The state imprint of memory

Sarah Gensburger challenges the idea of ​​a state overwhelmed by fragmentation and the multiplication of memorial demands. The state is the main creator of our memory frameworks, even using them as a powerful means of reaffirming its legitimacy.

The debate on memory, whether it concerns the Shoah, the Algerian War, or France's colonial past, never seems to run out of steam. The media coverage of these themes can give the impression of a clash between community memories, such as those of the harkis, the “blacks of France” or the descendants of the colonized. The problem is not new, however. In his work on Places of Memory, Pierre Nora already pointed out a proliferation of groups seeking greater recognition of their particular stories in the public space, thus jeopardizing the cohesion of the national narrative. The social sciences have then increasingly focused on the way in which societies remember and interpret their past, and how individuals summon it into the present. Benjamin Stora even mentions a tribalization of politics where everyone recognizes themselves within communities affirming their identity through memorial claims.

It is in this context that Sarah Gensburger begins to reflect on the mechanisms at work behind what seems to be both an inflation and a conflictualization of memory. But with a different look. In the continuity of his research which proposes a critical approach to war of memorieshis book attempts to answer a fundamental and rarely raised question: “Who asks the questions of memory“. It sheds new light, by placing the state at the center of its analysis and explores in depth the workings underlying this phenomenon. going against the grain of theses which place the origins of memory policies in the requests of social actors, Like the work of Pascal Blanchard, his approach highlights the role of public administration actors in the making of memory policies and invites us to turn our gaze towards the state using the tools of political sociology, to better understand how they are shaped, and what effects they produce in society, in particular on the associative world.

The emergence of a field of public action of memory seeking at the heart of the functioning of the state

It is in public administration that the sociologist sought the origin of memory as a category of public action: the department of memory, heritage and archives (DMPA), affiliated with the veterans’ secretariat under the Ministry of Defense. By tracing the history and developments of this service, it offers new insight into the progressive constitution of memory as a field of public action.

Since the 1970s, faced with the constant and inevitable reduction in the number of veterans, questions have arisen concerning the fate of the state secretariat assigned to it. Faced with threats of restructuring or dispersion of these functions in other ministries, the agents of this administration are turning to memory as a resource in order to fight against the forgetting which threatens the memory of the wars of XX century, but also to justify the continuity of their actions and the survival of the service. Gradually, their efforts to generate interest in memory contributed to its lasting inclusion in public action. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, several services and directorates dedicated to the memory of wars and conflicts were created, testifying to the progressive institutionalization of this within the state. Finally, in 1998, as part of an overhaul of the administrations of the Ministry of Defense, the Department of Memory, Heritage and Archives (DMPA) is born, thus creating a service that participates in the definition and implementation of state policies in the field of memory of contemporary wars and conflicts and develops a corresponding commemorative program (p. 98).

The advent of a public policy of memory can therefore be explained by a bureaucratic logic driven by actors wishing to defend their administration and resist the effects of time. But this emergence also arises from a second dynamic, made up of tensions and rivalries between ministries: Defense, Culture and National Education. By finding in memory a way to perpetuate its action, the veterans administration produces an effect of interest in other sectors of the state. As a result, everyone is seizing this new area to implement projects specific to their portfolio, such as organizing commemorative events. If ministers are sometimes put in competition, as during the presidential request for the organization of a tribute to Guy Moquet in 2007, addressed simultaneously to National Education, Defense and Culture, this ministerial competition plays an essential role in strengthening memory as a category of public action, and invites civil servants to redouble their efforts to promote the quality and professionalism of their actions. It is striking to note that this competition is also found at the municipal level, as evidenced by the study of the cities of Paris or Villeurbanne, in which memorial projects are structured and distributed between the delegations in charge of either culture or veterans. In Paris, the interviews that the researcher conducted with Philippe Lamy, former advisor specializing in questions of security and memory under the mandate of Bertrand Delano, perfectly shed light on this breakdown of memory in the cabinet: culture takes care of museums and archives; le ple et lacité takes up the question of Jewish memory; commemorations and ceremonies return to the delegation to memory, to the fighting world and to the archives, while the theme of slavery is entrusted to the advisor DOM Tom.

Thus, we see the emergence of what the author describes as a “memory market” (p.115) within the public administration, central and local, in which social groups invest and thus contribute, in turn shaping the policy of memory.

