The French government has said it will soon open to the public the most highly classified parts of its national archives about the Algerian war of independence, shedding light on some of the darkest chapters in France’s 20th century history.
Between 1954 and 1962, France waged a war against an independence movement in its then colony. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed, and French forces and their proxies used torture against opponents, according to historians.
The fighting in Algeria convulsed France and prompted a failed coup attempt against then-President Charles de Gaulle to stop him from ending French rule. Almost 60 years after it ended, the conflict is still a highly sensitive and divisive topic in France.
“We need to have the courage to look the historical truth in the face,” French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot said on Friday as she made the announcement about opening up the archives.
The declassification is an important step towards a better understanding of the war, as well as possibly making sense of certain deaths that to this day remain unexplained, according to Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian of Algeria.
“You can know which people were under surveillance, followed, arrested,” Stora told Reuters news agency. “It’s the whole chain leading up to repressive measures that can be unveiled.”
Algeria lived under French rule for 132 years until it won the independence war in 1962.
“We have things to rebuild with Algeria. They can only be rebuilt on the truth,” Bachelot told BFMTV.
“I want this question – which is troubling, aggravating, and where falsifiers of history are at work – I want us to be able to look it in the eyes. We can’t build a national story on a lie”.
Asked about the likelihood that incidents of torture will be uncovered in the archives, Bachelot said: “It is in the interest of the country that they are recognised.
“We should never fear the truth. We must put it in context.”
The announcement took place two days after a trip to Algiers by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. He held talks with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune aimed at reviving dialogue between the two sides.
Ties deteriorated sharply in October after French President Emmanel Macron accused Algeria’s “political-military system” of rewriting history and fomenting “hatred towards France”. In remarks to descendants of independence fighters, reported by Le Monde, Macron also questioned whether Algeria had existed as a nation before the French invasion in the 1800s.
The comments, which came a month after Paris decided to sharply reduce visa quotas for citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, sparked a fierce reaction from Algeria, which withdrew its ambassador and banned French military planes from its airspace.
Tebboune also boycotted a major November summit in Paris on Algeria’s war-torn neighbour Libya, saying his country would “not take the first step” to repair ties.