Ruadhán Mac Cormaic: Macron shines light on France’s dark past

World View: Paris at last starts to face up to state’s torture and murder in Algerian war

Algerians forced to the ground by the  French military in 1955 in Kabylia, Algeria: the Algerian war poisons relations between Paris and Algiers to this day.  Photograph: Michel Desjardins/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Algerians forced to the ground by the French military in 1955 in Kabylia, Algeria: the Algerian war poisons relations between Paris and Algiers to this day. Photograph: Michel Desjardins/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

 

Every war is fought twice: once for supremacy on the battlefield, then for control of its memory. The Algerian war lasted eight years, from 1954 to 1962, but the battle over how it is to be remembered continues to rage. More than half a century after Algeria gained independence, the war still poisons relations between Paris and Algiers. It is also at the root of the most bitter divisions in French society today. That’s why Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the home of an 87-year-old widow in a Paris suburb this month was one of the most significant moments of his presidency.

Josette Audin was in her mid-20s when her husband Maurice, a brilliant young mathematician and communist activist, was taken from their flat in Algiers by French paratoopers in June 1957. These were the days of what became known as the Battle of Algiers, a critical phase of a conflict – part war of independence, part civil war – that claimed the lives of 30,000 French soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Algerians. Maurice Audin had attended anti-war rallies and distributed pamphlets but was not implicated in any violent acts. At the time, the 25 year old was a doctoral student at the University of Algiers. As the soldiers dragged him down the stairwell that night, he called out to his wife: “Take care of the children.” She never saw him again.

Josette was told by French authorities that Maurice had escaped while in transit, and for decades that remained the official account. But the cover story concocted by the military quickly began to unravel. In a sensational book published in 1958, historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet described eyewitness accounts of Audin being tortured in custody. One witness recalled seeing electrodes being attached to the young man’s ear and foot, and hearing his muffled cries from an adjoining room. Vidal-Naquet’s theory was that Audin was killed by his torturers.

Secrets to the grave

As the decades passed, Josette never let up in her fight for the truth – not even when, in 1966, the French courts officially closed the case. Most of the high-ranking soldiers took their secrets to the grave, but the evidence gradually accumulated nonetheless. A breakthrough came in 2014, when then president François Hollande formally acknowledged that Audin did not escape but died in detention. He did not go any further, however. Macron did. In a message delivered personally to Josette’s home in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet this month, the president “recognised, in the name of the French republic, that Maurice Audin was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home”. Macron hugged Josette and asked for forgiveness.

Macron 'recognised, in the name of the French republic, that Maurice Audin was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home'

Macron acknowledged that torture was a systemic practice for the French in Algeria and that its use flowed from the legal regime under which the soldiers operated. The security forces were empowered to detain and interrogate all “suspects” through special powers giving them carte blanche to re-establish order. This system made torture “a weapon considered legitimate”, Macron said.

In recent decades, France has begun to wrestle seriously with the complicated legacy of the second World War. In 1995, then president Jacques Chirac took French responsibility for the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of Jews in 1942 – a very significant step given his predecessors’ refusal to countenance French responsibility for the actions of the collaborationist Vichy regime. But there has been no comparable reckoning over Algeria. Up until 1999, France did not even acknowledge that it was a war, insisting instead on calling it a “public order operation”.

Scars of Algeria

Macron’s statement was an exercise in ethical remembrance, but it was also an act of domestic and foreign policy. From the suburbs of Paris to the military towns in the south, the scars of Algeria still run deep in France. The failure to acknowledge the crimes committed by France in Algeria has long fed anger among generations of north African immigrants and hindered efforts at social integration. It has also frozen relations between Paris and Algiers. Macron, the first French leader born after Algerian independence, had already gone further than his predecessors. On a visit to Algiers during his election campaign, he said France should apologise for crimes committed during the colonial era.

He has now ordered the opening of the French archives on the disappeared – estimated, between Europeans and Arabs, to be in the thousands – and encouraged those with information to come forward. Josette Audin says her struggle will continue until there are no more unanswered questions. How did her husband die? Who killed him? And where is his body? Despite dozens of inquiries, painstaking work by historians and now an official acknowledgment of the state’s own culpability, the truth about the death of Maurice Audin – and, for that, read the Algerian war itself – is only beginning to emerge.

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