Is France Finally Reckoning With Its Brutal Past?

Is France Finally Reckoning With Its Brutal Past?

Is France Finally Reckoning With Its Brutal Past?

Macron’s acknowledgement of French torture during the Algerian war was unprecedented—but what comes next?


Emmanuel Macron, France’s 40-year-old president, has had a rough few months. Amid a scandal about his bodyguard beating a protester, his environment minister’s abrupt resignation, and unpopular economic reforms, his approval rating has fallen to a dismal 25 percent. But last week, he did something that earned praise even from his staunchest critics: He officially acknowledged the French military’s systemic use of torture during the Algerian war of independence from 1954 to 1962.

The president’s recognition came in the context of his call for transparency about the death of Maurice Audin, a 25-year-old anticolonial activist that the French army abducted in 1957 during the Battle of Algiers. Although officials alleged that the young mathematician had fled from custody, Audin’s body was never found, and his wife pursued legal action, accusing the army of executing him.

The following year, the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet released a book that contained witness testimonies of Audin being tortured in an Algiers prison. Around the same time, pro-independence communist Henri Alleg published a grisly account of his own treatment by French paratroopers, which included waterboarding and electrocution. He wrote that in prison, Audin, who was strapped to a chair, warned him that interrogation would be “hard.” Alleg reportedly heard screams from other detainees and what he believed to be Audin’s death. His book—which he wrote in secret while in detention and was smuggled out by his lawyers—sold 60,000 copies in two weeks, and was promptly censored in France, before being republished two weeks later in Switzerland.

The exact circumstances of Audin’s shadowy death were never determined, and his case was officially closed in 1966. Some believe he was strangled. In 2014, Paul Aussaresses, the general who had headed intelligence operations during the Battle of Algiers, admitted to having ordered Audin’s murder. Later that year, then-President François Hollande, who had opened Audin’s archived dossier, confirmed that he “died during his detention.”

Both Audin’s plight at the hands of French forces and the generalized use of torture in Algeria, then, were little mystery to the public. But until last week, no French government had officially and explicitly recognized what took place—and that’s why Macron’s strongly worded statement is so noteworthy. “Everyone knows that, in Algiers, the men and women arrested during these circumstances didn’t always return,” the president said, lamenting the “thousands” of disappearances that took place during the war. The official response to Audin’s disappearance “suffered from too many contradictions and improbabilities to be credible,” Macron said, adding that it was, “manifestly, a display aiming to hide his death,” which was “possibly the result of torture.” All of this was made legally possible by a system of “special powers” that “allowed torture to go unpunished.”

Macron also pledged to open the archives on all of the war’s disappeared, though historians have warned against overestimating just what those documents will bring forward. Families and researchers will have access to information on the civilians who never reemerged after arrest by French forces, but identifying a specific individual will be like finding a “needle in a haystack,” the historian Raphaëlle Branche told the newspaper Le Figaro. Furthermore, many violent orders likely went undocumented, and it would be generous to assume that officials recorded all of the identities of the “disappeared.”

Still, the move is an important step toward a broader reckoning with a violent legacy that, for over six decades, has remained a political taboo. “For the immense mass of those who lived this period of colonization, it will leave an indelible trace,” Benjamin Stora, France’s preeminent historian of the Algerian war, wrote in Le Monde. “Breaking with the erasure…will allow us to get closer to reality, to possible reconciliation.”

Past presidents have mostly tiptoed around the subject, referring to an “inexcusable tragedy” or a “profoundly unjust” colonial system. Macron, who is the first French president born after Algerian independence, had already indicated his willingness to change the narrative when, during a campaign visit to Algeria, he called the 132-year colonization of Algeria—and the “acts of barbarism” it entailed—a “crime against humanity.” His rivals on the right were up in arms. Then-candidate François Fillon lambasted Macron’s “hatred of our history” and called the statement a “perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic.”

To defuse the controversy, Macron apologized: “I am sorry to have offended you, to have hurt you. But we must face this common, complex past if we want to move on and get along.” On an official visit to Algeria last December, many anticipated the newly elected president would pursue his campaign statement and offer an official apology. Instead, he said it was time to move on. When a young Algerian raised the question, he snapped back: “Why are you bothering me with all that?”

Against that backdrop, many consider the president’s move both long overdue and bold; it carries the risk of alienating an older generation of French voters who consider any mea culpa on colonialism treasonous and anti-patriotic. Already, figures on the right have started to highlight the violence committed by Algerians during the war—which certainly took place, but paled in comparison to the atrocities perpetuated by the French army and far-right militias.

