By Eric Lagneau, /AFP Paris
France yesterday acknowledged that it instigated a “system” that facilitated torture during Algeria’s independence war, a landmark admission about a conflict that remains hugely sensitive six decades on.
Emmanuel Macron — the first president born after the conflict — went further than any of his predecessors in recognising the scale of abuses by French troops during the 1954-62 war.
He made the announcement as part of an admission that the French state was responsible for the torture and death of mathematician Maurice Audin, a French Communist pro-independence activist who disappeared in Algiers in 1957.
Visiting Audin’s widow, Macron also announced that France would open up its archives on the thousands of civilians and soldiers who went missing during the war, both French and Algerian.
Josette Audin, now in her eighties, tried to thank Macron during an emotional visit to her apartment in Bagnolet east of Paris.
But he replied: “It’s for me to ask your forgiveness, so don’t say anything.”
In a statement, the presidency said the special powers given to the army to restore order in Algeria “laid the ground for some terrible acts, including torture”.
During the bloody war, which claimed some 1.5mn Algerian lives and ended 130 years of colonial rule, French forces cracked down on independence fighters and sympathisers, with a French general later admitting to the use of torture.
Independence fighters also mistreated prisoners during a complex conflict characterised by guerrilla warfare, which left deep scars in the national psyche.
France censored wartime newspapers, books and films that claimed it was using torture, and atrocities by its troops have remained a largely taboo subject.
But yesterday, the government declared, “There can be no liberty, equality and fraternity without the search for truth.”
Previous presidents of the left and right had taken cautious steps to acknowledge French wrongdoing in Algeria, without openly apologising.
In 1998, Jacques Chirac acknowledged the massacre of civilians in the town of Setif in 1945, and in 2012 Francois Hollande recognised the “suffering” caused by the colonisation.
But by acknowledging that France instituted a system that facilitated torture, and deciding to open the archives, Macron broke new ground, historian Patrick Garcia told AFP.
“Beyond the symbolic case of Maurice Audin there is a much bigger and important gesture,” he told AFP, calling it a “milestone”.
But he stressed that what Macron had announced was “a policy of recognition, not of repentance”.
“It’s not about beating ourselves up about it, it’s about recognising what took place.”
Macron had sparked controversy on the campaign trail last year by declaring that France’s colonisation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.
He later walked back the comments, calling for “neither denial nor repentance” over France’s colonial history and adding: “We cannot remain trapped in the past”.
The far-right National Rally, previously known as the National Front, reacted indignantly to his latest remarks on Algeria.
“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.
Algeria’s Minister for Ex-Combattants Tayeb Zitouni, by contrast, called Macron’s remarks “a positive step”.
Audin’s disappearance had long been a source of speculation in France.
“I never thought this day would come,” his widow Josette told reporters before Macron’s arrival at her home.
An assistant professor at the University of Algiers, Audin was 25 when he was arrested at his home and accused of harbouring independence fighters.
The father of three was tortured repeatedly in a villa in the Algiers neighbourhood of El Biar.
Josette was told 10 days later that her husband had escaped while being transferred between jails.
This remained the official version of events until 2014, when Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande acknowledged that Audin died in detention.
While Macron acknowledged the state was responsible for his death, the exact circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear.
A 2014 book by journalist Jean-Charles Deniau claimed the mathematician was killed by a French army officer on the orders of General Jacques Massu.
That order was confirmed by another general, Paul Aussaresses, who died in 2013 and who admitted to torturing and killing dozens of prisoners.
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