Interview with Pierre Vermeren, historian

Historian of the contemporary Maghreb, specialist in Morocco, Pierre Vermeren is a lecturer at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. While the Ben Ali regime faltered, he was the first to speak of a "revolution" for Tunisia, at the microphone of France Info, a few days before the fall of the President. On the occasion of the reissue, with an unpublished preface, of his 2004 book, Maghreb: democracy impossible? (under the title Maghreb: the origins of the democratic revolution, Plural, May 2011), History for all welcomes him to talk about his background as a historian and discuss subjects such as teaching the history of the contemporary Maghreb, but also of Islam, and of course to hear his opinion on the future of the Arab revolutions.

"A matter of meetings and opportunities"

HPT: How did you become a historian?

Pierre Vermeren: A student in a small country high school, I had a lot of interests, including history. On the advice of my philosophy teacher, I entered prep and, in khâgne, I was lucky to have Jean-Pierre Pister as a history teacher. It is thanks to him that my choice definitely fell on history, rather than letters or philosophy. Then my career was very classic, with success in the ENS Fontenay / Saint-Cloud competition. At the same time, I wanted to study abroad, thanks in part to meeting Moroccan friends during my prep years. It was difficult to find a research director for my master's degree who would allow me to go to Morocco, and I finally met René Gallissot, who accepted that I go there to study the Sahara affair. Moroccan (or Western, depending on the point of view). I remained faithful to him until my thesis, defended in 2000. In the meantime, I had passed the aggregation, obtained in 1989. It is therefore an old personal interest, but among others, a matter of meetings and opportunities, which led me to become a historian of contemporary Maghreb and Morocco.

So you had to learn Arabic.

There, I fumbled for a long time, taking lessons from the hypokhâgne, then to Normale Sup ’, but in a very disjointed way. Then, in Morocco, it was difficult because the language corresponds very little to the classical Arabic that we learn in university courses in France. On the advice of Rémi Leveau, I spent a year in Cairo after the aggregation to follow courses at the Department of Arab Studies in Cairo (DEAC), an additional step in learning the language, even if Arabic Egyptian did not serve me much afterwards. During my thesis years, I took lessons in Ulm, with Daniel Reig then Houda Ayoub, and I really got into dialect Arabic when I left for Morocco in 1996.

Tell us about those years in Morocco.

I stayed there for six years, after spending several months there in a master's degree, then a DEA, so as a student. From 1996 to 2002, I was a pre-HEC teacher at the Descartes high school in Rabat. I have taught at an intense pace, and on fascinating economic history subjects, with very high quality students, for a very in-depth teaching work in contemporary history.

Was it then that you were elected to Paris I?

Not immediately. I previously took the ENA competition, only to resign. Then I was TZR at colleges and high schools in the agglomeration of Bordeaux. I finally arrived as a lecturer at Paris I, elected in 2006. So this is my fifth year here.

"An inferiorized elite Francophonie in colonial times"

What was your thesis topic, and how did you approach it?

The title was: "The training of elites through higher education in Morocco and Tunisia (1920-2000)". My meetings with Moroccan students at Poincaré high school in Nancy, where they were in Maths Sup / Maths Spé, then other meetings at Normale Sup, led me to take an interest in these elites. Then in Egypt, I taught for a year at Heliopolis and was able to meet remarkably French-speaking Arab students there, confirming my interest in these bilingual elites. During my DEA, I focused on the question of Arabization, when it was a real issue in Morocco (the Arabization of the baccalaureate took place in 1989), which was much debated. I then wanted to compare the Arabization in Egypt under Nasser, during the 1950s, with that of Morocco in the 1980s, as well as its sociological consequences, and the link between bilingual elites and social elites. But faced with the criticisms received in Cairo for my comparison between Maghreb and Mashrek, I opted for a Maghrebian subject, which led me to work on Morocco and Tunisia for my thesis. Once this began, I turned to the way in which colonization had instilled in these elites a Francophonie, but a Francophonie of inferior elites during the colonial era. Language had become a political, ideological, social, economic issue within Maghreb societies, then a tool of power, long after independence. It is therefore on this question of social, intellectual and cultural history that I have worked. A work of documentary collection, but also of historical sociology, to know who were the audiences affected by Arabization, those favored by bilingualism, the history of educational institutions as well, and thus understand the emergence of bilingual elites. , even exclusively French-speaking people, who have ruled the Maghreb up to the present day, including in Tunisia after the revolution. With, in social counterfeit, a dominated and Arabized society, and which nourished Islamism. Inspired by the work of Bourdieu, I wanted to see how societies like those of the Maghreb played on these cleavages with an overdetermination of social relations made by the school, always in the name of a return to identity (Arab presupposition).

As in Algeria, was there a central role for teachers from Egypt to Arabize Morocco and Tunisia?

