“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.
A chronology of the Algerian War of Independence
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.