French historians ‘being shut out of state archives’

Years of restrictions have stymied scholars’ work on topics such as the Algerian war of independence, and a new law could cement this lack of access

July 15, 2021
French General Charles de Gaulle meeting Algerians during his visit to Orleansville, for French historians ‘being shut out of state archives’
Source: Getty

French historians have raised the alarm that a new terrorism and intelligence law will stop the release of state military and security archival documents, amid accusations that elements in the government are deliberately trying to conceal the country’s role in the Algerian war of independence.

Historians say that for the past two years, they have had increasing difficulty gaining access to archives because of a government order that allowed relevant ministries to sign off on declassification.

This has overridden a law that opens up documents automatically after a certain time has elapsed – 50 years where documents touch on national security, for example.

“It’s created a huge problem,” said Raphaelle Branche, president of France’s Association of Contemporary Historians in Higher Education and Research. “Everything was stopped.”

That instruction was overturned earlier this month by France’s Council of State, one of the country’s top courts, which ruled that the government was illegally overriding the law.

But historians are worried that a new bill, now working its way through the legislative process, will replicate some of these restrictions and scrap automatic release of documents, instead allowing the state to keep them secret indefinitely.

“This is really something totally new in French law,” Professor Branche said. “It would be impossible to plan something as historical research.”

Under the current restrictions, said Professor Branche, a specialist in France’s colonial history in Algeria, one of her students looking at the role of the intelligence services during the Algerian war was forced to quit his master’s thesis because of an interminable wait for documents.

Historians are frustrated by what they see as a contradiction on the part of the government. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, admitted earlier this year that the country had tortured and murdered a prominent Algerian independence leader, and he vowed to open up archives to reveal more about the conflict.

Yet restrictions on archival access are having the opposite effect, critics say. “It was impossible for me,” said Denis Peschanski, a research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, of the restrictions in place in recent years.

He is one of 15 prominent historians who have signed an open letter to the government decrying the proposed law, which they say will close most intelligence service archives without a time limit.

What exactly has triggered a tightening of archival access is unclear. The public rapporteur for the Council of State, arguing against the government’s restrictions, has reportedly claimed that the restrictions were “invented” just as the archives about the Algerian war were being opened, leaving “an unpleasant aftertaste of subterfuge”.

However, said Professor Branche, given that the war ended in 1962, most documents have been freely available since 2012 under the 50-year rule, and many had even been published in state-sponsored publications.

But there could be other skeletons in the closet, she said, about the details of French nuclear tests in the Sahara desert in the 1960s, or the relationship between the security services and the far-right OAS terrorist group that fought against Algerian independence, for example.

France’s Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and its Ministry of Armed Forces, did not respond to a request for comment before Times Higher Education’s deadline.

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