Macron's admission of French torture in Algeria still ignores the suffering of thousands

Macron's admission of French torture in Algeria still ignores the suffering of thousands
6 min read
26 Sep, 2018
Comment: The conflict and names have changed, but the struggle remains the same, writes Malia Bouattia.
Macron's admission still managed to avoid mentioning the suffering of Algerians under colonial rule [Getty]
It seems that the president of France has, not for the first time, provided half a gesture towards the victims of the country's colonial crimes - those relating to the use of torture during the Algerian war of independence in particular.

But we shouldn't be fooled, it is only that - a minor recognition of the violence enacted upon the people during the 132 years of Algeria's French occupation. 

Emmanuel Macron admitted to the long-known fact that Maurice Audin, the mathematician and communist activist for the liberation of Algeria, "died under torture stemming from the system instigated while Algeria was part of France". It has taken more than 60 years for such a gesture by the French state.

The official version put forward since Audin's murder, endlessly repeated to his wife Josette, was that, following his arrest in 1957 from their home in Algiers where he resided with their three children, he had escaped during his transfer to another prison and disappeared - a national lie that continued up to the present.

In 2014, the then-president of the republic, François Hollande, stated that instead Audin had died in detention, without giving any more information.

The truth is that, like countless others, he was tortured endlessly in a villa in El Biar, following accusations that he helped communist pro-independence fighters. This was the likely cause of his death. He was 25 years old and an assistant professor at the university of Algiers. Alternatively, he might have been killed soon after such unbearable suffering, on order of General Jacque Massu.

It was General Paul Aussaresses who outlined this series of events during his admittance of countless cases of torture and murders in Algeria before his death, only a few years ago. 

Growing up in Algeria, visits to the capital city would always include a visit to the Place d'Audin - a square named after the anti-colonialist activist in remembrance of his service to our liberation. My parents would always point out proudly to us that while Algeria honoured his efforts with such a tribute in the heart of Algiers, our former oppressors continued to silence those who spoke out against his murder.

Indeed, despite decades of fighting for truth and justice for her husband, Mrs Audin never thought the day would come. In addition to the admittance of murder at the hands of the French state, Macron's letter to the 87-year-old widow stated "his disappearance was made possible by a system that... allowed law enforcement to arrest, detain and question any 'suspect' for the purpose of a more effective fight against the opponent".
It will no longer be possible to deny the systematic nature of torture in Algeria

The apology came with an announcement that the state would open its archives to the public, which should include information regarding those "disappeared in Algeria" whose families were never informed of what happened to their loved ones. Some semblance of truth, perhaps, at last.

For many historians, such as Sylvie Thenault and Raphaëlle Branche, the admission was a sign by the Elysée that systematic torture was used during the Algerian Revolution. "It will no longer be possible to deny the systematic nature of torture in Algeria," stated Branche.

Benjamin Stora, the renowned French writer and academic and a former pied-noir (French settler in Algeria), told The Washington Post it was a ground-breaking moment that allows us to "exit from denial and to advance in the service of truth". 

It is true that this statement lays down the basis for a potential broader acknowledgment of the systematic and brutal violence carried out by the French in Algeria under the guise of fighting terrorism in Algeria. It is also particularly interesting in the current context, where France - alongside other Western states, including the UK - is undermining civil liberties under similar pretexts.

However, while the considerable closure for the Audin family, as well as for their friends and comrades, is of course to be welcomed and celebrated, it is equally striking that the French president limited his acknowledgment of past crimes to a French citizen, and to a unique case - despite the wide-ranging and well documented horrors of the French in Algeria.

It is necessary to recognise that the tragedy of Maurice Audin was aslo experienced by thousands upon thousands of Algerians who fought for their emancipation, including many who had no involvement in the political events that unravelled during the war of liberation between 1954 and 1962, but were either targeted as part of collective punishments in retaliation to the actions of the Front de Libération National (FLN) or suspected simply on the basis that they were Algerian and Muslim. 

Scholar Abdelkader Cheref described the affair perfectly:

"I took his comments with a pinch of salt but thought I should give the man the benefit of the doubt. Mr Macron is the first president to openly admit that his country’s colonisation of Algeria had involved 'crimes and acts of barbarism', a significant and historic step. But upon his return to France and after becoming president in May last year, Mr Macron failed to follow through on his clarion cry for an apology. For millions of Algerians like me, his declaration had gone up like a rocket and come down like a stick."

Once again the Algerian people, the victims of countless horrific acts by the French military in the name of so-called "French-Algeria", are left either forgotten or on the margins of their own history. They are encouraged by white French historians to celebrate this acknowledgment of truth, yet they have not even received a collective public apology - let alone a letter delivered directly to each of their loved ones asking for forgiveness.
Ongoing racism and political repression of people of colour and Muslim Algerians in France today show that Macron's 'truth-telling' is empty

As many around the world engaged in fighting for the decolonisation of history and material reparations for victims of slavery and colonialism know all too well, it will take a very long time, and much more popular pressure, before the Elysée recognises the killings of FLN members and other freedom fighters, as well as the cost paid by the Algerian people for our liberation.

With acknowledgment comes the question of justice and reparation - something the British state discovered in the recent case brought to the courts over the violence carried out against the Mau-Mau in Kenya.

What good is a recognition of this nature, if it is not followed by the application of lessons which should have long been learned in the name of liberté, égalité and fraternité? The Algerian struggle for liberation, the more than 1.5 million martyrs, the systematic violence of colonisation and a trauma that would define every generation of Algerians following independence can only truly begin to subside once the cycle of such practices by the French state (across the world) ends.

Ongoing racism and political repression of people of colour and Muslim Algerians in France today show that Macron's "truth-telling" is empty, and worse, a likely tactic in his attempts to build his political image as a modern reformer.

This emptiness is particularly striking when his words are contrasted with the use of colonial practices in France, against the descendants of the martyrs, such as the state of emergency, door-to-door raids, police brutality and deportations - all in the name of the war on terror. 

As Sohail Daulatzai points out in his beautiful book, Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers, the conflict has become global and the names have changed, but the struggle against state violence and repression, against imperialism and racism, the struggle for freedom and liberation, continues - street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, city by city, until every casbah is ours for good.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.