Yes, but it's more complicated than that, because the Maghreb really entered the Francophonie after independence. In the 1960s and 1970s, through cooperation in particular, but also through State public policies, the Francophonie no longer affected only the elites, but descended into society to reach a large part of the middle classes. . This is true in Algeria and Morocco, and even more so in Tunisia with the desire for a bilingual school by Bourguiba. It was twenty years after independence, during the social and economic crisis, that Arabization policies were decided. It worked in Tunisia, but for Morocco and Algeria it was necessary to bring in Arabic teachers from abroad, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, because the majority of the population was not literate, and, in Morocco in particular, was half Berber speaking. This was called "cultural decolonization", but it was often done in a very artificial, political and ideological way, a way for states to fight contestation, as Nasser did in Egypt. This has proven to be counterproductive for the people, for the benefit of authoritarian states, leading to a development of political Islam, sometimes driven by the states themselves, with Saudi support.

What conclusions do you draw today from the conclusions of your thesis?

I have worked on four generations of intellectuals: the pioneers, those from the turn of the century until the 1920s, who were both the first students in France, and the founding fathers of nationalisms; then, the generation of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, that of independence and the seizure of power; then that of the democratic opening of the school, in the years 1960-70; and, finally, the generation of the crisis, struck by massified and Arabized education, and by an increasingly critical economic situation. This last moment is that of the reinforcement of social divisions, with a system that benefits minorities, such as the French-speaking or bilingual elites on which I have worked, to the detriment of a mass which is neither really French-speaking nor really Arabic-speaking. , thus signing a real failure. Tunisia is however a case apart, thanks to the educational choices made in the 90s, which were fundamental in explaining the revolution.

The difficulty of accessing official archives makes it necessary to construct research objects, to question actors and witnesses, and to work on other types of archives, such as school archives as I have done. Anyone who takes up the question today would therefore not be much further along, since we still do not have access to the archives of post-colonial states in the Maghreb. I am therefore quite proud of this work, since in a way it was validated by what happened in Tunisia, and the role of these generations formed by a proactive public policy, unlike other countries, where another policy leads to the stagnation of these generations. Moreover, when I was working there, the subject was taboo in Ben Ali's Tunisia, and my thesis was censored, while in Morocco it was published and had some success, contributing with others. to launch an ongoing debate: how to reform the education system? What status should be given to the Arabic language and to bilingualism?

"An advocate of immediate history"

And what is your current research focusing on?

Teaching first takes my time, and since last year, thanks to getting my HDR, I can conduct research. For my part, I am in a field where there are very few specialists, and in addition in a context where immediate history in the broad sense is not politically acceptable by the states in which I work. I realized this when I published my book in 2002 History of Morocco since independence, before other books on Morocco. These states have tried to confine historians to ancient periods, because the history of the contemporary Maghreb is dangerous, even if it is starting to change. We have thus witnessed a real thawing since the end of the 90s, in Morocco at least. My position as a French intellectual obviously helped me, and I was able to ask myself the question of the democratization of the Maghreb in the work republished today (Maghreb: democracy impossible ?, 2004). We could sense the aspirations and desires for change in the youth, despite the weight of authoritarian states, the threat of the Islamists taking power, the crisis… This is true today. And as a historian, it’s exciting and exciting to live and study what is happening with the Arab revolutions right now. It may not be the work of a historian, for example, as my medieval colleagues understand it, because of the difficulties with public archives, but I am precisely a defender of immediate history, without taboos on these questions, because history is being made before our eyes.

Isn't the risk with immediate history of falling into political commentary or current affairs?

Not necessarily, because it's easier when you work on companies other than your own. Personally, I am not part of the debates in these societies, I do not have a family background linked to North Africa, but I was a student and a civil servant there, which allows a crossed and distanced perspective. It is undoubtedly more difficult to work on contemporary French society.

In what sense do you want to be interested in contemporary France?

I think that the history of France since the Second World War is yet to be written, that historians of our generation will even rewrite it, in particular in the very dense relations between France and the Maghreb.

"Keep a historic discourse and not militant"

What do you think of the possible problems in teaching the history of Islam, in university and in high school?

I am not an Islamologist, but I worked for three years in Paris I with Nadine Picaudou on the politicization of Islam in the XIXe and XXe centuries, in a rather serene context. Certainly some of the students are activists and come to hear certain things, and if they can't find them, they leave; but when we provide keys to understanding that are not commonplaces, and historicize these questions, students are quite satisfied. This is more difficult to do in a high school context, as the students are very weak on religious issues. However, it is necessary to teach shamelessly and without fear the foundations of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, always historicizing them in order to keep a historical and not militant discourse. I was in a high school in Bordeaux with a high proportion of Arab students, and I had colleagues who refused to teach them the history of Christianity, believing that it would create problems, while I myself did not. have never met as much interest as in these classes ... The teaching authority must prevail, a fortiori if there are any problems. In the case of Islam, sticking to a phantasmagorical view of happy Andalusia seems inappropriate to me, because we do not teach utopias but historical situations. Another example, the colonial situation, which is part of our history, deserves to be really taught, whereas we are content to write the history of the Algerian war in an hour or two, without knowing what is colonization. To teach decolonization without colonization is totally absurd. This raises the question of the choice of programs, often unsuitable: they have the double disadvantage of being cyclical and disproportionate in their ambitions, while having gaping gaps. Today, for example, the XIXe century disappeared from the programs, while our world was built in the XIXe, and a disproportionate place is given to the Second World War. There is obviously always an ideological dimension and obsession in the construction of school programs. Perhaps it would take a long-term historical construction, from the Sixth to the Terminale, by making choices, for better consistency and better continuity?

