Dr. Sylvie Thénault: “I still have a lot of difficulty in admitting the idea that many French people did not know what was happening in Algeria during the war”
Dr. Sylvie Thénault. DR.
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Your academic career, whether it is your master’s degree, your doctoral thesis or your accreditation as a researcher, is focused on Algeria’s war of independence. Where does your interest in the history of Algeria come from?
Dr. Sylvie Thénault: I have no personal relationship with Algeria. My interest came from the anti-racist movement in France in the late 1980s. I was a secondary school student at the time and the fight against the National Front, which was then beginning to take root in French political life, found arguments in the history of the Algerian war of independence. Thus, it was reminded that Jean-Marie Le Pen had been a lieutenant in Algeria and that he had used torture there. October 17, 1961, was also mentioned as evidence of the murderous nature of racism. The overall idea was that, in order for the immigrants’ children to find their full place in French society, it was necessary to heal the wounds of the past. So we had to talk about it and especially about its darkest aspects.
You have co-authored with several authors a book on the Algerian war lived in metropolitan France: La France en guerre 1954-1962: expériences métropolitaines de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne (France at war 1954-1962: metropolitan experiences of the Algerian War of Independence). In your opinion, what was the real impact of the Algerian war on the metropolis?
This is a very important impact, first of all in terms of quantity. Even if we can not make accurate assessments, it must be remembered that more than one million young men have been called to war in Algeria. They came from all over France and from all strata of French society, including rural areas where colonization was not a well known fact. Through these men, their traumas, their wounds, their deaths sometimes, hundreds of thousands of families and loved ones (fiancées, neighbors, friends…) have been affected by the war. Even when silence was imposed on the soldiers’ return, this silence was a source of questioning. These were perpetuated in the following generations, until today. There are also immigrants from Algeria who experienced the war on French soil: the struggle led by the French Federation of the FLN (National Liberation Front), the one also led by the Algerian National Movement (MNA), their rivalries going up to the armed confrontation. They have also experienced increased police pressure – ordinary pressure on immigrants subject to facial control, in particular, accentuated by the fight against Algerian nationalism, which has resulted in real raids, searches in furnished apartments and slums, violence… To close this overview, we must add the French people from Algeria who were repatriated at the end of the war and the harkis (note: Native Algerian soldier who served as an auxiliary alongside the French). All these categories of war actors form a group of individuals numbering in millions, people who have experienced the war sometimes in Algeria, sometimes in metropolitan France but who have all experienced it and remember it. Their descendants may have inherited it even if not all of them have appropriated their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences.
The war also has a very strong political impact with organizations and parties engaged against the war or, on the contrary, in the defense of French Algeria. The war was thus the cause of multiple crises, such as the one that led to the change of republic. We still live under the Fifth Republic, which was born in 1958, in the context of the tensions surrounding the war in Algeria.
Do not you think that the awareness of French public opinion, particularly with the massacre of 17 October 1961 and that of the Charonne metro station, has brought the war to a halt?
It would be excessive in my opinion to say that these events were the cause of the end of the war. Negotiations between the French government and the GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic) had begun in 1960 and, despite several failures, were progressing. In September 1961, in particular, General de Gaulle finally admitted the Algerian character of the Sahara (whereas he had so far tried to remove it from Algerian sovereignty in order to keep it in the French fold). This was a decisive step in the resumption of negotiations.
However, it is undeniable that the fall of 1961 and the winter that followed were lived in metropolitan France as a period of almost civil war, between those who wanted the independence process to succeed and those who wanted to prevent it. It should not be forgotten that there were then attacks by the OAS (note: Organization of the Secret Army) in metropolitan France. So, yes, it is still a time of intensified opposition and violence that makes the end of the war urgent.
Violence ordinaire dans l’Algérie coloniale: Camps, internements, assignations à résidence (Ordinary violence in colonial Algeria: Camps, internments, house arrest) is a very important book, like all your books. This book is about the internment of Algerians that has always existed and is not limited to periods of insurrection. You show that internment has been systematically practiced by colonial France. In your opinion, why did colonial France need this permanent internment policy?
