French Revisionism and the Erasure of the Algerian Revolution

Marnia Lazreg explores how a new generation of scholars is seeking to write the 1954 Revolution out of history.


Source > Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

Sixty years after the signing of the Evian Accords, a new generation of Algerians quietly marked the third anniversary of the mass movement, the Hirak, they initiated on 22 February 2019 to bring about systemic political change. Before the state halted their weekly demonstrations (ostensibly because of the pandemic), young women and men called for a rekindling of the 1954 Revolution, which they accused the country’s political leadership of betraying.

Meanwhile, in France, the former colonizer, a new generation of historians has been busy constructing a revisionist history of the Algerian war of decolonization to rule out the possibility of it being a revolution in the name of scientific objectivity. Claimed by Algerians and denied by French revisionists, the Algerian Revolution is at the centre of a battle over Algerians’ agency, ownership of their history, and freedom to define themselves independently of the colonial knowledge system that informs revisionist historiography.

The Revisionist Discourse

A product of the peculiarities of French cultural politics, the current revisionist discourse relinks with the historical revisionism of the twentieth century, which typically stumbled on the question of decolonization,[1] prompting the Italian Marxist historian Domenico Losurdo to characterize it as the “liquidation of the revolutionary tradition”.[2] Unlike other colonizing nations, France has yet to unambiguously come to terms with its colonial past.

Looming large among the reasons for France’s attitude is an intellectual milieu steeped in a culture that has traditionally prided itself on its colonial past, presented as progressive, a step forward in the future of colonized peoples[3] as befit a nation that thinks itself a beacon of universal human rights. Hence, revisionists, some of whom were born after Algeria’s independence, echo several colonial clichés in reconstructing the history of the war to salvage the colonial idea while denying that the decolonization process could be revolutionary. The issue is not whether the Algerian war was or was not a revolution, but how the rejection and avoidance of the concept of revolution, expressed in a selective language, allows for the rehabilitation of colonialism as well as the reproduction of the knowledge system that sustains it.

Revisionists span the political spectrum, from conservative Guy Pervillé to liberals such as Sylvie Thénault, Raphaëlle Branche, or Jean Jacques Jordi, among others. Even the more left-leaning historian, Benjamin Stora,[4] could not resist the appeal of the revisionist language.

Revisionist Methodology

Revisionists display a preoccupation with method. Convinced that “an exhaustive and definitive history of the Algerian war does not yet and will never exist”, Pervillé rejects the label “revisionist”, preferring to see himself as an “objective historian” instead. Offering a wholesale critique of the Algerian government, he dismisses as an “ideological counter-offensive” Algerians’ view of the war as a revolution, their commemorations of the Sétif and Guelma massacres perpetrated by the colonial power on 5 May 1945,[5] or their characterization of brutal war acts as “crimes against humanity”.[6] Interestingly, his objective method intends to compensate for the negative, Vichy-like role that the Algerian War purportedly threatens to play in France’s collective memory.[7]

Sylvie Thénault, the most ambitious revisionist, casts a balanced and holistic “new gaze” on Algerian history to “shed light on both sides [of the war], French and Algerian”. Consequently, she claims to include “the Algerian point of view” which, among other things, is meant “to go beyond the question of the viability of French Algeria … to acknowledge its impossibility. Even if it was not a national identity from the beginning, Algerians’ identity was irreducible to French identity.”

Importantly, she seeks to “banalize” the reconstructed history by cleansing the language in which it should be rewritten. Identifying her enterprise as gendered, she writes: “under the female historian’s pen, to banalize means to treat this history as any other history by examining its causes, its protagonists, its phases, its outcome”. Banalization also helps to alleviate a sense of guilt which purportedly the French media arouse in the public through the use of metaphors, such as “dark hours” or “black pages,” borrowed from denunciations of the Vichy regime.

Like Pervillé, she rejects “revolution” because it presupposes “a radical transformation of the country and its society”, “Algerian War” because it connotes the war was fought to maintain French sovereignty, and “war of liberation” because it implies “the idea of a resurrection of an Algerian nation which colonization would have stifled for more than a century”. She settles for “war of independence, which better expresses the significance of the event: a war out of which emerged the Algerian nation against France’s struggle to keep Algeria French, and as a result of which the symbol of the Parti du Peuple Algérien [PPA], the initial organization of Algerian nationalism, became its flag”.[8] Such a war was waged by “independentistas” as opposed to “combatants”, a term favoured by Algerians.