A diversified social mobilization of memory in the wake of state action

There may be a social demand for memory, described as community, if we only look through the prism of organizations that would be memory entrepreneurs. But by turning her gaze towards the state, Sarah Gensburger reveals a completely different panorama. By rigorously multiplying the scales of analysis, the corpus studied and the methods, it highlights the effects of public action which makes memory a mobilizable resource for local actors, both public and social, and operates a framing of its relations with the society. This reading grid allows us to better understand how memory circulates between public institutions, central and local, and the social sphere.

By carrying out a geographical and chronological analysis of associative mobilization linked to memory, based on the number of associations created and correlating them with the dedicated municipal delegations in municipalities with more than 30,000 inhabitants between 1967 and 2014, the The study reveals that the creation of associations follows the initiatives of local authorities in terms of memory policies. Thus, associative commitment arises from an incentive from the state. The case of Villeurbanne illustrates this dynamic. This commune, at the beginning of the 2000s, intended to revalorize the history of the city, threatened by the power of Lyon, in particular through a project Inter-district memories and heritage. This was quickly followed by a growing participation of social actors around questions of memory, with the creation of 14 organizations which take advantage of it, whereas there were only 3 between 1967 and 2000 (p. 136).

Furthermore, subjects borrowing the language of memory are multiplying, somewhat escaping the state. The use of text processing software on the objects of associations created in France between 1997 and 2014 allows the researcher to put forward a strong argument. Although the veterans sector remains the densest and most structured, we are also observing a diversification of themes. New areas of commitment revolve around three other dominant axes: culture, secularism and the fight against discrimination. Thus, contrary to received ideas, social mobilizations of memory are not centered on historical subjects often considered divisive, such as the Algerian war, slavery or colonialism, but rather on notions which follow political deployed at the local level. By simulating within the framework created by the state at the national and local levels, these associations will adopt the lexical field to unite around centers in harmony with republican values, promoted by the state framework, such as integration, or equality (p. 153 and p.174).

Memory policies as a lever for legitimizing the state and a tool for redefining state-society relations.

Finally, the work highlights how memory policies configure relations between the State, the Nation and society, in which an opposition between general interest and particular interests plays out. Memory constituted as a category of public action contributes to strengthening the legitimacy of the State, in a context of denationalization of its authority; one of the characteristics of the transformation of contemporary states resides in the decoupling between Nation and State authority while other levels of governance develop, both at the local scale and at the supranational level. The management of the tension between the universalism embodied by memory and particular interests is palpable in the daily work of the agents in charge of implementing these policies. Participant observation is carried out within the DMPA highlights how memory becomes an instrument by which the state can manage its relations with society and its particularities.

This is the case when, for example, the officials in charge of the design of an interpretation center on Mont Valrien hesitate to mention the role of Abbot Stock, to avoid any risk of confessional interpretation (p.65), or are wary of the intrusion of association representatives and favor the expert words of the historian.

This is also what is at stake in the recommendations of the 2008 Kaspi Commission report, which concluded that too many commemorations favor particularisms to the detriment of national unity. For the state and its actors, memory must be preserved as a vector of cohesion. It is interesting to note throughout the work that its deployment does not result from the vertical imposition of a univocal national narrative on the past. Memory policies are not a matter of awareness but of governance (p. 70). Sarah Gensburger illustrates this, for example, by recounting the way in which the organization of the Guy Moquet tribute was more interested in the choice of the invited artist and the performative nature of the ceremony, rather than the story that was going to be told (p. 58). Also the analysis of the public reception of the exhibition They were childrenon the Vel dhiv roundup, organized in Paris in 2012, converges towards the same observation.

While this is an expert and knowledgeable public, visitors do not so much retain the content of what they have read or seen, but retain, upon leaving, the memory of values ​​that the exhibition purports to convey: indignation in the face of injustice, the fight against anti-Semitism, defense of democracy, etc. (p. 198). Memory as a category of public action allows the state to establish a framework. Thus created, this field of memory is disseminated within local, public and social actors, who invest in it, mobilize it, and appropriate it to bring new specific causes into existence, using the same language, which then becomes both shared and plurivocal, in which the universal and the particular are articulated (p. 179), and where the state seeks a horizontal relgitimization of its authority.


Who asks the memorial questions? turns out to be a dense, rich and captivating work, which plunges us into the heart of public action on memory and challenges the idea of ​​the passivity of a state overwhelmed and overwhelmed by the fragmentation and multiplication of memorial demands. On the contrary, he is the major actor in the production of our memorial frames, these being an instrument of reaffirmation of his authority in the broader context of transformation of contemporary states.