France may have apologised for atrocities in Algeria, but the war still casts a long shadow

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, wrestled with the demons of his country’s colonial past this week by acknowledging that the country carried out systematic torture during the Algerian war of independence.

After six decades of secrecy and denials, it was a historic first for a country that long refused to even admit that the brutal conflict – in which Algeria says 1.5 million died – was indeed a “war”.

Yet political reaction to the avowal and claims he has unnecessarily re-opened painful wounds suggest these remain deep and exert a pervasive influence in France even today.

Mr Macron, who at 40 is the first French president born after the war, went further than any of his predecessors in recognising the scale of abuse by French troops during the 1954-62 war.

He did so during a meeting with the widow of mathematician Maurice Audin, a pro-independence, French-born Communist who disappeared in Algiers in 1957.

An assistant professor at the University of Algiers, he was just 25 when he was arrested at his home and accused of housing independence fighters.

A woman pours a drink for a pro-French Algeria insurgent Credit:
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

His wife Josette was told her husband, a father of three, had escaped while being transferred between jails.

Her battle to uncover the truth made his case a cause celebre in Algeria.

It later transpired he was tortured repeatedly in a villa in the Algiers neighbourhood of El Biar, but that version was never fully recognised by the French state until now.

In a declaration, Mr Macron said that security forces had been allowed to arrest, detain and interrogate all "suspects" through special powers bestowed by parliament to the French army, granting them carte-blanche to quell revolt.

He acknowledged that “in the name of the French Republic, Maurice Audin was tortured then executed or tortured to death”.

The state had made torture a "weapon considered legitimate”, said the declaration. The president carefully stipulated the army itself was not to blame as it had been granted “legal” recourse to torture.

The fault lay with the Republic itself.  "I never thought this day would come," said Mrs Audin. Algeria’s Minister for ex-combattants Tayeb Zitouni tentatively called Mr Macron’s remarks "a positive step".

Historians, meanwhile, hailed the declaration as a landmark moment. Benjamin Stora, an expert on Algeria and the head of France’s museum of the history of immigration, who has advised Mr Macron on the issue, called it a “wonderful victory” that would leave an “indelible mark”. 

Paratroops in camouflage hold back the crowds of European settlers in Algiers, 1961Credit:

“Without state recognition of crimes committed, one can never find closure. The dead continue not existing. They are ghosts,” he said.

“This will allow weights on hearts and consciences to be lifted. It will encourage people to speak,” he told Le Monde.

Yet even if “times are changing”, Sylvie Thénault, another historian and specialist of the Algerian war, said: “This war ripped (French) society apart and continues to weigh on it, notably in politics.”

Indeed, the French Right and far-Right were swift to criticise what they saw as brooding over a dark past in which both sides, the French and the FLN – the National Liberation Front fighting for Algeria’s independence – committed atrocities.

The far-Right National Rally, previously known as the Front National, was indignant.

"What is the point of the president opening old wounds by bringing up the Maurice Audin case?" asked its leader Marine Le Pen, whose ex-paratrooper father Jean-Marie – the party’s founder – served in the war and said he would have conducted torture if asked.

Brice Hortefeux, the former conservative immigration minister under Right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, said: "It would be better to close the scars than re-open them.” 

The French Right has long received support from families of so-called pieds noirs, the million French colonists whose forced exodus saw many end up in southern France nursing a sense of betrayal by their mother country.

That explained why in 2005, the Republican party passed a law recognising “the positive role of the French presence overseas”.

It was overturned shortly after the country’s high-immigrant suburbs burst into weeks of rioting.

While the two events were never officially linked, some historians and writers, including Briton Andrew Hussey, suggest the murky legacy of the French colonial project is fuelling a new “French intifada” on home soil and home-grown Islamist terrorism. 

“However much the French media or intellectuals try to reduce the problem to familiar domestic issues, the fact is that France itself is still under attack from the angry and dispossessed heirs of the French colonial project,” he wrote in his book The French Intifada.

A French sniper watches over the Casbah in Algiers in June 1957Credit:
Nacerdine ZEBAR/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“As long as this misunderstanding persists, the ‘long war’ will endure.”

The pieds noirs were furious during Mr Macron’s electoral campaign when he declared that France’s colonisation of Algeria was itself a “crime against humanity”.

At the time, Thomas Guénolé, a lecturer at Sciences-Po, said that Mr Macron’s comments would “appeal to the segment of French voters with North African origins,” adding that it was part of selling the “Macron brand” as widely as possible.

Algerians in France form by far the biggest immigrant community. Mr Macron later backtracked on his crime against humanity remark, calling for “neither denial nor repentance”.

After the president’s latest declaration, Bruno Retailleau, head of the Republicans group in the Senate, said: “One should never manipulate history, which is often a French national sport.”

Jean-Jacques Jordi, a historian and expert on pieds noirs, said: “The facts are known, but remembrance remains conflictual, not yet at peace.”

Mr Macron intends to pursue his drive for reconciliation, announcing that archives will be fully opened up to historians, families and organisations seeking the truth over many disappeared civilians and soldiers, both French and Algerian, whose bodies have never been found.

He also reportedly intends to address the grievances of the so-called Harki – Algerians who fought for France.

Some 100,000 are thought to have been killed as collaborators in Algeria and those who escaped have long complained of receiving scant recognition for their loyalty.

As for Algeria, French historian and essayist Pascal Bruckner, said: “I would also like to see the Algerian state recognise its crimes against its own compatriots and the French of Algeria.” 

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