With one stroke of the pen, Thénault accomplishes two goals: to write the National Front of Liberation (FLN) out of the Algerian War by obliquely attributing independence to the old PPA, and to transform the war — defined as France’s struggle for keeping Algeria French — as the birth of the Algerian nation. Thénault’s “new gaze” skirts the question of what Algerians were before the war, while implicitly asserting that France made them into a nation, albeit unintentionally. Noteworthy is the author’s silence on which revolution she uses as the standard by which to measure the Algerian revolution, as well as her outright denial that there could be transformations inherent in Algerians’ passage from the status of colonized to that of free people. In the end, her revisionist history hardly includes the Algerians’ point of view (the scope of which she limits) but substitutes hers for theirs.

Stora, a former Pied-Noir Trotskyist, gives the inclusion of the natives’ “point of view” a new twist. He assumes the stance of “a hypothetical historian sent as a special reporter to the other side of the front line during the conflict”.[9] In seeking to give voice to multiple French actors in the war,[10] he defines his history as a “discourse constituted out of the multiplicity of points of view according to each individual’s concern”. Discourse means “the Algerian memory of people whether they are Pied-Noirs or harkis, immigrants or French soldiers, Algerian nationalist militants or partisans of French Algeria”.[11] This “memory circulation” hailed as putting an “end to amnesia,” is artificially constructed out of essays mostly by French authors, assembled randomly. Admittedly, a multivocal history is valuable.

However, a history as a collection of points of view assumed to be equal in value and importance overshadows and re-centres the war in its imperial location. Algerians — who initiated the war and bore the brunt of it — are relativized and the significance of the act of decolonization they undertook is diminished, if not dissolved. Besides, the point of view behind the selection and interpretation of points of view on the war is undefined, assumed to be that of an “objective,” value-free historian. This kind of history further neutralizes the active consciousness behind the initiation of the act of decolonization. Ultimately, the Algerian war as the history of points of view was only incidentally Algerian. It was a French affair, and its telling can only be France-centred.

It is significant that revisionists’ reflection on the war follows their disenchantment with Algeria’s present which they implicitly use as justification for re-writing the past. They denounce Algerian “official history” but do not delve into the history written in Arabic, a language they do not speak. Regardless, they participate in the collection of oral histories in Algeria (some of which have been expressed in Algerian writings which they dismiss) — a sign of their dominant position in the field of Algerian history.

Functions of the Revisionist Discourse

Besides legitimizing the colonial past, the revisionist language fulfils two main functions: first, it ensures a moral and philosophical relativism through decontextualized comparisons. For example, in keeping with her goal to “appease” the history of the war and take it out of the realm of the revolutionary, Raphaëlle Branche equates the methods of the French far-right OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) to those of the FLN, presenting them as two facets of “resistance” to the state.[12] Objectivity in her approach thus means to relativize events to the extreme and apply an unbridled moral equivalency between them. Unlike Thénault, who acknowledges her positionality as a French woman writing from and about the former centre of the empire, Branche assumes a neutral stance, although the very choice and treatment of the subject matter OAS vs. FLN requires a political decision — namely, that of treating them as equals.

Parenthetically, decontextualization implicitly asserts the autonomy or independence of the economy from the political system by permitting revisionists to separate out the economic ills of the colonial system which drove Algerians to the war from colonialism’s purportedly positive political import.

Second, revisionist history re-orients change and progress for the formerly colonized by directing it towards the path traced by the colonial system and its neo-colonial reincarnation. This method dispenses with a notion of structural change in Algeria, which it assumes does not and cannot exist. Since the postcolonial present is dismissed as beyond the pale, the only change possible is a virtual return to an idealized colonial order, which purportedly had the merit of creating the Algerian nation.

The Algerian Reception of Revisionism

In addition to affecting the language used in the Francophone press in Algeria, which prefers “war of independence” to “revolution”, the new revisionist history found a sympathetic ear among some Algerian historians for at least two reasons: as Francophones, they feel the brunt of the linguistic policy that mandates the use of Arabic in the social sciences, which brought to the fore competing historians writing in Arabic. They work in university settings dependent on French universities for research cooperation, fellowships, travel, and recognition. Consequently, they are leery to oppose a revisionist discourse that is presented as scientific but also comforts their own general dissatisfaction with the state.

A historian I interviewed repeated revisionists’ anti-revolution rhetoric only to reverse himself after I, playing the devil’s advocate, explained to him that Algerians under colonial domination were the functional equivalent of the serfs under the French Ancien Régime, and their taking up arms against disenfranchisement, gross economic exploitation, and for freedom was a revolutionary act that overthrew an unjust system of rule. Ironically, less-sympathetic historians remain silent, avowedly in tacit support for left-leaning French revisionists whom they see as targets of conservative commentators. Yet, as shown above, the revisionist discourse is powered by historians across the political spectrum — some of whom, such as Thénault and Branche, studied the violence as well as the peculiarities of colonial justice. It is precisely the recognition of these facts that allows them to claim “objectivity” in their positive management of the colonial idea.

