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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 28-43
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Algeria as a lieu de mémoire:
Ethnic Minority Memory and National Identity in Contemporary France
Richard L. Derderian
If the essence of the national spirit resides in shared memories, as Ernest Renan has argued, how do we build a memory consensus today? 1 In Les lieux de mémoire [Realms of memory], editor Pierre Nora responds by letting historians tell the old national story in a new way. Inspired by Ernest Lavisse's success in "reknitting the national garment of national history" at the end of the last century, but recognizing the impossibility of returning to outmoded, teleological grand narratives, Nora proposes a new symbolic history of the nation. 2 Harnessing the intellectual energy of over 120 historians, Nora sets out to unearth and expose the many but now imperiled and largely forgotten national sites of memory that litter the French landscape. By revealing their inner workings and those who gave them their particular symbolic charge, Nora hopes to weave a new national tapestry held together not by the seamless narrative of an eternal France but rather by the countless sites that held special meaning for past generations.
Yet curiously (for a seven-volume, several-thousand-page project spanning nearly a decade) Nora devotes only one chapter to France's vast imperial holdings—and even this chapter is restricted to the 1931 colonial exhibition in Paris. As for the empire proper, including prominent sites such as Indochina and Algeria where tens of thousands of French soldiers died to preserve the glory of greater France, Realms [End Page 28] of Memory offers nothing but silence. The absence of Algeria from a project so expansive that reviewer Steven Englund wondered what did not qualify as a lieu de mémoire is particularly puzzling. 3 Algeria differed markedly from any other imperial territory as it was considered a legal extension of metropolitan France—a fact that made it possible, in contrast to the war in Indochina, to send French soldiers as part of their national military service. Nearly an entire generation of Frenchmen from all walks of life performed their required service in Algeria. Their numbers roughly equal those the United States sent to Vietnam, but in a country with only one-fifth the American population. 4 It was ultimately the inability of the Fourth Republic to manage the turmoil and divisions unleashed by the war that led to the recall of Charles de Gaulle and the founding of the Fifth Republic.
Does the memory of the Algerian War represent the limitations of Realms of Memory as a means of preserving a shared past? Are some sites of memory simply too contentious and too divisive to be enshrined and perpetuated in the kinds of symbolic sites of memory that inspire Nora's collection? Is it preferable, as Renan also argued, to forget the turbulent and traumatic events that often mark the birth of new regimes? "To forget and—I will venture to say—to get one's history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a nation; and thus the advance of historical studies is often a danger to nationality." 5
The French state has pursued willful forgetting as its primary strategy toward the Algerian War and, one might add, much of the imperial past. Textbooks and memorials, commemorative dates and appellations used to designate the war—all of them lend evidence to successive French administrations' preference for silence over recollections of its memory. Even as another round of controversy has erupted over the use of torture during the war, the current administration refuses to support any kind of official inquiry. 6 Prime Minister Lionel Jospin recently expressed his support for "looking at the past and recalling even the darkest hours when our institutions failed us" and was confident that such "a search for truth would not weaken the national community." Nevertheless, he concluded, "I don't think it's up to the government to undertake this work." 7
Despite the considerable weight of official forms of amnesia...