked away for 50 - or even 75 years if the French Senate has its way.


French historian Gilles Morin is stunned. “That’s not privacy,” he says. “Such a law would limit access to most administrative documents, such as prefect reports or police reports.”


As president of a French association campaigning for greater access to archives, Morin is among a growing list of French historians who have raised alarm bells over the new proposal.


Historians and researchers have launched a petition in which they warn that the new draft law “threatens historical research and citizen freedom”.

Algerian War at the heart of the matter

The Algerian War (1954 – 1962) is of course at the centre of the controversy. France’s repression of independence demonstrations in 1945 and its relations with “harkis” - Algerian soldiers loyal to France - are still very contentious issues.


Ironically, in his April 27 address to students in the eastern Algerian town of Guelma, Bajolet called on historians to “lift taboos,” since “the time of denial is over.”


But Benjamin Stora, France’s leading expert on Algerian history, believes French politicians may be trying to protect people involved in events at the time. Opening up files of the Algerian war could “involve people, officers or politicians who are still alive,” he notes.


According to Stora, historians need to have access to state, police, and surveillance archives. Without access to these archives, “it would have been impossible to study the massacres of harkis,” he says.


He agrees there is “a contradiction” between the draft law on archives and the ambassador’s acknowledgement of 1945 massacres in Algeria, even if the two are not related. In order to “acknowledge past acts,” he notes, historians need to be able to work freely on “the writing of history.”  

Uproar among historians

The new draft is aimed at improving access to information in France. And it’s true that under the new measures, historians will only have to wait 25 years – instead of the current 30 years – for most French files to be opened up.


But certain categories of files are subject to greater restrictions, driving several French historians to sign petitions demanding more transparency. Today, historians have to file special requests to access restricted documents.


According to Denis Peschanski, a World War II expert, the new law should have brought France in line with other European countries.


Several French historians note that when it comes to access to historical documents, France lags behind some of its European neighbours such as Germany or Sweden.


For instance, Peschanski notes that in the late 1980s, he was only able to work on certain French WWII police reports on the resistance because their translations were available in Germany.


“Most of the greatest works on occupied France were written thanks to German archives,” he says.


Police reports, according to Peschanski, contain “personal appreciations” and therefore could be locked away under a strict reading of “privacy” in the present law.


Today, most WWII files have been opened up and Morin says it is unlikely the Senate will now seek to restrict Second World War documents. But access to files on more recent events, especially after the creation of the fifth republic in 1958, is still at stake, he believes.

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