Reconciliation through Silence

The revisionist history of the war is a history told from France and about France in Algeria. The illusion of objectivity through the incorporation of the Algerian point of view —minoritized, disembodied, and expressed in revisionist normative language — assumes there is no truth to which Algerians might aspire.

Ironically, women revisionists’ purging of the concept of revolution from their reconstructed history deprives Algerian women combatants, who made history on the ground, of a principal source of their legitimate claims vis-à-vis the state. It also betrays a will to make an Algerian historiography of the war impossible outside of a French conceptual frame.

It is a will that also resonates with Macron’s decision to commission Stora to “work on memory, truth, and reconciliation for us as well as for our ties to Algeria” and to express “a new will for the reconciliation of the French and Algerian peoples”. Macron’s concern is also that the post-war generations on both sides be free of the “stigma of the war so they can write their history”.

The objective of this history on command, reconciliation, demands silence on the ideological foundation of the colonial system of domination that is part of the French socio-political fabric. What is at stake is the capacity to remember (i.e., memory) and the remembering (i.e., the recollection) of the events of the Algerian Revolution themselves, which are mobilized, directed, and ordered. This is no more and no less than a version of “official” history, to which revisionists lend a big hand. As ethnologist Michel Leiris suggested in another context, revisionists must “free themselves”[13] of the colonial knowledge system that underlies the French socio-cultural apparatus before they can achieve the objectivity which they claim for banalizing colonial domination.


[1] In the nineteenth century, the Haitian Revolution created a conundrum for the revolutionaries of the French National Convention, which took three years to end slavery (later restored by Napoleon Bonaparte). The decolonial question would similarly plague the work of twentieth century revisionists, be they German or French.

[2] Domenico Losurdo, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century, translated by Gregory Elliott, London: Verso, 2015 [1996], p, 1.

[3] Anecdotally, one still hears well-meaning French individuals state that no matter its drawbacks, colonialism gave the colonized the “gift of the French language”.

[4] Born in 1948, Pervillé is the oldest revisionist and a popularizer of the history of the Algerian war. Thénault and Branche were both born after the war. Active in SOS Racisme, Thénault began her career analyzing legal and juridical repression during the war. Branche first wrote about torture during the war, before focusing on the war and its effects on descendants of conscripts. She co-edits works with Thénault and is active in the Comité de Vigilance face aux usages publics de l’histoire. Jordi and Stora were born in Algeria during the war. While Jordi’s main concern is the Pied-Noirs, Stora’s work is more varied, although it shares with Jordi an interest in conscripted soldiers.

[5] Guy Pervillé, Pour une histoire de la guerre d’Algérie 1954–1962, Paris: Editions A., J. Picard, 2002, p. 9, p. 287, p. 296.

[6] Pervillé, La guerre d’Algérie: Histoire et mémoires, Bordeaux: Centre Régional de Documentation Pédagogique d’Aquitaine, 2008, p. 110.

[7] Pervillé, Pour une histoire, p. 296.

[8] Sylvie Thénault, L’histoire de la guerre d’indépendance algérienne, Paris: G. Flammarion, 2005, pp. 9–15.

[9] Renaud de Rochebrune and Benjamin Stora, La guerre d’Algérie vue par les Algériens. 1- Le temps des armes (des origines à la bataille d’Alger, Paris: Denoël, 2011.

[10] See, for example, Jean-Jacques Jordi, Un silence d’état. Les disparus civils européens de la guerre d’Algérie, St. Cloud: Editions Sotéga, 2011.

[11] Benjamin Stora and Mohammed Harbi, la guerre d’Algérie 1954–2004. La fin de l’amnésie, Paris: Robert Laffont, 2004, p.11.

[12] Raphaelle Branche, “FLN et OAS: deux terrorisms en guerre d’Algérie,” Revue Européenne d’Histoire, vol. 14, no. 3 (2007), p. 2.

[13] Michel Leiris, “L’ ethnographie devant le colonialisme”, in Cing études d’ethnologie, Paris: Tel Gallimard, Denoël Gonthier, 1969, p. 112. This chapter must be read together with the chapter “Race et civilization”, which discusses the role played by “science” in justifications of racism and political domination.  

Marnia Lazreg is a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her books include Feminism and the Discourse of Post-Liberation (Routledge, 2020), The Eloquence of Silence (Routledge, 2019), Foucault’s Orient (Berghahn, 2020), Torture and the Twilight of Empire (Princeton UP, 2017), and Questioning the Veil (Princeton UP, 2010).

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