French archives set for shake up

July 5, 1996

The French school of contemporary history is in danger of falling behind those of other countries if major disparities over researchers' access to national archives continue.

The warning comes in a report commissioned by former prime minister Edouard Balladur and submitted to his successor, Alain Juppe.

Guy Braibant, an honorary member of the state council, has called for a lowering of time limits in order to release all second world war archives. He has also proposed that the retention or destruction of archives be an offence punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Outgoing administrations in France are believed to destroy huge amounts of archives when there is a change of government. The report argues that France's archive law of 1979 needs to be "freshened up" and states that many of the decrees on its application are in fact illegal. For example, 100-year limits on access to some law files contradicts the principle of public and open administration of justice.

Mr Braibant points out that the 1979 law which introduced a 60-year limit was a regression on previous conditions, probably because the Occupation archives were nearing their release date.

"Political changes in Eastern and Central Europe have gone with a spectacular opening up [of archives] since 1989," notes the report. The opening up of Russian archives has given French second world war historians access to sources which are still inaccessible in France.

"If this difference continues, France is in danger of seeing its history established from foreign or private archives, as has already been the case with the Occupation for the past 20 years," says the report.

Archivist Philippe Grand, one of a small number who campaigned alongside historians on the archives issue, said: "The report goes some way towards recommending true freedom of access but will it really happen for the Vichy files, for example?

"What it needs now is more pressure. The Braibant report was the direct result of the campaign led by historian Sonia Combe."

When Mrs Combe began campaigning in 1993, many well-established historians were wary of her denunciation of the system of favouritism which gives certain individuals special permission to see archives.

Mr Braibant has come out strongly in favour of the principle of equal treatment for all researchers. He also calls for a more speedy system for giving advance access to certain archives.

Mrs Combe's book Archives Interdites in 1994 gave such a compelling account of the arbitrary methods used to hinder or prevent access, that the shortcomings of the French archive system became generally acknowledged.

Since then, two court cases over access to files have been won by members of the public. With research so dependent on good working relationships with archive officials, French historians have been reluctant to take cases to court.

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