Course Points

Should the Politicos be telling us how to teach History?

If we tell the truth about the past, then we shall be capable of telling the truth about the present” - Statement by Ken LOACH at the Cannes Film Festival during the presentation of his film “The wind that shakes the Barley”, based on the Irish war of Independence.

Is there any such a thing as “magical” causality, as Carl GUSTAV JUNG once hinted? In any case, something of the sort seems to me to be applicable to two apparently unrelated events: the French no vote at the European referendum and the debate concerning the “Lois mémorielles” (recent acts of France’s Parliament regulating historical commemoration).

In our PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur) region - no doubt because of the cultural and religious pluralism of our populations - these two events took on forms so exacerbated that I feel justified in invoking the term used by Jung: Politicians, of every shade and hue, have here tended to capitalize frenetically on the fraught issue of a communalist ‘duty of memory’. In the process, they have condoned or physically participated in an inordinate quantity of special celebrations and solemn inaugurations of monuments to the Armenian genocide, the which, in our region at least, was itself one of the main determining variables for the no vote at the European referendum.

On this occasion, and concerning the hundred or so personalities and research fellows who signed the “Liberate History” petition, upbraiding French MPs for wanting to tell us how to write History, and claiming the right to exercise the profession of Historian without interference from the political authorities, however legitimate the latter may be, rumblings, both from socialist and from UMP back-bench quarters, were to be heard to the effect that: «we are fed up with these negationnist and revisionist intellectuals”.[1]

It seems blindingly obvious that Mr. Masse (co-author of a Bill floored by the French PS (Socialist Party) stiffening legal sanctions) or Mr. Kert (co-author of the ‘act on the positive effects of colonialism’) must be highly competent experts on the History of the Ottoman Empire, while our colleagues Jean-Pierre Azéma, Gilles Manceron, Madeleine Rébérioux, Claude Liazu[2] and a handful of others – even René REMOND himself – are to be labeled as dangerous “intellectuals”, since they have been calling into question the right of politicians to give lessons to historians.[3]

To unravel the snarled thread of these events: everything began with the TAUBIRA Act concerning the slave trade and slavery, and more exactly – as in the February 23, 2005 act - with the uproar caused by an article. A group of historians having demanded therein “ the rescinding of these legal measures unworthy of a democratic regime”, a debate ensued, pitting researchers and "Communalists" supporting the ‘duty of memory’ (but each his own) against each other: indeed, assorted French Jewish, Armenian, ‘pieds-noirs’ et al. have evinced precious little concern for the ongoing Tibetan genocide... not officially approved…

After the July 13, 1990 so-called Gayssot Act concerning Crimes against Humanity, penally sanctioning all acts of Negationism concerning the Holocaust, the January 29, 2001 (so-called Taubira Act) portrayed the (transatlantic) slave trade as a Crime against Humanity, and finally in 2005 an Act acknowledged, in article 4, the positive aspects of colonialism…

Can the duty of Memory be set in opposition to the duty of History? Therein lies the rub. The question entails yet another: who is qualified to judge?

The value of a predication depends on the power ratio concretely established between the respective competences and legitimacy of the locutors, understood as a capacity to simultaneously produce, appropriate and appreciate the most favorable criteria of the “products” they are in a position to impose. It is a question here of capitalizing on the emotion created by the official recognition or non-recognition of a genocide, enabling a clientelist strategy. The creation of an emotional object has less to do with the Historical Truth or the relevance of the said object than with its emotional impact.

Allow me to make it clear that all my writings[4] and my actions bear witness to the fact that I have always fundamentally been, to the best of my ability, a militant anticolonialist. Therefore, my criticism here by no means bears on the debarring of the phenomena invoked by these acts of Parliament, but on the competency of the elected representatives of the nation in the case in hand. The very concept of historical truth repudiates state authority, be it national or ecclesiastical. The example of the Soviet Union should suffice as a caveat - on the condition of not peering too vertiginously into the analysis of our own school textbooks, as Eric Savarèse has recently so relevantly done concerning the legitimizing of colonization in Mallet-Isaac…[5] Republican and nationalized History feeds on Amnesia and Amnesty!

