Hail Macron for tack­ling France’s great taboo

His recog­ni­tion that the state murdered an Al­ge­rian ac­tivist is a land­mark mo­ment

The Observer - - World - An­drew Hussey

The ad­mis­sion by Em­manuel Macron, in a sub­urb of Paris on Thurs­day af­ter­noon, that a young French­man called Mau­rice Audin was tor­tured and killed by the French state in Al­giers more than 60 years ago may well turn out to be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant events of his pres­i­dency.

Audin was a 25-year-old math­e­ma­ti­cian and com­mu­nist who was a sup­porter of the Al­ge­rian na­tion­al­ists (the Front de Libéra­tion Na­tionale), then fight­ing a war against their French colo­nial mas­ters. In 1957, he was ar­rested and dis­ap­peared with­out a trace. Since then, his fam­ily had been fight­ing to find out what re­ally hap­pened to him. Last week, they found out as Macron fi­nally handed them an of­fi­cial doc­u­ment, drafted by lawyers and his­to­ri­ans, which held the French au­thor­i­ties di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for Audin’s death.

Macron is a shrewd op­er­a­tor and some French com­men­ta­tors saw this, like his re­cently an­nounced “war on poverty”, as his at­tempt to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with the left, es­pe­cially the French Com­mu­nist party, for whom Audin has long been a cause célèbre. But a more gen­er­ous view would be to see Macron’s act as a brave and no­ble ges­ture, as his “Vichy mo­ment”. This is a ref­er­ence to the fa­mous state­ment made in 1995 by Pres­i­dent Chirac that France had been com­plicit in the de­por­ta­tion of 76,000 Jews to Ger­man death camps dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. As such, it marked a turn­ing point in French history – the be­gin­ning of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with a re­cent, shame­ful past.

The Al­ge­rian war of in­de­pen­dence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, was un­com­monly bru­tal, even by the stan­dards of colo­nial wars. One of the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pects was the way the French mil­i­tary le­git­imised tor­ture as a weapon of war against the Al­ge­rian in­sur­gents.

This was the great moral dilemma for the French dur­ing the Al­ge­rian war and was taken up by the likes of Al­bert Ca­mus and other in­tel­lec­tu­als, who ar­gued that tor­ture was not just a crime against hu­man­ity but de­graded the tor­turer. Hav­ing en­dured the Nazis in the Sec­ond World War, so the ar­gu­ment ran, the French were now them­selves be­hav­ing like Nazis. And, as the Audin case re­veals, they were also tor­tur­ing and killing their own cit­i­zens. This much was re­vealed as far back as 1958 by Henri Al­leg, a jour­nal­ist in Al­giers. Al­leg was sus­pected of sym­pa­thies with the na­tion­al­ists and so ar­rested and tor­tured at the same time as Audin. Un­like Audin, Al­leg sur­vived and wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ences in a book called La Ques­tion, which was im­me­di­ately banned in France and Al­ge­ria but which none­the­less cir­cu­lated un­der­ground at the height of the war, do­ing much to un­der­mine the French cause.

Macron be­longs to a gen­er­a­tion that was not even born dur­ing the Al­ge­rian war and has no emo­tional stake in it. This means that, for the first time – at least this is the hope – the Al­ge­rian war can be prop­erly treated as an event to be stud­ied by his­to­ri­ans, rather than as a shame­ful fam­ily se­cret sur­rounded by taboos and si­lence. The model is South Africa or Northern Ire­land, where com­mis­sions have been es­tab­lished to un­der­stand the psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional im­pact of con­flicts, rather than sim­ply at­tribute guilt and in­no­cence.

The open ques­tion is whether this model will change much in con­tem­po­rary French so­ci­ety, par­tic­u­larly in com­mu­ni­ties of Al­ge­rian her­itage, which have now been es­tab­lished in France for decades. One of the ever-present taboos on the French left is to make a link be­tween the vi­o­lence of rad­i­cal Is­lamists and the French colo­nial legacy. This is dis­missed as crude de­ter­min­ism or, worse still, pure racism. But it is a fact that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of home­grown French ter­ror­ists have Al­ge­rian ori­gins, as do Mus­lim pris­on­ers in French pris­ons.

There are no easy an­swers here. It is clear, how­ever, that this cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of fifth- or even sixth-gen­er­a­tion French Al­ge­ri­ans con­tains many trou­bled young peo­ple who are un­cer­tain about their place in France and the wider world. When I was re­search­ing a book on this sub­ject a few years back, I found that in con­ver­sa­tions with these young­sters the sub­ject of the Al­ge­rian war kept com­ing to the sur­face, de­spite the stric­tures of the of­fi­cial French left. The young only had a par­tial and frag­mented view of what had hap­pened dur­ing the war and af­ter­wards and only anec­do­tal ac­counts from grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives to go on. The school sys­tem only taught the war in the most neu­tral of terms, never in terms of real per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing the trauma of ex­ile and im­mi­gra­tion. This made them con­fused, of­ten an­gry, and at odds with their fam­i­lies and ques­tion­ing why they had come to France in the first place.

From this point of view, the Al­ge­rian war and its con­se­quences are still un­fin­ished busi­ness in France. This ap­plies to the right as well as the left. Just to give one ex­am­ple – in re­sponse to Macron’s state­ment on Thurs­day – Brice Horte­feux, for­mer min­is­ter of the in­te­rior, an in­ti­mate of Sarkozy, and an ad­vo­cate of im­mi­grant repa­tri­a­tion, thun­dered in the pages of Le Parisien that Macron was merely open­ing old wounds for the sake of grand­stand­ing and that he was sick of the cur­rent cul­ture of “re­pen­tance” for the Al­ge­rian war.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, Macron’s “Vichy mo­ment” is not about sim­ply ac­knowl­edg­ing the ter­ri­ble mis­takes of the past but also about try­ing to re­as­sure the present gen­er­a­tion that the war re­ally is over and that France can move for­ward. That is what Chirac achieved in 1995. The Audin af­fair may only be a small step as part of the process of com­ing to terms with French history, but at least it is a step in the right di­rec­tion – that is, into the 21st cen­tury.

Young French Al­ge­ri­ans are un­cer­tain about their place in France and the wider world

An­drew Hussey is the au­thor of The French In­tifada (Granta)


French sol­diers seal off Al­giers’ cas­bah in 1956.

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