What do you think of the European orientation of the programs, and the openness to other civilizations, like Mali, China or India?

The main thing would be to give young people a taste for history and curiosity, an awareness of the rapid evolution of time. Then focus on the space where they are rooted, France and Europe therefore, which does not prohibit openings, but still in a coherent way. For example, we are very happy to offer courses on sub-Saharan Africa, but this has resulted in the disappearance of those on the Maghreb, which is nonsense. The period of colonial Algeria is very rich: the management of Islam by the French State for two centuries, the relationship with others, the question of assimilation, the construction of nationality, then obviously then the conflict. Teaching the course of France in Algeria would be much more structuring than other themes. We also don't teach enough about the history of the language, which is what unites and builds us. Students can hear everything. Everything can be taught, if you don't think out of short-term ideology.

"Write historical essays readable by the general public"

How do you approach popularization, given that you publish a lot?

When we write, it is to be read. Even if there are works that are more scholarly than others, of course. For example, I know that my HDR defense, Misery of the historiography of contemporary Maghreb, will mainly interest specialists and not a wider audience, unlike the book on the democratization of the Maghreb. I am very attached to writing historical essays that are readable by the general public. We are lucky in France to be in a country where people are interested in history. It is part of my job to give lectures, to speak in the media, to participate in debates.

What do you think of the role of the internet today for teaching, research and popularization of history?

I'm quite fascinated by Wikipedia's contribution ...

Are there any issues with your students' use of it?

Yes, of course. We cannot prevent ideological manipulations and speeches, but we can contradict them, intervene, etc.

"A complementarity between reading and the internet"

Wouldn't there be a need for specific training for students, compared to the net?

Yes, but I was speaking from a personal point of view. I find it very interesting, because I am able to sort it out and, to find specific information, the internet is an extraordinary tool, with online journals, Sudoc, etc. For students, it may seem like a means of to spare oneself from reading, and to lead to a sausage culture, whereas reading is essential. I keep asking students for reading cards, knowing full well that they can find them on the internet, because you have to keep this reading requirement. We must show them the complementarity between reading and the internet, and teach them to use this great tool. Especially since students are used to lower and lower requirements in secondary school, which causes disasters in the first year of the license ...

Arab revolutions: "deep and irreversible transformations"

To conclude by returning to the present day, how do you see the future of the Arab revolutions in the coming months?

Things are going to be difficult, there is logically a counter-revolution movement, blocking factors. There are solidarities between regimes, like Algeria and Libya, with the Libyan regime trying to bring the war to Tunisia. We see that promises have been made in Algeria and Morocco, but that they have not yet been materialized. The fall of Gaddafi and the success of the democratic process in Tunisia will be decisive elements for the region, as will the outcome of the elections in Egypt (if, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood prevails, which is perfectly possible). It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia becomes involved in Yemen after Bahrain, that African states support Libya, or that no one dares to react against the massacres in Syria. It is therefore the beginning of a period of great turbulence, but at the same time of profound and irreversible transformations. In France, it is well known that the establishment of the Republic was long and chaotic, until the majority of the population agreed on a new social contract. The context of the crisis is not helping at the moment, and the enemies of the current developments are numerous. The coming months will therefore be decisive for the Arab revolutions, which are for the moment the drafts of liberation.

And for Morocco more specifically?

Moroccans were stunned by what happened in other countries, because they felt they were leading the way in the evolution of Arab societies. This sparked debate, to which the king reacted in February, under pressure. He will be wise to turn his promises into reforms, and I fear that the reform proposed in June is insufficient. Moroccans do not have a revolutionary culture, unlike Algerians or other peoples, and at the same time they aspire to profound changes, a more frank fight against corruption, in particular through justice. With the difficulty of transmitting the reforms to all of society, as has been the case with the Moudawana. There are quality Moroccan elites, a potential, a will, but a fear of chaos and civil war. The authorities must consider the need for profound changes in the light of developments in the globalization of information and democratic aspirations.

Thank you.

Pierre Vermeren is a lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Specialist in Morocco, he published among others:

- Maghreb: the origins of the democratic revolution, Pluriel, 2011 (reissue with unpublished preface by Maghreb: democracy impossible?, Fayard, 2004). Review to come on HPT.

- The Maghreb, received ideas, The Blue Rider, 2010.

- The Morocco of Mohammed VI. The unfinished transition, La Découverte, reed. 2011.

- Morocco, received ideas, The Blue Rider, reed. 2010.

- History of Morocco since independence, La Découverte, reed. 2010.

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