“The only thing I am doing is to acknowledge the truth,” French president Emmanuel Macron told Josette Audin, as a crew of 13 cameramen captured a historic scene unfolding in her living room. The French president had travelled to Audin’s one-bed apartment in Bagnolet, an eastern Parisian suburb, early last Thursday. The purpose of his visit was to demand an official pardon for the torture and murder of the 87-year-old’s late husband, Maurice Audin, a PhD student and mathematician from the University of Algiers. Audin’s death, Macron acknowledged, was the result of a system of arrest and torture carried out by French military in Algeria during the War of Independence. “I didn’t ever think this was happen,” Josette Audin told journalists.
Her surprise was, perhaps, to be expected. Although former-president François Hollande had conceded that Audin’s arrest was not the result of his trying to evade police capture- a stance officially maintained until 2014- his comments about the circumstances of death were frustratingly sparse. Indeed, Emmanuel Macron’s acknowledgement of Audin’s murder constitutes the first official recognition of crimes carried out by the French during the seven-year War of Independence, of which the brutal massacres in Setif and Guelma in May 1945 remain some of the most haunting.
Josette and Michèle Audin’s 61-year wait for justice is a reminder of France’s prevailing unwillingness to acknowledge its relationship to Algeria, and its colonial legacy more broadly. Despite Emmanuel Macron’s emphasis on the need for truth and lucidity, his pardon does precious little to account for over 60 years of state-backed silence, or any of France’s colonial crimes committed much closer to home. Indeed, the president’s refusal to comment on (or even reference) the 17th of October 1961 Paris massacre, where thousands of Franco-Algerians died at the hands of French police, feels like a particularly striking omission. When demonstrators (including entire families) converged on the boulevard Saint Germain-des-Prés, or at Opéra, Grands Boulevards, and Place de la Concorde, they had hoped to peacefully protest the introduction of restrictive new curfew laws. that restricted their freedom in public space. Instead, they were met by 1,658 armed police and security personnel. Thousands were rounded up and taken to holding centres, or transported on planes to Algeria. Many were shot and then thrown directly in to the Seine. Their murders were not officially recognised until 2011, some 50 years later.
By failing to account for these atrocities carried out on French soil, Macron’s pardon gives a worryingly selective acknowledgement of the ‘truth’. As Natalya Vince pointed out in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks, the legacy of the Algerian War of Independence in contemporary France is complex and multifaceted. The crystallisation of the State of Emergency in to common law under Macron’s administration last year has only served to enhance this complexity rather than address it. As of November 2017, French law-enforcement officers have indefinite power to conduct raids, searches and business closures without a warrant. Security forces have carried out over 3,342 house searches and 500 assigned residence orders since 2015. They have also have a number of halal supermarkets, and over 19 mosques Both Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Watch have openly criticised France for the arbitrary targeting of French Muslims under these policies, and have expressed grave concerns for their future implications.
Although undoubtedly an important first step, it is clear that Macron’s recognition of Maurice Audin’s murder must be coupled with a more difficult process of recognition: one that risks exposing France’s complicity in compromising the human rights (and lives) of its own citizens.