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Joshua Cole (University of Georgia)
Colonial Violence and the Borders of French History: Sétif 1945, Madagascar 1947 and Paris 1961

Recent trends in the history of French colonialism have challenged conventional histories of the hexagon in several ways. First, historians have become more aware of the complex relationships that link the history of colonization to the history of the metropole, and it is no longer possible to conceive of these two realms as separate or autonomous fields of historical writing (Ross, 1995; Cooper and Stoler, 1997). Second, historians have become more aware of the ways in which major events taking place in the colonial world cannot be understood within the framework of narrowly defined national histories, even if those national histories are conceived in such a way as to include the colonies or post-independence regimes (Connelly, 2002). These two developments have paralleled a third movement within African and Asian history in the last two decades which has challenged the older paradigm of “area studies” and which has forced historians to rethink the relationship of local histories to regional or even global processes of change (Mamdani, 2001).

Taking these three developments into account, this paper seeks to explore the ways in which three episodes of colonial atrocity—the massacres in the Sétif region of Algeria in 1945 (9,000-12,000 dead), the repression of the Malagasy insurrection of 1947-1948 (more than 86,000 dead), and the massacre of Algerian Muslim protesters by police in Paris in 1961 (between 31 and 200 dead)—have challenged French historians to rethink the borders of their field. These events, though very different in their particulars, share several important characteristics: they are all cases of French police or military (with the help of settler vigilantes in the Sétif) killing people who possessed French nationality at the time; each event was largely ignored or forgotten by the metropolitan population; and each event has re-emerged as a topic of discussion among historians, political militants, and politicians in the 1990s, both in France and in the former colony where they occurred. For years, these events had little or no overt resonance beyond the circle of those connected with victims of the violence. The events were not a part of public discussion, except in marginal ways, and they were barely mentioned or even ignored in standard histories of post-war France. This was not necessarily the result of a taboo or outright censorship, however, because the essential facts of each event, though disputed, were not hard to discover, either in writings from contemporaries or in more specialized works of history. Rather, these events simply did not signify—they had no clear links to the dominant narratives that structured post-war French history and memory, and they simply fell from view only to re-emerge later when these narratives themselves came under more intense scrutiny.

As these events have re-emerged as subjects of public discussion, they have drawn the attention of historians. Nevertheless, recent studies still treat each event in isolation, and at most they have attempted to describe the contrasts between metropolitan memory and Algerian or Malagasy memories (Joshua Cole, 2003; Jennifer Cole, 2001; House and MacMaster, 2002, Mekhaled, 1995). This approach is already changing the way we look at the last decades of the colonial period and their continuing relevance. At the same time, treating these events in isolation contributes to the perception that such episodes of intense violence are anomalies, exceptional moments whose extreme horror is simply more evidence of their singularity. By approaching this history from a comparative perspective, this paper will establish the possibility of a broader context for understanding the relationship of colonial atrocity to French history, and the relation of French history to larger processes of decolonization and globalization.

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