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The teaching of the Algerian war in France: between history and memory

On March 29, 1956, police armed with submachine guns blocked a street in the Casbah of Algiers to carry out identity checks during a vast operation launched by the police during the Algerian war to curb the insecurity in the city.


Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

16 mins

In his report on colonization and the war in Algeria, the historian Benjamin Stora calls for more space to be given to the history of France in Algeria in French school curricula.

This story, if it was never avoided at the school of the Republic, has become problematic and politicized over time.

His treatment arouses passions and controversies.

Why ?  


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Omnipresent in the French imagination, the Algerian war caught in the snares of history and memorial issues, is perceived as a delicate subject to teach at the school of the Republic.

Debates regularly rage between those who regret that this subject is absent from school curricula, at least not as present as it should be, given its traces in memories and in contemporary French society, and those who believe that the Franco-Algerian question is not part of the "


of the history of France in the same way as the French Revolution or the Enlightenment.

In this context, the recommendations of the report that the historian Benjamin Stora submitted at the beginning of the year to the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron, calling for strengthening the teaching of the history of Algerian colonization seem difficult to implement, even though, if we are to believe the teachers, there is a demand on the part of the pupils to know this story better.

Many ready-made ideas circulate in the social field concerning the place of colonization, more particularly that of Algeria, in school education.

For Benoît Falaize (1), specialist in the teaching of history in colleges and high schools in France, nothing would be more erroneous than to affirm that the Algerian war is not taught in French schools.

This researcher, who has surveyed all school history textbooks from the 1970s to counting the number of signs in documents and image captions, vehemently protests against this ready-made idea.

He likes to recall that he even spotted the formula "

Algerian quagmire

in a manual dated 1983. This is proof, for the historian, that the fortunes and misfortunes of colonization are not taboo subjects in the schools of the Republic.

French paratroopers on patrol in the Aurès massif, stopped a caravan and questioned Algerian peasants, on November 12, 1954, ten days after the series of attacks which marked the beginning of the Algerian war of independence.

© AFP/Pierre Bonnin

History and patriotic sentiment

The colonial fact has always been part of the curricula of French schools.

The oldest, born under the French colonial empire, remember the wall maps that adorned the classrooms, exalting the vision of “

the greatest France


The teaching of the "

benefits of colonization

" began under the Third Republic, which understood very early on the use that could be made of the colonial phenomenon in "

the policy of construction of patriotic feeling devoted to the teaching of history

", writes Laurence de Cock, historian and author of a thesis published under the title "

In the class of the white man - the teaching of the colonial fact in the 1980s to our days

(Lyon University Press, 2018). 

In an article (2) retracing the evolution of the treatment of the colonial fact in textbooks since 1902, the historian underlines the emphasis placed by the authors, alternately on moral motives – the famous “

civilizing mission

” – and economic interests. and commercial.

This dilemma between duty and right is found even in the subjects of baccalaureates, recalls the historian, citing as an example of the questions which the candidates had to answer in the 1920s: "

The duties of the colonizing nations

" ( Clermont-Ferrand 1926) or “

Social morality and the notion of race

” (Lyon 1927).

Laurence de Cock also draws attention to the importance of Algeria in school narratives at the beginning of the last century, some of which offered "

eighteen pages on the conquest and organization of Algeria - as well as the judgments moral and emotional punctuating the story, such as this description of Abd El Kader "

very handsome, he had blue eyes with long black eyelashes

" that can be read in the caption of one of the rare illustrations


“Grammar of Civilizations”

The post-Second World War years saw school textbooks adopt a more innovative approach to the teaching of history, in particular with the introduction of the concept of "


" which we owe to Fernand Braudel, a major historian of after war.

This “


” approach, which aimed to situate the contemporary in the perspective of long history, made it possible to introduce primary and secondary school students to the ancient civilizations of sub-Saharan Africa.


We can no longer say in view of the extent of the work of ethnographers that the history of black Africa begins with European colonization

", as Charles Morazé, professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes pointed out at the time. ,

In the 1960s and 70s, it was also with a critical eye that textbooks inspired by the Braudelian “

grammar of civilizations

” approached the process of decolonization underway or completed at the time in the former African possessions.

Some authors dwell on the rise of nationalism in North Africa and “

the armed struggle in Algeria

” opposing the “


” to the “

French forces


“In 1982, wrote Laurence de Cock, an experimental subject was given to the baccalaureate on “France and Africa”.

“The proposed chronology begins on

May 8, 1945 with the riots and massacres of Sétif


However, two years later, when the Academy of Rouen will question the candidates for the baccalaureate on French colonization in Algeria, in the statement it will no longer be a question of "


", but only of "


" in Sétif.


This contradiction between the republican values ​​of France and the authoritarian practices in the colonies, especially during the Algerian war, was a kind of blind spot in history lessons in secondary school that the teacher always has trouble to be negotiated

," says historian Benoît Falaize.

