France honours a lifelong researcher on Algeria
Paris - By honouring the writer Germaine Tillion, known for her protests against the use of torture by French forces in Algeria, France took a further step towards recognising crimes committed during that country’s war of independence.
The historic Latin Quarter of Paris came to a halt May 27th as Tillion, who died in 2008, was interred in the vast, domed Pantheon building that contains the graves of men and women who made important contributions to the French Republic.
Tillion was recognised along with Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, niece of former French president Charles de Gaulle; Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay. All four had resisted the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
Burial in the Pantheon is the highest honour that France can bestow. Speaking at the ceremony, French President François Hollande said, “France stands in the presence of its best”, with the honourees being “examples for the generations to come”.
Speaking unusually frankly about the French use of torture in Algeria, Hollande said Tillion had shown great physical and intellectual courage by denouncing “the hellish mechanisms of blind repression” used by French forces in Algeria during the country’s war of independence in the 1950s and in secretly meeting with leaders of the banned National Liberation Front (FLN) fighting French colonialism in Algeria.
He said that, as a researcher, Tillion had spent years living alone in the country and studying its culture, her work “predicted the results of colonisation” and argued for the “shining idea of humanity” as a whole. She had understood that “peace would come with independence”, he said.
Only recently has France begun to re-examine its official version of the Algerian war, which for years was dubbed an “operation to maintain order”. Tillion’s interventions in the struggle, which began in 1954 and ended in 1962 with the Evian Accords that paved the way for Algerian independence, were among many that polarised the nation at the time, with well-known writers and intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Albert Camus (himself born in Algeria), and the theorist of colonialism Frantz Fanon all taking stands.
Tillion first went to Algeria, at the time under direct colonial rule, in the 1930s to carry out anthropological research in the east of the country, eventually completing a doctorate while working at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. During World War II, she worked for the French resistance but was arrested in 1942 by the Gestapo and deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She returned to Algeria in 1954 on the recommendation of French Arabist Louis Massignon.
Arriving in the country after a 15-year absence, Tillion found a society suffering from high levels of poverty, especially in rural areas. She argued forcefully for massive investments in health and education that she hoped would put relations between France and Algeria on an entirely new footing. “The bankruptcy of colonialism” must give way to a vast programme of social development, Tillion argued in her book L’Algérie en 1957.
Tillion later returned to her anthropological work on Algeria, publishing academic works on Algerian and Arab society and fond memoirs of her early years in the country. In 1966, her book Le Harem et les cousins appeared, today recognised as a trailblazing theoretical work on women in North African societies. An Arabic translation was published in Beirut by Dar al-Saqi in 2000, the same year as a book of memoirs, Il était une fois l’ethnographie, was published.
In the latter, Tillion returned to her work in the 1930s, providing fascinating details about rural areas of Algeria untouched by modern technology. It was complemented some years later by a second edition of her Les Ennemis complémentaires, Tillion’s account of the Algerian war, which details her attempts, working with Camus and others, to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the 1950s, end the French use of torture and negotiate with FLN leaders in Algiers.
In the introduction to Le Harem et les cousins, Tillion says that anthropology is as much about the anthropologist as about the society she studies. It is “above all a dialogue with another culture” and it functions something like the dialogue that takes place between two individuals in “a constant to-and-fro of thought”.
Perhaps it was partly this vision of dialogue, a process that leads to greater understanding for both parties to it, that Hollande had in mind when he said that Tillion’s life was an example for the generations to come.