Macron also likely believed his recognition could score him points on the left, which has labeled him the “president of the rich” for his right-leaning economic policies. More specifically, he may have been reaching out to French Muslims, particularly those of Algerian origin. For many whose parents or grandparents immigrated from former colonies, decades of debate over secularism and state policy on Islam—from controversies over the headscarf to attempts to “restructure French Islam”—are proof of enduring colonial impulses.

“Macron wants to regain some sort of leverage when it comes not only to French responsibility in Algeria but also with French Algerians,” said Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, a sociologist at the University of Paris-8 who has written extensively on colonialism, discrimination, and France’s relationship with its Muslim communities, and is the child of Algerian immigrants. “He’s addressing people like me, but also from a younger generation,” she continued, noting that Macron made the announcement in Bagnolet, a northern suburb of Paris where Audin’s widow lives but which also contains a large immigrant population. To Guénif, Macron’s move was brazen in its opportunism.

Yet such political calculations are “the rule of the game,” said historian Fabrice Riceputi, and shouldn’t distract from the historic moment. “When the state decides to recognize a crime, it will of course do so at a moment when it needs to improve its image. It is perfectly evident that Macron was also trying to gain a bit of sympathy on the left.”

Some French Algerians have also taken issue with the focus on Audin’s case. While his importance in the memory of the war shouldn’t be understated, Guénif stresses that he “was a Frenchmen, making it possible to not mention all of the Algerians who died at the hands of military torture.”

M’hammed Kaki, who immigrated from Algeria to France as a child and, in 2004, created Les Oranges, an organization that seeks to shed light on the events often ignored or understated in official narratives on the history of immigration, echoes that sentiment. While he applauds Macron’s decision, he considers it incomplete. “The Algerian war isn’t summed up by ‘l’affaire Audin,’ and the Algerian people were forgotten in it,” he said. Centering the recognition on Audin—a white Frenchmen—is “too easy,” Kaki said, because “there were also Ahmeds and Fatimas who burned, who were tortured.”

But while Macron may have chosen Audin to admit to French torture in Algeria, he described a “system” that made torture possible—language that, for Riceputi, was used deliberately to describe all of the crimes that took place. “Maurice Audin is the symbol of all of the others,” he said.

Macron’s decision has inspired calls for France to stop downplaying other unsavory chapters in its history. Although Macron made no mention of it, September 13—the day he made his announcement on Audin—marked the anniversary of the death of Ruben Um Nyobé, a leader of the anticolonial Cameroon People’s Union, who was assassinated by French forces in 1958. Nyobé’s murder, and the context in which it took place—the violent struggle for Cameroon’s independence that raged from 1955 to 1962—has been given little political attention; France has yet to recognize its involvement in the conflict, which killed between 60,000 and 200,000 civilians, and created the conditions for the postcolonial authoritarian rule that exists today.

Neither France nor Cameroon officially describes the period as a “war,” and France continues to support Cameroon’s Paul Biya, one of the continent’s most repressive leaders. Whether Macron’s about-face on Algeria indicates an opening on other historical demons remains to be seen.

The same holds true for a larger debate about the Algerian war’s reverberations in contemporary French society. Guénif doubts that Macron’s statement will have any effect on how colonialism remains enmeshed, for example, in the national conversation on integration. Instead, she fears that “it will be a way to say, ‘We have now paid our debt to history and truth, and now we can move on.’ But the system that made it possible to kill someone like Maurice Audin is still very much in place, and very effective,” she said, referring to Macron’s use of colonial-era executive powers and security provisions.

Most notably, a sweeping counterterrorism law that Macron’s government passed last November codified certain powers included in the state of emergency that was issued following terror attacks in 2015. The legislation, which drew criticism from human-rights groups and many French Muslims, empowers local prefects to place individuals deemed a threat to national security under house arrest without judicial authorization. That emergency provision was originally established in 1955, against pro-independence Algerians.

Still, Macron’s recognition of systemic torture is unprecedented, especially in a political culture that is notoriously slow to acknowledge the darkest chapters of its history. “We know that living in the denial of a tragedy always exposes the returns of cruel, dangerous memories,” Stora, the historian, wrote in Le Monde, urging France to “move toward more truths.”

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French-Algerian doctoral candidate in comparative law at the University of Toulouse, described her family’s exaltation at the news: “Every French-Algerian, or every Algerian, has in some way been affected by the war—an open wound that has never been healed.” She said she hopes that maybe “this is the medicine that everyone has been waiting for, and the process of healing can move forward can finally take place.”

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