France - Algeria

France speeds up access to secret Algeria War archives

In this May 15, 1962 file photo, a French soldier guards a street corner in Oran, Algeria. On the wall is a poster of the nationalist Secret Armed Organization, calling for citizens to take up arms against Algerian independence.
In this May 15, 1962 file photo, a French soldier guards a street corner in Oran, Algeria. On the wall is a poster of the nationalist Secret Armed Organization, calling for citizens to take up arms against Algerian independence. AP - Horst Faas

France is to make it easier for researchers to access classified government files that date back more than 50 years, especially those relating to the Algerian War – still a highly controversial chapter in French history which authorities have struggled to face.

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A statement from the Elysée Palace said, as from Wednesday, a new procedure would “significantly reduce the delay” for declassifying documents in order to “encourage respect for historical truth”. It specifically mentioned documents relating to the Algerian War of independence (1954-62).

The measure comes after a series of steps taken by Macron to reconcile France with its colonial past and address its history with Algeria, which was under French rule for 132 years until its independence in 1962.

Under French heritage laws, official documents, including on defence and security issues, should be made available to researchers and the public after 50 years.

But historians and archivists have complained about difficulties in getting access to files because the process is not automatic. Every single document must be formally declassified and stamped before it becomes accessible, a slow process that has effectively kept much information under wraps.

Under the changes, archivists will be able to declassify archive boxes all at once rather than document by document, which will, in theory, speed up the process.

“When we stop stamping each document and stamp the batch instead, this will unclog demand a bit,” historian Raphaëlle Branche told RFI. But she said changes would not be significant.

“In the early stages, contrary to the declaration that 'everything will change', not much will in fact change."

Even once the files are technically declassified, they can still be meticulously checked page by page for sensitive military secrets before being handed over meaning French authorities will still control which documents end up being in the public domain.

“The authorities have become so sensitive about a certain number of points they’ve decided to keep a close watch on them…to verify once more how sensitive they are.”

Despite the latest announcement, “if the authorities don’t want to declassify, they won't”.

Photo prise le 29 octobre 2001 dans une salle du Service historique de l'Armée de terre (SHAT) au château de Vincennes, des rayonnages où sont archivés les documents historiques recueillis sur la guerre d'Algérie.
Photo prise le 29 octobre 2001 dans une salle du Service historique de l'Armée de terre (SHAT) au château de Vincennes, des rayonnages où sont archivés les documents historiques recueillis sur la guerre d'Algérie. AFP - DANIEL JANIN

Facing up to the war

Broadening the access to archives on the war was part of Macron’s commitments to reckon with France’s colonial-era wrongs in Algeria.

Last week Macron officially acknowledged that French forces “tortured and murdered” leading Algerian independence fighter Ali Boumendjel in 1957. He was much criticised by the French right both for the admission and for meeting with Boumendjel’s four grandchildren.

In July 2020, he tasked French historian Benjamin Stora with assessing how France has dealt with its colonial legacy.

Stora’s report made a series of recommendations, including creating a “memory and truth commission” that would hear testimony from people who suffered during the war.

In January this year, however, the president ruled out issuing an apology for abuses in Algeria.

In 2018, he formally recognised the responsibility of the French state in the 1957 death of a dissident in Algeria, Maurice Audin, admitting for the first time the French military’s use of systematic torture during the war.

Macron also wants to honour Gisèle Halimi, a French feminist who supported Algeria’s independence and denounced the use of torture by the French military during the war. He hopes to have her reburied at the Pantheon monument in Paris, a resting place for some of France’s most distinguished citizens.

The French president plans to attend three commemoration ceremonies by next year, which will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of Algeria's war for independence.

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