Speaking in my own name, to substantiate my argument I will limit my approach here to addressing the subject about which I feel I am the least ignorant: France’s colonization of the Maghreb. France’s colonial past is still experienced painfully, and recent domestic (The debate on that famous article 4) and external (Mr Bouteflika’s statements) events have highlighted the ambiguity of a debate which also sets the former colonized at loggerheads, and not only the politicians I have chastised.

And the shared –even badly shared - history of the relations between France and the states of the Maghreb perfectly illustrates this bone of contention, which furthermore has cloned an inverted mirror image: The north-south double regard of the Mediterranean’s shores is simultaneously divergent on the factual level and in its stakes and demands for truth.

The comparison of the modes of colonization,[6] decolonization and their consequences right down to today should enable us to light on some methodological answers with a view to writing a common history in fourhanded mode:

How I see the other.

How the other sees me.

How I see myself.

How the other sees himself.

The successful publication earlier this year of the first French-German school textbook authorizes us to be sanguine about such an adventure remaining on the books… If politicians do not rush in where angels fear to tread with a view to complacently massaging Jewish, Harki, Pieds-noir, Armenian, Kabyle, Comorian, Muslim communalist susceptibilities, ad libitum… not to mention the ‘gay community’ and the ‘international community’…

HISTORY VERSUS MEMORY: The case of the Maghreb.[7]

The French have always indulged in the wishful thinking that the Republican model would finally transcend all cleavages to create an ideal citizen. But racialism and grass-roots racism are still very much alive and kicking, all the more as the populations to which France purportedly ‘brought civilization’ have by no means always readily cottoned on to all the plusses they could draw from becoming " radical-cassoulet French”. Thus the embarrassing visibility of French Islam has become unbearable to our compatriots, because it blazes out the failure of the only legitimization which colonization ever had.

What is then to be done?

First, the random emotionalism of amnesic witnesses and selectors of feelings should be screened out, thereby enabling adherence to fact, rather than judgmental opining over moral misdeeds or beneficial effects. Certainly, on both sides the wounds are far from being closed, but only the chill of Historical remoteness can favor a falling curve in bitterness - at least insofar as the direct survivors are still around. Then, as Emmanuel Terray has so convincingly argued, descendants have no eternal writ to continue to draw cash on the pain of the real or supposed victims.

Then the task must be carried out from both ends: for example to judge adequately the possible consequences of colonization in terms of social or structural[8] change, it is necessary to benefit from a clear overview of the state of society before colonization, which is still far from being the case[9]. I have in mind here the Turkish archives, which indeed few Algerian nationalists ever consult; only the Tunisian professor Temimi has really gone down this road of investigation. The reality of Interstate relations in the Maghreb’s medieval past will also have to be cleared up, and on this point, Morocco is in a completely different situation with regard to the rest of the Maghreb, dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The pre-colonial society was also far from being as idyllic as some would have it, etching in a continuum between the Algeria of Emir Abdelkader and the current democratic and popular polity...

Conversely, we know very well that the reasons for colonization hardly ensued from the famous “fan incident” and that the Algerian war of conquest was a criminal enterprise.

A very considerable difference between the colonization of Sub-Saharan Africa and that of the Maghreb can be narrowed down to the fact that France (the settlers) did not need to resort to slavery in North Africa, because it was able to avail itself of a plentiful labor force and a massive influx of Europeans to carry out the administrative tasks. Another great difference consists in the fact that the Maghreb, for all its diversity, enjoyed a remarkable linguistic and religious unity, which was not the case of Black Africa. So Christendom was able to put down roots in "Black" Africa, while it was to be lived in jihad mode by North Africans.

Finally, French colonization still requires in-depth comparison with the British colonial process in Arab countries. Also, countries which were not directly colonized, like Yemen for example, should not be forgotten either.