“Should we burn history textbooks?


Inside pages: the book offers numerous facsimiles of period documents.

Christophe Paget / RFI

The year 1983 was a turning point with the revival of teaching about the Algerian war, now included in general secondary education.

Having become essential teaching subjects, the colonization and decolonization of Algeria are now dealt with either within the framework of the chapter on colonization or in the chapter devoted to France after 1945.

According to the specialist in teaching history, Benoît Falaize, " 

the years 1983-1989 are perhaps the period when we find the most precise high school textbooks, factually, on Algerian colonization


How to explain it?

Their authors,

continues the historian

, had a kind of affinity with Algeria where some of them had done their military service.

Others had their first job in Algiers or Constantine.

What's more, readers of the daily Le Monde, they cut out from the newspaper the story of the "events in Algeria", as the war that was taking place there was then modestly called.

They had trunks full of press cuttings - I saw it with my own eyes - on which they then relied to write their manuals rich in event details and photos.

They have nothing to do with what can be found in today's school books.


For the historian of decolonization, Pascal Blanchard (4), “

this systematic inclusion of this subject in secondary education serves as a reminder that colonial history has always been part of national history


Still had to be taught in class.


Today's high school students hear about colonization, the French colonial empire in Africa, the Algerian war, while I came out of my high school years immaculate, without having learned anything about colonization until the baccalaureate

”, recalls Blanchard.

However, it must be remembered that school Algeria is not a school content like the others.

A particularly sensitive subject because of the growing place of children or grandchildren of immigrants at school, the Algerian question has become problematic and politicized over time, until it has become, as Laurence de Cock explains, "

the one of the teaching contents which is the most “

under surveillance

” in the public space


Evidenced by the controversy triggered in 1983 by the evocation of the bloody repression of Sétif in textbooks.

The case went back to the National Assembly where the Minister of Education was questioned by the deputies for having let this subject pass, which could give a negative image of the French army.


Should history books be burned


“, we wondered in the national press.

The “roads-schools-hospitals” triptych

Nothing better illustrates this politicization of the colonial question, Algeria in particular, than the debates aroused at the Palais Bourbon during the presentation in 2005 of the law “

on the recognition of the nation and national contribution in favor of repatriated French people


Yielding to pressure from its radical wing, the conservative majority at the time agreed to add an article 4 to the law which invited teachers to present the "

positive role of French colonization overseas, particularly in North Africa


This bill, known as "the Mekachera law", was intended to rehabilitate the colonial past, but faced with the outcry it aroused among teachers and researchers, the offending article was removed from the law, at the request of President Chirac.

For historians, by wanting to impose a “


” reading of colonization, the legislators demonstrated not only ideological blindness, but also a remarkable ignorance of the world of teachers, who are very attached to their “

educational freedom


Because, as Benoît Falaize says, “

there is not just one way to read history at school, but 35,600, as many courses as there are teachers


Abundant in the same direction, Alain Rajot, professor of History-Geo at the Marie-Curie de Sceaux school complex, in the southern suburbs of Paris, remembers that this political interventionism was at the time very badly experienced by his colleagues.

The legislators had not understood,

explains the teacher,

that far from applying the programs mechanically, the teachers adapt their teaching to the constantly renewed knowledge of the subjects treated and to the reactions of the pupils.

Also, this request of the deputies had the consequence of creating among the professors a consensus not to treat colonization according to the reductive grid of positive or negative.

In fact, positive for whom?


The fact remains that this simplistic approach to colonial relations has made an impression, particularly in primary education, where teachers are less well trained in the teaching of sensitive subjects such as colonization.

In 2019, a case made a lot of noise in the media, involving a first cycle teacher who made his students work on a history exercise based on a text on the "

civilizing mission

" of colonization.

The exercise consisted in filling in the empty spaces in what is called in educational jargon a “closing text” with words drawn from the triptych “roads-schools-hospitals”, supposed to represent the many benefits of colonization.

According to the historian Laurence de Cock, who drew attention to this affair of the "

text with holes

" (4), it testifies more to "

the poverty of the training of teachers" than to the "racism of the school institution


For a long time, the historiography of colonization no longer thinks in terms of positive/negative

,” adds Benoît Falaize.

Emergence of memorial issues

Louisette Ighilahriz, Algerian nationalist activist during the Algerian war decides to resign from the Algerian Senate.


With the resurgence of painful memories of colonization, the years 1990-2000 were a new turning point for the teaching of the Algerian war, which had become a major school issue.

It is also a content fiercely disputed between the representatives of repatriated French people and the various associations of immigrants from North Africa, as we saw during the major conference on "

memory and teaching of the Algerian war

which was held at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, in June 1992, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the Evian agreements.

