PARIS — Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made a historic decision: He formally recognized the French military’s systemic use of torture during the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, and pledged to open the archives on the hundreds of thousands who “disappeared” during the conflict. The decision represents a major departure from his predecessors, who had only tiptoed around the subject, a taboo in French politics.
Macron made the announcement by calling for an end to the opacity surrounding the death of a 25-year-old anti-colonial activist and mathematician named Maurice Audin, who was taken from his home by the French army in 1957, during the Battle of Algiers, likely tortured and forcibly disappeared. Although Macron addressed a specific case that’s been the subject of extensive investigation by historians and journalists over the past six decades, the president also denounced an entire system that “allowed law enforcement to arrest, detain and question any ‘suspect’ for the purpose of a more effective fight against the opponent.” That recognition has been likened to Jacque Chirac’s apology in 1995 for France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and holds particular relevance for Algerian immigrants and their descendants—a population with which the French state has often been at odds.
Some French-Algerians have, while praising Macron’s recognition of Audin’s case, also expressed disappointment that so little attention has been given to the violence that played out on French soil during the war, including a massacre in October 1961, when French police killed some 200 pro-independence Algerian protesters, throwing many into the Seine River.
And many contend that France’s potential reckoning with its history in Algeria is as much about the past as the present. “The toxic effects of colonialism are very present today,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toulouse—who is herself French-Algerian—told me. She characterized constant tension around Islam and integration as rooted in neocolonial impulses.
Indeed, the relevance of colonialist thought to debates over French secularism, or laïcité, has consistently underscored my research over the past year. So many people I’ve interviewed—from career teachers to high school students—have insisted on the centrality of the colonial period in explaining the particularity of France’s rapport with Arabs and Islam, both in terms of a deep-seated “colonial-era racism” and the endurance of the mission civilatrice—the so-called civilizing mission that formed the intellectual justification of the institution of colonialism.
While Macron’s reference to the system that justified the torture and disappearance of Audin and thousands of others—one of unchecked executive authority in the name of national security—is important, it also prompted some to point out that the current president himself has been eager to use those very powers. He ended the state of emergency that his predecessor, François Hollande, had put in place after the November 2015 terror attacks—an emergency provision created in 1955 in the context of the Algerian struggle for independence. But Macron also made some of its most controversial provisions permanent tenets of his government’s counterterror legislation, passed in November 2017. The controversial law allows local authorities to place terror suspects under house arrest without judicial authorization. Human rights advocates said the law would disproportionately affect French Muslims with impunity.
Macron’s decision over Audin doesn’t consider the way France’s colonial legacy has shaped the current climate, of course. But it marks a significant shift from a culture of denial and erasure—a move that could create space for a more frank discussion about how that historical chapter influences the present. “It’s a legacy that needs to be taken down,” Alouane said. “I think and hope this step will allow that, or at least allow for reflection that it may be time to tackle this. One can only hope.”