As a child, Benjamin Stora was compared to Joselito, the Spanish boy singer who was successful at that time with the nickname of The Little Nightingale. It was the fifties in the still French Algeria, and the child Stora grew up happily in an environment in which French, Jewish and also Spanish cultures were mixed, geographically neighboring and culturally close by the presence of an important Spanish population in the North African colony.
“My aunts told me that I was their double while they stroked my hair. And I was proud ”, he would recall years later in the book Les clés retrouvées. Une enfance juive à Constantine (The keys rediscovered. A Jewish childhood in Constantine).
In 1962, the Stora, like hundreds of thousands of Europeans from Algeria or families rooted for centuries in North Africa who identified with France, emigrated to Europe. It was the so-called pieds-noirs, or black feet.
Thus ended a war that had broken out in 1954 and left open wounds between France and the newly independent Algeria after 130 years of French rule. From that conflict, the Fifth Republic was born, the current constitutional regime in France, and resentments were brewed there that since then have fueled the extreme right and French autochthonous jihadism.
Joselito's doppelganger – that Jewish boy from the city of Constantine who later would militarize Trotskyism and Social Democracy – is today a veteran historian, the most influential specialist, read and heard on the war in Algeria. This week, Stora presented Emmanuel Macron with a report that the French president commissioned him last July and that should open a new stage in France's relationship with this “past that never dies” and “is not even past”, to use the famous phrase of the novelist William Faulkner about the American Civil War.
For Stora, 70, the writing of the 160-page report is the culmination of a lifetime marked by Algeria, both for her biography and for her work as a historian. The document makes recommendations to "reconcile memories" about war and colonization, but does not explicitly advise France to apologize or make gestures of repentance.
"The report has something of the conclusion of a long life to try to get out of this war of memories," Stora told EL PAÍS on Saturday. “I lived through the war as a child and, later, the war of memories, that is, that of those who did not want to reconcile, those who did not want to accept independence, those who did not want to accept the possibility of living together. It is precisely because I have lived through this tear and this exile that I always tried to do things in such a way that, taking up what (the Algerian-born French writer) Albert Camus said, to establish a kind of civil truce, a truce to be able to live together".
The war separated Algeria from France, but it also divided Algerians – the harkis, who fought alongside French troops, were victims of massacres in their country and had to abandon it – and the French themselves. According to estimates cited in the report, there were around half a million deaths.
Stora estimates that more than seven million people live in France – more than 10% of the population – affected by the memory of Algeria: it includes Algerian immigration, pieds-noirs and the harkis and their descendants, and also the veterans.
Each group, with a different version, sometimes contradictory and sometimes used for political purposes, not always noble, in what the historian calls “the competition between victims” and “the reconstruction of imaginary stories”. Algeria, which until 1962 some in France considered as French as the Périgord or Mont Saint-Michel, is still an internal affair in this country.
“The loss of French Algeria was experienced as a narcissistic wound to French nationalism. Because Algeria was France, they were French departments (which is equivalent to provinces in Spain), it was not a colony ”, explains Stora. "There was an insoluble contradiction between a territory that considered itself French and a majority Algerian population that did not have the same rights as Europeans."
France is a country of historical discussions that reflect deep political and ideological fractures that are never fully extinguished. The revolution of 1789, the Dreyfuss case, the collaborationist Vichy regime … But, perhaps because of the temporal proximity, or because it continues to affect the lives of millions of citizens, none like Algeria continues to affect the life of France so much.
"In one of my books, I talked about the possible comparison between the war in Algeria and the American Civil War, of a kind of French Southism," says Stora. “The French in Algeria undoubtedly some were poor, but many had a higher standard of living than the Algerians, who also lacked rights. The French of Algeria opposed the metropolitan, industrial, distant, individualistic, glacial North. "
According to this interpretation, not only was at stake in the war the foundation of an independent Algeria with Muslim culture. In parallel, another conflict was developing, which pitted the French settled in Algeria with the politicians of Paris, led by General de Gaulle, ready to grant independence to the new Algeria.
“For a long time we have believed that we have already overcome it. That it is something ancient and old, that it is over ”, says Stora. “But look at the United States today: they have not come out of the Civil War. The situation is different, of course, but you see these people with the southern flag on the Capitol … "
The central argument of the report is that it is not about writing a common history about the war in Algeria, "but trying to explain the colonial event together, and not believing that everything can be decided in a final verdict," he writes. And he quotes another historian, Pierre Nora, who affirms that, "while memory divides, history can unite."
"What is scary", says Stora in the interview, "is that identities are manufactured through stories and that they end up facing each other, that there is no possibility of laying out catwalks."
That repentance or the French request for forgiveness can help to build these catwalks, the author of the report doubts. He argues that taking concrete actions to investigate archives, investigate French nuclear tests on Algerian territory or the use of napalm, locate missing persons, an acknowledgment of the victims of all sides can be more useful than bombastic speeches.
“You can make an apology speech, but isn't there another possibility? Are we not running the risk of leaving a series of issues on hold and falling into the trap of the extreme right or fundamentalists who do not want to address any real dossier? ”He says. “There are always memory rentiers, those who see memory as an income that allows them to exist. And they don't want it to end ”.