Emmanuel Macron Tries—Slowly—To Reckon With France’s Past

The president made a rare acknowledgement of his country’s use of torture in the Algerian War. By French standards, it was a monumental reckoning.

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron on his first official visit to Algeria on December 6, 2017 (Ludovic Marin / Reuters)

France’s colonial rule in Algeria, as well as the war that brought it to an end, remains an open wound in French historical memory despite ending more than 50 years ago. For the French, it’s a dark era of its history that, like the country’s collaboration with Nazi Germany under Vichy rule, many seem anxious to forget. Few French leaders have been willing to acknowledge France’s colonization of Algeria or the brutal measures employed to suppress revolts against its rule, let alone apologize for it.

But this week, French President Emmanuel Macron came close to doing just that. In a statement Thursday, Macron formally acknowledged the culpability of French authorities in the torture of Maurice Audin, a French mathematician and anti-colonial activist who disappeared after being arrested by the French army in Algiers in 1957, during Algeria’s bloody campaign for independence. Though his wife, Josette Audin, pressed the French government for answers about what had happened to her husband, Audin’s disappearance, like that of thousands of others during the war, was never investigated. Before Macron’s revelation Thursday that Audin had been subject to torture by the French army, France hadn’t acknowledged its use of state-authorized torture in that war at all.

“His disappearance was made possible by a system … which allowed law enforcement to arrest, detain, and question any ‘suspect’ for the purpose of a more effective fight against the opponent,” Macron said of Audin in a statement, noting that he is believed to have died in the army’s custody. He added that “there is the duty of truth that lies with the French Republic, which … cannot, therefore, minimize or excuse the crimes and atrocities committed on both sides during this conflict. France still bears the scars, sometimes badly closed.” To that end, he called for the archives concerning those who disappeared during the war to be opened to historians, as well as to families.

The statement is a landmark admission from the French government about its conduct in Algeria, and how it should be remembered. That it’s Macron who took the step signals France’s younger generation may be more willing to face the country’s history than that of their parents. “He’s trying to drag France into the 21st century when it comes to dealing with the memories of Algeria,” David Lees, a University of Warwick researcher focusing on French politics, told me. “He doesn’t have ideological or political baggage on this issue the way others do.”

This political baggage is rooted in the divide over how France should remember its history in Algeria. Before the country revolted against French colonial control in 1954, it had for more than a century been treated as not just as a colony, but as an extension of France across the Mediterranean. In that time, the country became home to more than a million French settlers, known as pied noirs, many of whom fled Algeria at the onset of the war and still live in France today. In the end, French historians estimate that some 400,000 people were killed in the war, during which the French tried to suppress a revolt led by the National Liberation Front (FLN), though Algerian officials say the number exceeds 1 million. And that wasn’t the only part where their histories diverged. Even after France lost the war and left Algeria, it would not call what had happened there a “war” until more than three decades after it had ended.

It’s perhaps for this reason that Macron’s 2017 decision as a candidate to call the colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity” stoked such controversy. Prior to that, few French leaders were willing to comment on the country’s conduct in Algeria before and during the war, much less condemn it. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that though “atrocities were committed by both sides … France cannot repent for having conducted this war.” Former Prime Minister and then–presidential candidate François Fillon said France shouldn’t be shamed for its history in Algeria, which he likened to a “cultural exchange.” François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, made a more concerted effort to acknowledge the country’s “unjust and brutal system” of colonization in Algeria, though he stopped short of offering an apology. “Any acknowledgement by the French government that what took place in Algeria was a war, but also that the French were in some way guilty of any kind of atrocity—that’s a new thing,” Lees said.

Though Macron also stopped short of offering a formal apology about France’s actions in Algeria overall, he did offer one to Josette Audin, Maurice Audin’s widow. When she thanked him during Macron’s visit to her home in east Paris on Thursday, he told her, “It’s for me to ask for your forgiveness, so don’t say anything.”

Though Macron’s statement may have focused on Audin’s case, for many the comments extend well beyond that. “Recognizing that Maurice Audin was tortured extends to other families as well … It’s what victims and families have been waiting for for 60-plus years,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a doctoral candidate and comparative-law researcher at the University of Toulouse at Capitole, told me.

She noted that Macron’s statement on torture in Algeria has drawn comparisons to former President Jacques Chirac’s famed 1995 speech in which he too acknowledged a dark time in French history: France’s culpability in the roundup and deportation of tens of thousands of French Jews at Vel d’Hiv during the Second World War. Like then, she said France must now come to terms with its history: “There is no such thing as going backwards now; we have to move forward. Macron opened this chapter, and this chapter has to be reckoned with.”