The answer seems quite simple to me: the colonial authorities needed this tool of expeditious repression (remember that this is a simple decision of the administration, not a measure resulting from a judicial procedure with investigation, defense, contradictory debates) because of the resistance they encountered on a daily basis in the villages. Before resistance to colonization took the form of organized political movements (in the inter-war period), resistance was expressed in acts of ordinary life: refuse to pay taxes or be reluctant to pay them; set fire to the settler’s harvest or forests subject to a new forest code prohibiting previous uses; go on pilgrimage to Mecca when it was prohibited or without respecting the very restrictive regulations that governed it, etc. go on pilgrimage to Mecca when it was prohibited or without respecting the very restrictive regulations that governed it, etc. Internment – that is, house arrest or detention without trial in a penitentiary – was thus mainly practiced before the First World War. Then, when organized political movements have made multiple demands (independence, freedom of Muslim worship, teaching of the Arabic language), their repression required other weapons (prohibition, trials).
Some French marshals, such as Bugeaud and Cavaignac, boasted of having massacred the Algerian people, in particular through the smoke filled. How do you explain the massacres carried out by these Marshals of France in Algeria? Was there not a premeditated policy of emptying the land of its inhabitants by massacring the indigenous populations?
I am much less familiar with the war of conquest and its actors than with the Algerian war of independence. I would tend to say that massacres are the response to resistance involving the population as a whole or, to put it another way, that they are the consequence of a type of war: a war in which the border between combatants and civilians is blurred, as the support of those who do not fight with weapons in their hands is crucial for those who bear arms. Also, massacring Algerians is equivalent to depriving the enemy of essential resources. I remember reading Bugeaud’s instructions, based on his experience in repressing the Catalan resistance to Napoleonic occupation. He transposed this experience to Algeria on the basis that, in either case, it was a partisan war. He also compared raids with the siege of cities in the European wars: he explained that, in either case, it was a matter of starving the enemy to lead him to surrender. I am therefore thinking less of a premeditated policy than of a way of fighting massive and deep resistance. It must also be taken into account that, for a long time, French policy towards Algeria was not fixed: there is a long debate on the value of an occupation extended to the whole territory. The hypothesis of a restricted occupation still in the 1840s is being investigated. Of course, Bugeaud is not in favor of it.
You wrote Algérie : des événements à la guerre: idées reçues sur la guerre d’indépendance (Algeria: from events to war: preconceived ideas about the independence war). Why are the wounds of the Algerian war still present in the French collective memory?
For all the reasons I have previously developed on the impact of the war in metropolitan France. It is a war that has affected many of the metropolis’ inhabitants, French or not, and that still potentially affects their families. It has also been a cause of divisions, tensions and deep political crises.
You have done a remarkable work based on the archives of the Army and the Ministry of Justice, which were previously inaccessible, and you have written Une drôle de justice : Les magistrats dans la guerre d’Algérie (A Funny Justice: The Magistrates in the Algerian War). After reading this very interesting book, can we say that during the Algerian war, French justice experienced one of the darkest pages in its history? During this period, did not the judiciary power submit completely to the executive power?
Yes, of course, we can talk about « dark pages ». They must be placed in context: the magistracy of the time is not the one of today. Subordination to politics was more ordinary. Thus, the Magistracy Union was only created in 1968. This creation, moreover, was made in reference to the attitude of the magistrates during the war that had just taken place: it has been argued by the need to emancipate magistrates from political power, to offer them a tool of independence. I would add that the ancestor of the National School of the Magistracy, the National Centre for Judicial Studies (NCJS), which made a significant contribution to the independence of the justice system, was created in 1958. It took time for this new training of judges, combined with new recruitment, to produce its concrete effects.
While the war was going on in Algeria, many French people knew nothing about what was happening. In your opinion, why the French people were only informed late about the war in Algeria, which directly concerned them? How do you explain the denial of the successive political powers that described the Algerian war as « events »?
