We are rich in our diversity, a recognized diversity that constitutes a fundamental part of our identity. – French President J. Chirac (2005)
Such declarative commitments to diversity, made by the most senior officials of the French Republic, underscore that French society remains firmly attached to its self-perception as a great nation of brotherhood and equality. The incompatibility of these values with France’s colonial past represents a threat to the symbolic unity of French society, given that many of its citizens are either descendants of or have personally been the victims of its colonial policies.
A particularly controversial example of this present crisis centers around the official remembrance of the massacre of October 17, 1961. On this date, the French police force in Paris rounded up approximately 30,000 unarmed French citizens of Algerian descent who were protesting against the curfew imposed upon them during the Algerian War of Independence. Many protesters were arrested, shot, or beaten to death before their bodies were thrown into the River Seine to cover up the crime.
The inadequate representation of this event in France’s collective memory is problematic on multiple levels. First, the direct descendants and relatives of the victims feel that justice has not been served, which prejudices them against the French state and its values. Such events can easily acquire a symbolic meaning, potentially creating alienation and resentment among up to 3 million French citizens of Algerian descent. In every society, collective memory is transmitted to the younger generation from the preceding one through a variety of means, playing a crucial role in the development of cultural and national identity.
Moreover, the omission of certain events from France’s collective memory threatens to undermine the integrity of the French state on both the national and international level. As the French Parliament seeks to position itself as an international moral authority, many will question the French Republic’s attitude toward its own history. In particular, the failure to adequately commemorate the Massacre of 1961, which is often considered the gravest breach of human rights committed on French soil since World War II, undermines the sincerity of the Republic’s fundamental values.
“All memories are ‘created’ in tandem with forgetting; to remember everything would amount to being overwhelmed by memory. […] Yet the forgetting of the past in a culture is often highly organized and strategic” – Marita Sturken (1997)
Since the end of the Algerian War, the memory of that war has been passed over in silence. For decades, the French State referred to it in official documents as “operations to maintain order” or “peacekeeping operations”; arguably, this was intended to mask the reality of the oppressive acts committed by the government. It was not until 1999 that legislation was passed to officially use the term “Algerian War” in all government texts. This “war without a name” has created deep rifts between the various groups involved, making the transmission of its memory a complicated and painful process.
Some slight improvements have been made in the last decade. After 37 years of denial, the French government finally acknowledged in 1998 that the massacre had occurred, and that 40 people were killed. However, historians have estimated that police killed over 200 Algerians, yet no one has been prosecuted for participation in the killings. In addition, official evidence, including police records and the accounts of numerous eyewitnesses, supports the states that Maurice Papon promised their protection from prosecution if the police officers would participate in a ‘subversive’ response to the Algerian demonstration. Although the 1998 government report guaranteed public access to archives on the events, little information is actually available because most of it was destroyed. The memorial plaque placed near the Saint Michel Bridge was considered a positive development, but the absence of an official memory, formally recognized by the French government, leaves a great deal of controversy. The public memory is perceived as incomplete because the issue of responsibility is still avoided.
In 2001, the French Parliament adopted a set of laws relating to the memory of the Holocaust, slave trade and colonization, but for a variety of reasons, the Algerian war and the 1961 massacre have not received such attention. First, unlike the aforementioned events, the crimes of 1961 were committed by the Fifth Republic. Thus, the admission that France committed a crime against humanity in 1961 would irrevocably destroy the symbolic ‘purity’ of the Fifth Republic. Second, if the French government were to launch an independent criminal investigation into the events, some former senior officials who are still alive might face criminal prosecution. Third, the FNACA still exerts a significant influence on the French state, ensuring that its views of the events are officially taught, represented, and commemorated. Finally, numerous French citizens of Algerian descent are unwilling to face the past, wishing to put the difficult memories behind them in order to lead normal lives as French citizens.
Memory must be symbolically recognized in the urban space, which contributes to reinforce the identity construction of the inhabitants from one specific territory. This is fundamental for an identity to be able to renew itself and adapt to contemporary France. – Mourad Slimani
The commemoration of the October 17, 1961 events should be used as an opportunity for the French government to demonstrate the willingness of the Fifth Republic to recognize the problematic aspects of its history. The Massacre of 1961 must be introduced into the national awareness through education, public commemoration, and a memory law.
The Algerian War and its aftermath are not comprehensively taught in French schools, because this memory is claimed to be divisive; this would conflict with the educational goal of transmitting a cohesive memory. However, this argument is flawed. It creates an artificial distinction within French society, forcing citizens of Algerian descent to ‘forget’ their memories in the name of a theoretical ‘unity’. The result of such a policy is to encourage the development of competitive memories, and a system of parallel societies with separate identities, within France. A commission must therefore be initiated to reform the high school curriculum in this regard, particularly in the area of history. Ideally, it would strive to remove the obstacles to such a reform, and encourage an ongoing dialogue between all actors involved, as part of the process of transmitting that collective memory.
The public commemoration of the October 17, 1961 massacre should not be limited to the plaque on Saint Michel Bridge. The memory of the massacre can also be symbolically recognized in French urban spaces, through the naming of public transport stations, streets, and squares. Moreover, Senior French politicians should attend this annual gathering on the Saint Michel Bridge as a way of symbolically expressing France’s willingness to acknowledge past mistakes. By emphasizing the significance of the gathering, the French government will provide citizens who lack social capital with a public space to express their emotions in a peaceful way. This will ultimately serve to strengthen national unity, and reestablish trust among marginalized groups in French institutions.
Recognition in the Legal Sphere
Finally, the French Parliament must continue the work begun with the 1998 report by creating a commission to gather facts and evidence about the massacre. This would include its taking into account the fact that the number of victims was closer to 200, and unambiguously defining this as a crime against humanity. An independent investigation must clearly specify the actors who were responsible for ordering the crimes. By emphasizing the individual aspect of these crimes, the French government can remove some of this historical burden.