He wasn’t as quick as Jacques Chirac, who, in 1995, just two months into his presidency, publicly recognised France’s guilt in deporting thousands of Jews to death camps during World War II, but Macron this week took an equally bold step in admitting that his nation engaged in systematic torture in the 1950s and 1960s, during the war with its former colony Algeria.
Macron made his landmark admission during a visit this week to Audin’s 87-year-old widow, Josette Audin, at her home. Audin, a mathematician, had been a communist anti-colonialist activist who disappeared after being arrested at his home, accused of harbouring independence fighters.
After his disappearance, Audin became a symbol of French abuses in Algeria, and a square in Algiers bears his name. Historians had long widely believed Audin had been tortured, despite official insistence that he had disappeared. In 2014 Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, contradicted the record by saying that Audin had died while in French custody, but Macron went further in acknowledging the truth, admitting that Audin had been “tortured and executed, or tortured to death by soldiers who arrested him at his home”.
Macron’s gesture was historic and marked the first time that a French president has acknowledged that France used torture during the war. The statement “puts an end to an official lie that lasted almost 31 years,” French historian Gilles Manceron said on France 24. “Macron pointed out the responsibility of the French army, and therefore of France, in what happened during this episode of the Battle of Algiers in 1957.”
Until 1999, France wouldn’t even officially use the word “war” to describe the conflict in Algeria. Until the passage of a bill in the National Assembly that year, official documents described what had happened there between 1954 and 1962, when Algeria gained independence, as “law enforcement operations”.
The official statement issued by Macron’s office on the subject “are a break with the attitude of denial, silence and lies”, Manceron said.
Macron went so far as to specify the means by which the French legally eliminated those who clandestinely worked to gain Algeria’s liberation from France. In 1956 Parliament had accorded the French Army special powers to “restore order” that allowed them to arrest, detain and interrogate all “suspects”. Those special powers “laid the ground for some terrible acts, including torture”, according to the presidential statement. Torture was therefore a “weapon considered legitimate”, the statement said.
“The battle of Algiers was the most repressive period of the Algerian War,” Manceron said. “There were many abuses. It was then that there were the most cases of torture.”
France’s Vietnam War
The brutality with which France moved to quash the Algerian revolt in 1954 has cast a shadow over the country that is akin to that of the Vietnam War for the United States. French conduct during the war and its subsequent treatment of Algerians who sided with the French remains a divisive open wound.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was the first French president to make an official visit to independent Algeria, and that didn’t take place until 1975. But he didn’t condemn French colonisation of Algeria, and neither did his successor, François Mitterrand, who had served as the minister of the interior and justice ministries during the war. Jacques Chirac said in his memoirs that in not acceding to Algiers’ request to recognise French culpability in the atrocities in Algeria, he “committed at least one fault in my life”.
French presidents in this century have gone further. Nicolas Sarkozy said during a 2007 visit to Algeria that “the colonial system has been deeply unfair” and referred to “terrible crimes” committed during the war there. On a 2012 trip to Algeria, François Hollande said that “for 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a deeply unjust and brutal system”. Two years later he made the admission that Audin had not escaped as previously held, and in 2016 Hollande became the first president to commemorate the end of the Algerian war.
Macron, perhaps not coincidentally the first president born after the conflict ended, has been more outspoken about France’s ugly past than any other. He came under fire for calling French colonialism “a crime against humanity” during his 2017 presidential campaign. Now that he is in office, he has proven his willingness to throw back the rug on past French misdeeds. This week he also announced that his government would open its archives on the thousands of French and Algerian soldiers and citizens who disappeared during the conflict.
Historian Nathalie Funès cautioned that not everything was noted in official accounts and that “the truth is mostly in people’s memories, there are soldiers that are still alive”. Still, Manceron said, opening the archives is an important step. “It is extremely promising. […] Contrary to the time when soldiers were not to speak about what they had seen or done, they are being encouraged to talk about what they witnessed.”
The reaction in Algeria to Macron’s admission was measured. Veterans Affairs Minister Tayeb Zitouni called it a “positive step” but called on France to go further. “We await other gestures and other acknowledgements from the French president,” he added.
The conflict, which ended 130 years of French rule, killed 1.5 million Algerians.