«Comparative Afterlives : Vichy France and the Algerian War A few weeks ago, when I was preparing this lecture, I didn’t expected that I would have ...»
University of Minnesota
November 15, 2005
Comparative Afterlives :
Vichy France and the Algerian War
A few weeks ago, when I was preparing this lecture, I didn’t expected that I would
have to cope with such a burning question: are the current riots in France a kind of a legacy
of “colonialism” or is it a biased way to understand contemporary French issues?
In any case, the legacy of the past is with no doubt part of the problem. When last Tuesday, French Prime minister announced the possibility to institute a curfew in the upset areas, many commentators quite instantaneously mentioned that the ground on which this decision was taken, was a law promulgated in the beginning of the Algerian War, in
1955. One might ask : why such an information ? This law already existed whenever it has been voted. And, whether we approve it or not – which is another problem –, a curfew and a state of emergency belong to the usual apparatus of a State, even for a democratic one coping with unexpected and alleged dangerous situations, as for exmaple the patriotic acts supposed to face terrorism. Meanwhile, it’s undisputable that the colonial past roots in the mind of many of the protagonists, whether counsciously or not.
Another example. A few days ago, some French leftists denounced the curfew as a revival of Vichy, even mentioning the Statute of the Jews of 1940. This is an usual issue in France when you want to stigmatize a political adversary: you just mention either he is a collaborator or that his behavior reminds you the pétainist régime.
With these two very recent examples, one may observe that the past often haunts French issues for history is mainly declined in our contemporary societies in terms of guilt and victimhood, and in France, mots of the time, this is the State which is blamed for the wrondoings of the past.
The Papon trial is quite a good example of this tendancy. On Thursday 16 October, 1997, a man is standing at the bar, in Bordeaux. His name is Jean-Luc Einaudi. He is not a witness in the usual juridical sense, nor he is a professionnal historian. He is a militant who chased Papon for a long time for being responsible of what he calls « the massacre » of October 17, 1961, when a huge demonstration called by the Algerian FLN in Paris turned into a tragedy when the police forces decided to repress the mog in a very brutal 2/13 way. Until today, there are tremendous debates among historians to establish how many people died (from a dozen to several hundreds).
Letme quote him briefly :
“Thousand of people were caught in the round up. When the police cars weren’t enough, M. Papon commandeered the buses of the RATP (the Parisian public transit authority). In 1942, these were the buses of the TCRP (a Parisian private company) which were commandeered. And are requisitioned too some specific places in Paris to park the arrested people: the Porte de Versaille (a huge hall for fairs), or the Coubertin Stadium, for the Vélodrome d’hiver – the famous Vél d’Hiv doesn’t exist anymore”.
The situation here is quite emblematic. M. Papon was an active senior officer working for the Vichy Regime, but who succeeded to go through the purges without any damages.
After the war, he played an important role in Algeria, and then he became préfet de Police in Paris, in March 1958. He was thus partly responsible of what happened in October 1961.
Nevertheless, his presence in the dock, in Bordeaux, in 1997-1998, resulted only for his participation to the deportation of the Jews, in 1942-1944, and in no way for his deeds in 1961 : whatever French soldiers and others did during the Algerian War, this was completely under the statute of limitations. The whole debate upon the possibilty to judge former members of the Vichy regime for crimes against humanity during the 1990’s was even strongly conditioned by a parallel discussion – and a strong reluctance which finally prevailed – about the possibility to judge crimes committed in Algeria either.
In this perspective, the Papon trial offered a marvelous opportunity to embrace both situations. It illustrates to what extent the afterlives of these two major events in French contemporary history intermixed themselves.
Why such an interdependance ? Why even such a widespread confusion between the legacy of two historical situations which are in some way comparable, but in many different ways, very different ? How many times have I heard since the Vichy syndrome is now over, let’s put on the agenda the one of the Algerian one, as if it was the next nationwide didactic lesson to follow.
1° - If we let apart for a moment common opinions, historians might agree on a possible parallel between Vichy France and the Algerian War – I’m talking here about history not about memory, about what “really” happened, and not the way it was represented afterwards
- the two events constitued, for different reasons, two major defeats in French recent history which contributed to change profoundly the international status of a Nation which was still a great power until 1939;
- they were two moments of profound national divisions, even a beginning of a civil war, which shook the recent consensus upon the Republican regime in France;
- moreover, the two events are linked together and this the same generation who had to cope with both. Many historians think that the Algerian war began on May 8, 1945, when the French massacred a small city in Algéria in order to stamp the beginning of a nationalitsic uprise;
- last but not least similitude, the two processes did’nt stop with the end of the war, and continued to live after.
2° - Besides the common points between Vichy France and the Algerian war, we must taking in account the huge differences between the two historical situations.
- what happened in France during WWII happened elsewhere, even if the question of Vichy is more or less a particular one; what happened during the Algerian War is a specific situation, due to the fact that one million European leaved in Algeria which was at that time a French département although the “natives” didn’t have the same rights than the “Français d’Algérie”, an expression used for people with an European or a Jewish background
- if we compare the casualties and the total balance of the two wars, there is no
possible comparaison – from a French point of view:
The Algerian war was a war and a civil war for Algerians, not for the French.
3° There are also huge differences between both « postwar » situations :
a) In the last decade, the issues upon Vichy dealt with the necessity and the best way to remember, the best manner to inscribe the legacy of the « Dark years » in a long-term Peter Lagrou, « Bilan chiffré de la Seconde Guerre mondiale », in Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Annette Becker, Christian Ingrao, Henry Rousso, La Violence de guerre, 1914-1945. Approches comparées des deux conflits mondiaux, Bruxelles/Paris, Complexe/IHTP, 2002, p. 313-327.