I still have a lot of difficulty in admitting the idea that many French people did not know what was happening in Algeria during the war. The war and its violence were present not only in the major national press in Paris, but also in the regional press, which was widely read at the time. The study of the political history of France at the time also shows that the question of the war in Algeria, the one of Algeria’s independence or, on the contrary, of its retention under French control, are highly debated issues. So I don’t think they didn’t know anything about what was going on, but this war was for some people an event that was happening among other developments, quite far from their daily lives. And so their attention was focused on other current issues (e.g. the Budapest crisis, European integration, inflation and the new franc). As for the denial of political powers refusing to talk about war, it does not seem very difficult to me to explain: officially, Algeria was constituted by French departments. Recognizing the state of war opened the way to recognition of the fact that Algeria was indeed an entity detached from France, another nation. Recognizing the state of war opened the way to recognition of the fact that Algeria was indeed an entity detached from France, another nation. This is why, moreover, it was exceptional legislation (state of emergency, special powers) that framed the war and not the existing Geneva Conventions at the time.
According to you, an informed historian and brilliant researcher, what are the main lessons to be learned from this dark period in the history of France, namely the colonization of Algeria, the arbitrariness and the injustices from which Algerians have suffered so much?
That’s a huge question! It is up to everyone, I think, to be informed and to see what he thinks is important to learn as a lesson for himself or for the whole of society. From my point of view as a historian, I want to conclude on the need for knowledge and debate about the past. Every society must learn its history, know it and examine it critically. This is the very condition of democracy and certainly one of the best exercises in citizenship education.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Sylvie Thénault?
Sylvie Thénault is a French historian, research director at the CNRS (Scientific Research National Center), specialist in the war of independence in Algeria. She is a member of the Centre for Social History of the 20th Century. Her work focuses on law and legal repression during the Algerian War of Independence.
Her master’s degree in history in 1991 focused on the Street Protest of Algerians in Paris on October 17, 1961 and its repression, and her thesis work in 1999 was on Justice in the Algerian War. The book presented as part of his research leadership qualification was devoted to ordinary violence in colonial Algeria.
Dr. Thénault wrote several books including: Une drôle de justice : Les Magistrats dans la guerre d’Algérie [A strange justice: Magistrates in the Algerian War ] (2001) ; Histoire de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne [History of the Algerian War of Independence] (2005) ; La gauche et la décolonisation [The left and decolonization] in the collective work Histoire des gauches en France [History of the lefts in France] (2005) ; co-author of La France en guerre, 1954-1962 : Expériences métropolitaines de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne [France at War, 1954-1962: Metropolitan Experiences of the Algerian War of Independence] (2008) ; Algérie, des « événements » à la guerre : Idées reçues sur la guerre d’indépendance algérienne [Algeria, from « events » to war: Preconceived ideas on the Algerian war of Independence] (2012) ; Violence ordinaire dans l’Algérie coloniale : Camps, internements, assignations à résidence [Ordinary violence in colonial Algeria: Camps, internments, house arrest] (2012) ; Histoire de l’Algérie à la période coloniale : 1830-1962 [History of Algeria during the colonial period: 1830-1962] (2014).
Dr. Sylvie Thénault was awarded the Malesherbes Prize in 2002 for Une drôle de justice, les magistrats dans la guerre d’Algérie [A strange justice, the magistrates in the Algerian war] (editions La Découverte, 2001), considered as a new contribution to the history of justice during the Algerian war thanks to the collection of archives from the army and the judiciary.
Published in American Herald Tribune November 12, 2019: https://ahtribune.com/interview/3649-sylvie-thenault.html
In French in Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.131119.htm
In French in Mondialisation.ca: https://www.mondialisation.ca/dr-sylvie-thenault-jai-toujours-beaucoup-de-mal-a-admettre-lidee-que-beaucoup-de-francais-ignoraient-ce-quil-se-passait-en-algerie-pendant-la-guerre/5639072