Early opening of “sensitive” archives, source guides, etc. For several years, the State’s policy in the field of archives has been open to the greatest number of people and resonates with the extension of the duty to remember.
While the early opening of archives is a full part of the State’s policy of memorialization – the Papon trial records are new proof of this – they also enshrine the principle of universal access to archives. Deciphering with Jean-Charles Bédague, Assistant Director of Management, Communication and Valorization of Archives at the interdepartmental service of the Archives de France at the Ministry of Culture.
Algeria, Rwanda, Papon trial… Does the list of early-opened archival holdings seem to be closely linked to the state’s memorial policy?
Opening up the archives means allowing all users to consult archives in advance, which are not normally immediately accessible before the deadlines for communication which weigh on them have expired. This faculty was established by the 1979 Archives Act but was not implemented until the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2017, the Second World War was almost the only historical period to benefit from it. From 2019, the connection between the State’s memorial policy and the opening of archives has accelerated. Thus, when the President of the Republic entrusted to a research committee the study of the role of France in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, and particularly during the Tutsi genocide, the presentation of the report was accompanied by an opening of archives. The same is true of the various gestures that have been made to appease the memories of colonization and the war in Algeria.
The other major change is that more and more recent funds have been opened. However, since these archives cover close periods and events that are often still alive, they are opened taking into account the fact that, in all the funds covered by the themes concerned, some documents are too sensitive from time to time to be immediately accessible. When we opened the judicial archives of the Second World War in 2015, we excluded the files of trials for clandestine abortion.
An important point, however, must be made at the outset. These openings are often presented as “firsts”, but the truth is that the documents that are opened have generally already been consulted individually by historians or families who can benefit from an individual exemption.
How is the decision made?
The mechanism that allows these openings provides for prior agreement by the authorities that produced the documents. The early opening of the Papon trial archives was thus done with the favourable opinion of the Ministry of Justice and in close connection with its services.
What does the general opening change?
By opening the archives through this mechanism, we allow everyone to have access to them without any formality: there is no longer any commitment of reservation to sign, as is the case when a user requests early access on an individual basis, and more importantly, there are no longer any eligibility criteria for an access request. As soon as you open by general derogation, everyone has access, it’s universal. Procedures were facilitated and avoided: before a decision was made to open the judicial archives of the Algerian war, nothing prevented the grandson of one of the persons concerned from making an individual request for early access, which was generally granted to him. But filling out a form can be scary. As soon as the consultation of documents can be done without formality, without paper to fill, without having to justify a particular step, psychological locks on access to the archives are lifted.
Hence today guidance guides that accompany the opening of archives. What is it?
This is a general concern, which goes beyond the funds benefiting from general openings. We have to be able to make sure that the people who engage in research feel comfortable enough to find the information they are looking for. Hence guides that now systematically accompany the opening of archives. There is both work on the use of vocabulary and work aimed at breaking down institutional barriers. The advantage is that, since 2017, there is a national portal, the FranceArchives portal which brings together the research instruments of all the archives of France, whatever their institutional affiliation. We have added guides that describe in the most educational way possible how to search and that refer to the right institutions. These guides are an integral part of better access to the archives, which too often can be summed up in a simple legal mechanism, but which is only complete if the tools and personalised support for the identification of documents are also made easier.
What about internet consultation?
For a user in the reading room, there are now between 300 and 400 users of the Internet archives.
What is the proportion of digitized archives?
Public archives have digitized and put about 500 million records online, but that’s a very small percentage of what they keep. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that some documents containing personal data cannot be placed online. But solutions are emerging through secure remote access, which is currently being considered by several archives, including the National Archives: the user logs into an account and has access from home to documents that cannot be published on the internet for legal reasons. This opens up prospects for the future, since it is therefore possible to envisage digitizing other funds which had hitherto been refused to digitize because they could not be put online.
What early openings of archives can be expected?
Because they are highly policy-dependent, these decisions to open archives in advance are difficult to predict. Moreover, they can only concern archives which are not already freely accessible. It could be said that when a joint Franco-Cameroonian commission was set up to shed light on France’s involvement in Cameroon at the time of independence and in the years that followed, A new decree opening the relevant archives will be issued. Almost all these archives are already freely accessible. On this or that memorial subject, there are not necessarily always archives «candidates» at the opening. In France, the law on archives is indeed liberal and the deadlines that protect certain categories of archives are quite brief.
Common law on opening archives
In France, access to public archives is a constitutional right: the citizen must be able to ask his administration to account for the decisions it takes, and to do so, to have access to the archives. Thus, as a matter of principle, anyone who so requests may have disclosed documents produced or received by the State, local authorities or public institutions. By way of exception, however, the legislator has provided for a number of cases in which this immediate access is delayed in time. It’s a balance between access to information and protecting a number of secrets.
« The act lists the secrets, the interests to be protected, and sets deadlines that are all the longer if the secret or interest to be protected is identified as sensitive Jean-Charles Bédague noted that 25 years protects the secrecy of the Government’s deliberations or the secrecy of business. He spends 50 years to protect privacy («it’s very short, in other countries near France, privacy is protected for 60 years, even 75 years»). Finally, a period of 75 years protects the judicial records (judicial police and court files). This period is extended to 100 years when these archives concern minors or affect the privacy of the sexual life.