Cf. Guy Pervillé, « Combien de morts ? », in Mohammed Harbi, Benjamin Stora (Eds), La Guerre d’Algérie.
1954-2004, la fin de l’amnésie, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2004, p. 477-493.
perspective of French history, and the need for recognition for the crimes committed by the French State, mainly against the Jews.
- Except in very particular situations, like during the trials for crimes against humanity, there was no face to face between the older enemies ; except a minority in the extreme right, no one seriously defended the point of view of the perpetrators.
- There is not even real historiographical controversies about the interpretation of Vichy France : almost all historians, with some nuances, agree on the nature of the Vichy regime, its implication in the Final solution, its own part of initiative which didn’t result from a German pressure.
b) The situation is completely different In the case of the Algerian war:
- the memory of the war is still a vivid issue between France and Algeria, which are not fully reconcliated until now. President Bouteflika often accuses French colonialism to be responsible for the war against Fundamentalists, in the 1990’s, which is a usual way for politicians to look for a scapegoat to explain their own deficiencies.
- Moreover, there are millions of French citizens, from Algerian background, especially from the second or third generation, who consider the Algerian War as a victory over colonialism, and who however still express a great resentment against France, their own country today, because of their social conditions. This second and third generations is not only claiming for a decent life – like many others in France and in Europe –, they are claiming for a real equality having the feeling that although they have all of the French citizen rights – on the contrary of the grand fathers and grand mothers who had a special status before 1962 –, they still lack of a real place in French society
- On an opposite side, there are also a smaller minority of French and European citizens, many from a Jewish origine, who are born in Algeria (or in Marocco or in Tunisia) or whose parents came from Algeria in 1962, and who suffered a kind of injustice in leaving what they considered as “their country” as well. They developed a kind of a nostalgia - la Nostalgérie –, even a kind of resentment, still perceptible today, especially among the French jews from sephardic origin (who played a major role in the recent debates over the Vichy legacy even if their parents suffered much less than the Jews who were in France at that time).
Moreover, there are a lot of disputes in public debates as well as among historians about different interpretions of the past. We have a good example with the recent law promulgated in last February in order to praize the role of what we call “les Français rapatriés”, an expression to designate both European-background people who came after 1962 and the “Harkis”, the Algerian-background people who helped the French during the Algerian War. In their will to propose a kind of a counter-memory and to address the criticisms over French
behavior, they proposed an article saying :
“School programms must recognize the positive role played by the French presence overseas, especially in North Africa, and must give to the sacrifices of the soldiers of the French army born in these territories, the prominent place they deserve.” Then, after having emphasized the differences between the history and the memory of two events, how and why binding them together?
I have already told it: the comparison is a political and cultural issue as such in contemporary French society. Even more: the revival of the memory of Vichy and the Holocaust, which has been a major issue in the last two decades in France, led to a
paradoxical situation regarding the memory of the Algerian war:
- on the one hand, the great importance dedicated to the Shoah fueled the new judeophobia, a phenomenon which is widespread all over the world, including in France, and especially among part of the French muslims community: this was a vivid issue until the recent riots, and don’t forget that some of the brothers of the young people who are burning cars, were burning synagogues a few months ago.
- on the other hand, the struggle for the memory of the Holocaust conducted by survivors associations became a model used by groups who wish an equivalent recognition for some victims of the Algerian war, mainly those who were tortured by the French army.
In a more general way, my own comparison is based here on two hypothesis :
FIRST Hypothsesis: Both Vichy France and the Algerian have known quite a similar afterlife and a comparable evolution in French collective memory, what I have called
previously the four steps of memory:
- a first step of transition whic emphasizes the difficulties to exit war and go back to a normal situation : concept of “sortie de guerre”, which describes more a process, even a long-term process, than a moment or a period;
- a second step of mourning, forgetting and usually official amnesia
- a third step of anamnesis, or how the past returns into the present
- and finally, a fourth step of possible hypermnesia before a possible normalization (like the situation today about the memory of Vichy).
SECOND hypothesis: Afterlives of both events led to similar ways of remembering, similar kind of public and collective actions to defend the point of view of the victims and to promote a « duty to remember », a very recent issue ; thus, both afterlives belong to a same contemporary “culture of memory”, and both are symptoms of a specific relationship between past and present in contemporary societies.
The four steps of memory
When I wrote the Vichy Syndrome, in the 1980’s, I dealt with the issue of memory without being fully aware about what it really meant. I tried to propose a kind of an empirical interpretation of the presence of the past from the end of the Vichy regime, in 1944, until the moment where the book was published, in 1987, just before the opening of the Barbie trial.
In this previous work, I identified four periods in Vichy’s afterlife which I spontaneously considered as a specific trademark of what I have called the “Vichy syndrome”. Later, reading the deluge of books on the memory of the Holocaust either in other European countries – mainly in Germany – or elsewhere, like in Israel or in the US, I got the impression that my empirical “four-steps” concept could apply not only to the Vichy case but to the memory of the Holocaust as a whole, the “Vichy syndrome” becoming in this perspective just the French part of an international and widespread phenomenon.
differences. This means that the explanation of the evolution of memory is less depending from the original event as such than from a specific way we have to cope with the past, whatever is the past, today.
1° - Transition and “exiting war”