University of Iowa

National Memory

October 24th, 2012

Though I am currently traveling in Asia focused on College of Engineering initiatives, connecting with alumni abroad, and recruiting fully-funded graduate and professional students, the topic of my post is related to France and national memory.  

Last week, the new French president, François Hollande, issued a carefully worded statement recognizing the traumatic events of October 17, 1961. This statement, released 51 years to the day after the events, the first anniversary of these events since Hollande became president, recognized that Algerians living in Paris had been "victims" of a "bloody tragedy." The Algerians were boycotting a curfew that had been imposed to keep down demonstrations pushing for Algerian independence during the war (1954-62). The war was particularly traumatic given that, unlike its other North African colonies Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria had become a full-fledged département​, the French equivalent of a state in the U.S., so that in a limited sense it could be termed a civil war. Under the orders of Maurice Papon, then chief of police (and condemned in 1998 for crimes against humanity for his collaborationist role during World War II), the demonstrating Algerians were beaten and tossed unconscious into the Seine river. At the time the official number of dead was two, though the toll has more recently been estimated at between 50 and 250.  

In a country that did not officially recognize that the Algerian "events" had been a war until 1999, so traumatic they have been for the French national psyche, President Hollande's statement is courageous and long overdue. It is similar in scope and importance to President Jacques Chirac's statement in 1995, when he became the first French leader to recognize publicly the responsibility of the country in deporting thousands of Jews during World War II. Indeed, the degree to which the Algerian war remains a focus of political and historical conflict is evident in the principal opposition party's reaction. Christian Jacob, the leader of that party in France's National Assembly, indicated that to accept the responsibility of France is to impute the actions of then President Charles De Gaulle, an "intolerable" outcome in his party's eyes.

Yet despite the ground-breaking quality of Hollande's communiqué, nowhere is there mention of those who committed or ordered the atrocities (Papon, the Parisian police) nor of the number of victims. The statement is a quintessential example of crafted political message. The communiqué sought to accept "the truth" without moving into a mode of repentance or firing up those who might seek remuneration. It is interesting to note that the qualifier "peaceful" is strategically not used to describe the demonstration, though historians indicate that the record is clear on that account.  

On Friday, the Senate will consider a proposal to create a national day of remembrance (19 March) of the victims of the Algerian war and of the battles fought in Tunisia and Morocco. That will be a hotly debated move, and one for which the outcome is by no means certain.

Downing Thomas