On August 27, France relaxed access to the archives of the Algerian War, allowing access to files involving minors. Are we talking about real progress?
This is above all a corrective to the so-called “general exemption” decree promulgated in December 2021, which had opened, fifteen years in advance of the legal deadline, the archives produced in the context of cases relating to facts committed in connection with the Algerian War. Practice revealed that many files remained inaccessible due in particular to the minority set at the time at 21 years. When I went to the archives with the daughter of an FLN death row inmate who wanted to read the police file and her father’s appeal for clemency, we realized that she needed an exemption: her father was 20 years old and 6 months on the day of his conviction. Likewise, conscientious objectors refusing to go to Algeria, who entered prison at the age of 20, saw their files always closed.
Whether on the side of the conscripts or the Algerian activists, the people concerned were often very young…
At the time they were young enough to go to war or be harshly repressed but the 2021 decree intended to protect them: it’s a paradox… I insist on one point: this new decree of August 25, 2023 targets minors who appear in police investigations and legal proceedings, not all minors of the time. With so many fighters or their supporters under the age of 21, the very definition of this war is at stake here. This fix will facilitate research by historians such as master’s or doctoral students who have few months to do this archival work. It’s time saved. And people looking for their family history will be able to do this process more simply: the gradual establishment of a “citizen counter” at the national archives will help them.
Is everything now accessible?
Numerous police or justice files are being opened. But two categories remain inaccessible: those whose communication infringes on the privacy of people’s sexual lives or even on the security of easily identifiable people involved in intelligence activities. There is something to be said here too.
In a January 2021 report on memorial reconciliation, historian Benjamin Stora notes that each group of people who were involved in the war live “locked” in their memory. Can easing access to archives help create bridges?
This “communitarianization of memories” is mainly driven by memory associations whose discourse dominates the public space and generates a memory competition which, in turn, reinforces group boundaries. But so many people are not part of it… Below the dominant voices, the memory landscape is more complex and nuanced. As part of my research on Montluc*, I met families of conscripts, liaison agents, messalists (MNA) or frontists (FLN), members of General Intelligence… in short, people from opposing camps. During the Lyon Biennale last winter, I accompanied an artist, Nicolas Daubanes, in a work of “reconstruction” of the Lyon military tribunal of the 1950s. It was the opportunity for a meeting with the witnesses from opposing sides, at least in the past, and whom I had interviewed for my book. But they spoke easily to each other, far from any “community”. One of them mentioned the “restorative” aspect of this initiative between art and history.
Questions linked to memory are poisoning relations between France and Algeria. How can access to archives contribute to peace?
The work of a historian is done independently of political injunctions. It opens up new questions, which can tense or calm, and places the debates on more solid scientific bases. Advancing in knowledge also allows us to avoid believing that things are being hidden from us.
* A prison for memory. Montluc from 1944 to the present day, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2022.