The admission by Emmanuel Macron, in a suburb of Paris , that a young Frenchman called Maurice Audin was tortured and killed by the French state in Algiers more than 60 years ago may well turn out to be one of the most significant events of his presidency.
Audin was a 25-year-old mathematician and communist who was a supporter of the Algerian nationalists (the Front de Libération Nationale), then fighting a war against their French colonial masters. In 1957, he was arrested and disappeared without a trace. Since then, his family had been fighting to find out what really happened to him. Last week, they found out as Macron finally handed them an official document, drafted by lawyers and historians, which held the French authorities directly responsible for Audin’s death.
Macron is a shrewd operator and some French commentators saw this, like his recently announced “war on poverty”, as his attempt to ingratiate himself with the left, especially the French Communist party, for whom Audin has long been a cause célèbre. But a more generous view would be to see Macron’s act as a brave and noble gesture, as his “Vichy moment”. This is a reference to the famous statement made in 1995 by President Chirac that France had been complicit in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to German death camps during the Second World War. As such, it marked a turning point in French history – the beginning of reconciliation with a recent, shameful past.
The Algerian war of independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was uncommonly brutal, even by the standards of colonial wars. One of the most controversial aspects was the way the French military legitimised torture as a weapon of war against the Algerian insurgents.
This was the great moral dilemma for the French during the Algerian war and was taken up by the likes of Albert Camus and other intellectuals, who argued that torture was not just a crime against humanity but degraded the torturer. Having endured the Nazis in the Second World War, so the argument ran, the French were now themselves behaving like Nazis. And, as the Audin case reveals, they were also torturing and killing their own citizens. This much was revealed as far back as 1958 by Henri Alleg, a journalist in Algiers. Alleg was suspected of sympathies with the nationalists and so arrested and tortured at the same time as Audin. Unlike Audin, Alleg survived and wrote about his experiences in a book called La Question, which was immediately banned in France and Algeria but which nonetheless circulated underground at the height of the war, doing much to undermine the French cause.
Macron belongs to a generation that was not even born during the Algerian war and has no emotional stake in it. This means that, for the first time – at least this is the hope – the Algerian war can be properly treated as an event to be studied by historians, rather than as a shameful family secret surrounded by taboos and silence. The model is South Africa or Northern Ireland, where commissions have been established to understand the psychological and emotional impact of conflicts, rather than simply attribute guilt and innocence.
The open question is whether this model will change much in contemporary French society, particularly in communities of Algerian heritage, which have now been established in France for decades. One of the ever-present taboos on the French left is to make a link between the violence of radical Islamists and the French colonial legacy. This is dismissed as crude determinism or, worse still, pure racism. But it is a fact that a disproportionate number of homegrown French terrorists have Algerian origins, as do Muslim prisoners in French prisons.
There are no easy answers here. It is clear, however, that this current generation of fifth- or even sixth-generation French Algerians contains many troubled young people who are uncertain about their place in France and the wider world. When I was researching a book on this subject a few years back, I found that in conversations with these youngsters the subject of the Algerian war kept coming to the surface, despite the strictures of the official French left. The young only had a partial and fragmented view of what had happened during the war and afterwards and only anecdotal accounts from grandparents and other relatives to go on. The school system only taught the war in the most neutral of terms, never in terms of real personal experience, including the trauma of exile and immigration. This made them confused, often angry, and at odds with their families and questioning why they had come to France in the first place.
From this point of view, the Algerian war and its consequences are still unfinished business in France. This applies to the right as well as the left. Just to give one example – in response to Macron’s statement – Brice Hortefeux, former minister of the interior, an intimate of Sarkozy, and an advocate of immigrant repatriation, thundered in the pages of Le Parisienthat Macron was merely opening old wounds for the sake of grandstanding and that he was sick of the current culture of “repentance” for the Algerian war.
Most significantly, Macron’s “Vichy moment” is not about simply acknowledging the terrible mistakes of the past but also about trying to reassure the present generation that the war really is over and that France can move forward. That is what Chirac achieved in 1995. The Audin affair may only be a small step as part of the process of coming to terms with French history, but at least it is a step in the right direction – that is, into the 21st century.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The French Intifada (Granta)