According to historians, two events served as catalysts for this resurgence of colonial memory: the trial of Maurice Papon, on the one hand, which opened in Paris in 1997 and brought to light the massacres of 1961, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the publication in June 2000 in the columns of

Le Monde

the testimony of the Algerian resistance fighter Louisette Ighilariz, relaunching the debate on the use of torture.

These questions about a painful past which agitate French society at the start of the 21st century, coincide with the appearance of a new generation of male and female historians (Raphaëlle Branche, Sylvie Thénault), who renew and diversify the subjects of research.

This takes over from the first generation of historians (Charles-André Jullien, Charles-Robert Ageron, Benjamin Stora) and will move thinking about colonization and the war in Algeria.

We are entering a new phase, perhaps more relaxed, of school education as a result of colonialism.

Faced with an Algerian question that has become "

socially lively

", with growing porosity between school and civil society on issues of torture, justice in colonial Algeria or even immigration, school education tries to disentangle the tensions between history and memory.

The school relies on historiographical renewal in order to provide answers in particular to claims for recognition of violent events linked to the Algerian war.

School textbooks now incorporate torture, the issue of victims of acts of violence, even if there is a euphemization of violence and still reluctance to talk about colonial racism

“says Benoît Falaize.

The historian also underlines the change in the narrative of the war.


Textbooks now make more room for different points of view and experiences, in particular those of the Harkis, the conscripts or even the Jews of Algeria, whereas for a long time the De Gaulle/FLN opposition was the only way of reading the conflict


Demonstration of harkis.

AFP / Anne-Christine Poujoulat

But unfortunately this moment of relaxation will be temporary.

The teaching of colonial history is once again entering a period of intense questioning and controversy with the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Daesh Islamists in Paris from 2015. Public opinion, led by conservative and influential intellectuals , points to the responsibility of schools in the Islamist radicalization of young Muslims from the suburbs.

Teachers are criticized for having instilled in these young people “

the disenchantment with the nation

”, by favoring in history lessons the dark pages of the past (slavery, colonization, genocide, deportation) rather than the Enlightenment.

Back to basics

A page turns.

From 2015, history once again became a hot topic, leading prescribers to tighten their programs on the "


", a concept dear to Souad Ayada who is the president of the Higher Program Council (CSP), a body attached to the Ministry of National Education and responsible for reflecting on the content of lessons.

Thus, in the new History-Geo programs for second graders coming into force at the start of the 2019 school year, the question of slavery is diluted in a larger theme entitled "

15th and 16th centuries: a new relationship to the world , a time of intellectual change

”, which draws its examples of slavery from American or Hispanic areas, rather than from the French colonies.

As for the students in first general class, they address the question of the constitution of the French colonial empire and the conquest followed by the departmentalization of Algeria within the framework of a larger theme devoted to the Third Republic before 1914.

January 20, 2021. Benjamin Stora submits to the President of the Republic his "report on memorial questions relating to colonization and the war in Algeria" (1954-1962).

© Fotomontagem RFI/Adriana de Freitas

It is in this context of tightening and "


" (Laurence de Cock) of school programs that historian Benjamin Stora submitted his

report on January 20, 2021 on the memorial issues of colonization and the war in Algeria.


The recommendations of the historian in terms of education calling for a deepening of the study of Franco-Algerian history in the classroom, aroused little echo on the side of the CSP.

For Philippe Raynaud, vice-president of this important body of prescription in terms of school programs, from kindergarten to high school, “

the Algerian case is certainly one of the most important colonial experiences in the history of France, but it is not part of the fundamentals such as the French Revolution or industrialization, fundamentals on which the ministry made the choice to focus the teaching of history


An end of not receiving which hardly satisfies the historians who deplore that, sixty years after independence, the Franco-Algerian question remains a "

colonial unthought


Above all, they deplore the fact that ministerial decision-makers continue “

to see colonization as something outside, when it is entirely French history



(1) Benoît Falaize is a corresponding researcher at the Sciences-Po history center.

trainer at the IUFM of Versailles.

His research focuses on the didactics of history and the history of history teaching at school.

He is the author of several books on this subject, including his magnum opus from his thesis: History in elementary school since 1945 (Presses universitaire de Rennes, 2016).

His latest essay published:

Living territories of the Republic: what school can do: succeed beyond prejudice

(La Découverte, 2018)

(2) “A century of teaching the “colonial fact” in secondary education from 1902 to the present day”, by Laurence de Cock, in Histoire@Politique 2012/3 (n° 18),

(3) Quoted by Laurence de Cock, in his article “A century of teaching the “colonial fact” in secondary education from 1902 to the present day”

(4) Pascal Blanchard is a historian, researcher at the CNRS in the Communication and Politics Laboratory, specialist in the "colonial fact" and immigration in France.

He is the author of several books on colonization and its perception in France.

He has just published

French decolonizations: the fall of an empire

(Editions de La Martinière, 2020).

(5) "About the teaching of colonial history in primary school", by Laurence de Cock, in Mediapart, dated March 3, 2019.


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