In the case of the Maghreb, a difference also exists between direct and settlement colonization and that of protectorate as a method improved in the course of experiments. The case of the Marshall Lyautey is exemplary: In him we have a right-wing officer who is the object of an unlimited cult in Morocco, while remaining the greatest manipulator of the colonial system.[10] He learned the ropes in Indochina under Gallieni, then in Madagascar where the repression was savage, and finally in Algeria, where he was in command of the fighting to circumvent Morocco, which lasted eight years, before finally being appointed Governor of a "protected" Morocco. He had understood and turned to good account all the errors of the colonial system in the rest of the Empire; he thus restored the monarchy, because it was necessary "to govern through the Mandarin " - which France had failed to do with Abdelkader in Algeria. On top of all that, he was to be a High Commissioner of the Colonial exhibition in 1931!

But the number one rule, to my mind, is not to judge the social relations of the time by imposing on them the normative grid of the present, because the actors of the period could hardly know in their day everything that we now know about the consequences of their choices. Nonetheless, the local population did experience colonial intrusion as a profound traumatism… including the case of those who were “collaborators”[11]. Real violence was adumbrated by the imposition of symbolic violence. Postcolonial disenchantment was all the greater for this… all the more so that the epidemics of postcolonial guerrilla warfare have been of a rare gravity! The “horizon of dream” has currently drastically shrunk, but despair definitely has no right of a place on the agenda… including the foolscap design to impose happiness on the peoples of the world without consulting them!

Fortunately, a host of young Maghrebin and Franco-Maghrebin researchers are at present hard at work, in particular by data mining through the archives of Aix-en-Provence, and checking out the whole legacy. It does really seem today that, in the teeth of official discourse, research on both shores is surging ahead without undue regard for the strictures of the politicians.

No doubt, this will be attendant on a whole generation (or, at least, my own!) slipping off into the eternal East!


This article by Bruno ETIENNE was originally published in French in the September/October 2006 issue of “La Pensée de Midi”[12].


[1] I am here quoting Mrs Joissains-Massini, MP and Mayor of Aix-en-Provence, a town which is fortunate enough to possess both the archives of the French Colonies and the Mediterranean Centre for Social Sciences (MMSH – Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme) and the some 300 research fellows and technicians specialized in the study of the Mediterranean world.

[2] cf. Gilles Manceron , Marianne et les colonies, Paris, la Découverte, 2003 ; La colonisation, la loi et l’histoire (Eds. Gilles Manceron, Claude Liauzu), Paris, Stock, 2006.

[3] C.f. A stimulatting essay by René Rémond (René Rémond, Quand l’état se mêle de l’histoire, Paris, Stock, 2006).

[4] Cf. Among the most recent: Le choc colonial et l’Islam (Ed.Pierre-Jean Luizard), Paris, La Découverte, 2006.

[5] Eric Savarèse, l’Ordre Colonial et sa légitimation en France métropolitaine, Paris, L’Hamattan,1998.

[6]) After the classic accounts of Ageron et al., it is worth reading Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser. Exterminer. Sur la guerre et l’Etat colonial, Paris, Fayard, 2006.

(éd. Fayard, on 2006).

[7] For the other parts of the Empire, see “Colonie, un débat Français”, Le Monde 2, Supplement, May-June 2006.

[8] An extraordinary example of the ambiguity of “Muslim” or Spanish-Moresque architecture: in Casablanca there is a district built by the architect Ecochard in the1930s "Andalusian" style. Most of young Moroccans believe that this authentically represents the ancient city of Casablanca...

[9] The only one Jacques Berque had seriously affected it. Cf. an exceptional and quality example of Filali Kamel, " Charles the Fifth and its North African politics in the Algerian 'papers' " (Carlos V, " Los Moroscos el Islam ", university of Alicante, in November 20-25th, 2000, available in French on the site http: //

[10] Charles-André Julien and Daniel Rivet have deconstructed the myth, but my recent tour in Morocco convinced me that Moroccans have not taken this into account!

[11] Here is a "taboo" subject: the archives are full of examples of this collaboration without which colonization would never have worked so well - and not only in the case of the "Algerian soldiers" whom, I dare recall it, were far more numerous than the fighters of the NLA.


[12] Face aux abus de mémoire is the title of a powerful essay by Emmanuel Terray published in 2006 in the publishing house Actes Sud (Author’s note). C.f. Emmanuel Terray, Face aux abus de mémoire, Arles, Actes Sud, 2006.