“The archives are not the property of France”

Expression: There is a striking particularity that marks Algerian-French relations: it is this phenomenon of attraction and repulsion of memories. How do you explain it?

Kitouni Hosni: If you look back slightly on the events since the vote of the law of 2005, you will quickly notice that the provocations come mainly from France, political leaders or historians constantly put Algeria at the heart of their Franco-French debates and it’s not always for the better. Never as before, French Algeria of sad memory has been commemorated so much. One has the impression that the further the time of colonization goes, the more its pestilences stink everywhere in France. The last presidential election delivered some samples of this xenophobic, sometimes openly racist memory revival with regard to Algerians, their country, its history and its leaders. Remember the last exit of President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian Nation which would have been the invention of France. There is a local proverb that goes like this: “He attacked me and was quick to cry and complain.?” We must resolve to admit that France has a real problem with its colonial past and it is not only memorial, but structural and its solution is not in Algeria.

Does this mean that we are definitely out of it?? Far from it, the question of the past arises on the contrary with acuity, but from another perspective, it is a question of thinking and resolving the question of our cultural decolonization as hoped by our eminent historians Mohamed Cherif Sahli and Zahir Ihadaden.

Reserving access and opening of the archives only to historians making up the joint commission of Algerian-French historians, while excluding the other categories, in this case history students, journalists, researchers, does not constitute it not a bad start for the writing of a memorial and historical account of the two countries?

If you allow me, I would put the question differently: does France have the right to dispose of the archives in full ownership? We must not forget that we are here in the presence of an act of robbery of an Algerian heritage, of the same nature as the non-payment of the wheat debt or the pilfering of the treasure of the Casbah or the looting of hundreds thousands of cultural and archaeological objects, such as manuscripts, jewellery, pieces of local art etc. The reserves of French museums and their exhibition halls are full of them.

The archives are an Algerian heritage that has been looted, and those who did so aimed precisely to deprive the Algerians of the instruments for writing their history. Therefore, Algerian researchers now face much more down-to-earth problems: obtaining a visa, facing expensive travel and accommodation costs. It happens to each researcher to urgently need to consult a document to verify information or for a study, this is impossible for us and partly explains why we are turning away more and more from the history of the colonial period. . This monopoly has another consequence, it makes us dependent on French historians for all questions requiring primary sources with all that implies in terms of cultural influences.

The question of access to archives is therefore posed differently in France and in Algeria, it is for us a national question: what to do to repair an unjust and unjustified dispossession?

Presidents Tebboune and Macron have decided to create a joint commission of historians on the colonial period. How can this commission be independent of political powers? Doesn’t she ask to be chosen by the historians of the two countries differently, for example?

The idea of ​​a commission starts from the premise that it is possible to write a common narrative of the colonial past. However, the very idea of ​​narrative is problematic when the questions that we Algerians ask of our past differ from those that arise for the French. And each population is in turn crossed by different dynamics and questions according to the communities and the memory groups. Of course, nation-states need a single narrative to found their legitimacy, but we must precisely subscribe to a perspective of deconstruction of monolithic and legitimizing narratives and move towards plural histories, rich in the multiplicity of perspectives and questions. Hence the preliminary question that arises for this commission: should it write the history of France in Algeria or that of the Algerians in the face of French aggression? The optics are not the same at all!

Is working only on official state archives enough to reconcile memories?

The idea of ​​writing a unique narrative determines that of the sources. Marcel Emerit, reporting on Charles André Julien’s book Histoire de l’Algérie contemporaine (1964), a book that became cult for the period 1827-1870, writes “We find there the history of French politics in this country; but we do not see the story of a Muslim population, presented as a target, and whose life and feelings we would like to know. Admittedly, continues Emerit, the sources are rare for such a study. “Still, we shouldn’t eliminate those who are within our reach. For example, it is with excessive disdain that Julien treats the Mirror of Si Hamdan ben Ali Khodja pamphlet castigating the action of France during the three years following the landing. This rejection of local sources is not anecdotal, it stems from an ideological posture according to which a native is by definition incapable of rising to the height of critical thought: “To say that the Mirror is the work of a French [comme l’écrit Julien] on the pretext that an Arab denouncing the ´´unconstitutional procedures of Clauzel´´ cannot be educated enough to invoke Benjamin Constant, Grotius and Tacitus, it is to conclude a little quickly”, slice Emerit.

So here we are in the presence of the real question, that of the perspective of the historical narrative and its sources. All French historiography tells us about France in Algeria, including when it evokes its crimes and its injustices. As Marcel Emerit points out once again about Julien: “In this whole exposition, there is an optical error. Mr. Julien wants to pose as a ‘left-wing’ historian and, for him, the best way to do so is to attack the military regime”. His conclusion is therefore without appeal: “I therefore regret that the work of Ch. A. Julien is not yet what we expected: a history of the Algerian people.” I make mine these observations of Marcel Emerit, it fits perfectly with my own perception of French historiography, it is the story, even critical of France in Algeria, we must write that of the Algerians struggling with colonization. This history must absolutely renew its sources and therefore necessarily turn to “non-institutional archives”, such as popular poetry, oral testimonies, private manuscripts, archeology and all the local traces left by the past, because it it is above all a question of reconstituting a world lost under the colonial clash. This prospect raises at the same time, the question of the language, there is urgency to write in the national languages. Because what is the point of a history book if it is not readable by the majority of the population?

We would like to give thanks to the writer of this short article for this outstanding content

“The archives are not the property of France”

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