Being honest with history can help France and others build a better future
By publicly acknowledging the role of the French state in the use of torture during the Algerian war of independence (1954-62) and vowing to declassify information to help clear up disappearances, French President Emmanuel Macron ended six decades of controversy during which the Audin family and historians, starting with Pierre Vidal-Naquet, challenged official claims that 25-year-old mathematician Maurice Audin had escaped from prison and disappeared.
The risk of opening old wounds is real but, as with former French President Jacques Chirac’s decision to accept, two decades ago, the complicity of the French state in the deportation of French Jews to German concentration camps during the second world war, Macron understands that accepting the past, however painful, is key to building the future. This is something neither Turkish nor Israeli leaders understand or accept regarding the harsh treatment their predecessors meted out to Armenians and Palestinians.
Macron’s gesture comes at a time when torture is much practised throughout the world, when rendering of alleged members of al-Qaeda to be tortured by US operatives in various countries around the world is accepted practice, when virtually every Middle Eastern and North African state practises torture despite signing international agreements that ban its use and despite the knowledge that torture seldom yields serious information. Macron’s gesture has naturally been welcomed in Algeria.
Would it be too much to hope that Maghreb countries come clean regarding their own record in the use of torture since independence?
To these countries and beyond in the region, Macron’s words when he visited Maurice Audin’s widow ring true: “It is important that history be known and confronted with courage and lucidity.”
It is a message the Turkish president and Israeli prime minister and many Arab leaders seem incapable of acknowledging, let alone acting on. US leaders appear closer to such leaders today than to the president of France.
Audin, who taught mathematics at the University of Algiers, was arrested at his home at the height of the battle of Algiers on June 11, 1957, by officers from the First Parachute Regiment of the French Army. He was taken to Villa Susini in the fashionable neighbourhood of El-Biar for interrogation.
One of the last people to see Audin alive was Henri Alleg, the former editor of the Alger républicain. Pressed to tell Alleg how torture would feel, Audin said: “It is tough, Henri.” Audin reportedly died in June 1957 after being tortured at the hands of Lieutenant Andre Charbonnier, who was nicknamed “the doctor” because he liked to use a scalpel on his victims.
Committees were quickly set up in France but nothing came of it for years. Vidal-Naquet, who wrote “L’Affaire Audin” in May 1958, spent decades fighting for the truth to be told.
A few months before Audin was killed, Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the key leaders of Algeria’s National Liberation Front was arrested, tortured and killed. He was 33 or 34. The French killed some of the brightest and best of Algeria from 1954-62, leaving second-raters to rule the newly independent state.
The war of liberation did not end in 1962. French nuclear tests continued in the Sahara well after independence, thousands of “disappeared” Algerians never returned home and the French Army only gave its Algerian counterparts a map of the anti-personnel mines it had planted on the frontiers of Algeria in 2007.
There is a much larger story here than the specifics of the Audin affair, which sullied the honour of the French Army and that of many France’s politicians. Francois Mitterrand, who was minister of justice in 1956-57, allowed extrajudicial death sentences in Algeria on the basis that it served as a severe warning for others, unlike Pierre Mendes-France and Alain Savary, who played key roles in helping Tunisia towards a relatively nonviolent path to independence and resigned from government.
The colossal failure of good faith after the second world war and the stupidity of an industrial class bent on sustaining France as an imperial power are evident. Charles de Gaulle was convinced that colonies were key to France re-establishing itself as a great power, as Winston Churchill was in the United Kingdom.
What dishonoured France particularly regarding Algeria was that the Army of Liberation of 1944-45 that fought in Italy and later in France consisted of nine colonial divisions made up of Algerian, Moroccan, Senegalese and Tunisian troops and two Free French divisions. That could have offered a chance for a new social contract between the French and North Africans after 1945.
Macron’s gesture comes when Europe, not least France, is confronted with a deteriorating situation in the western Mediterranean. Coming clean on his country’s history in Algeria is a small step in building greater trust between France and Maghreb countries.