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21 November 2018

The return of the repressed: the bitter legacy of the Algerian War

France remains traumatised by the war in Algeria, which lives on in the festering resentments of the banlieues and prisons. Can President Macron begin to heal the wounds?

By Andrew Hussey

If you ever visit Algiers, you are bound to find yourself at some point in the Place Maurice-Audin, a modest square in the centre of the city. At first sight it’s quite a nondescript spot, flanked by a bookshop, taxi ranks and bus stations, and popular with students from the nearby university who come to loaf around on the benches, chat, smoke and flirt. The square sits at the junction of Boulevard Mohammed-V (formerly the rue boulevard Saint-Saëns) and rue Didouche Mourad (formerly rue Michelet), two of the busiest streets in Algiers, and is alive with people from morning to early evening – which is when Algiers pretty much shuts down. The Algérois know the surrounding shops and streets as the homely quartier of Audin and come here mainly to shop, or catch buses and taxis.

If this area has any distinction at all it is that, with a few notable exceptions, it is still known by a French name in a city that has pretty much erased the former French colonial presence from everyday life. This is partly why a first visit to Algiers can be a disorientating experience. More than any other city in what was French North Africa, the ville nouvelle (or so-called “European quarter”) of Algiers looks exactly like any French city in mainland France. The clue to where you really are lies in the street names. These include not only the boulevards Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara, but also the many streets named after the Algerian heroes who fought the Algerian War of Independence against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.

It is this historical context that also explains why a busy city-centre square in Algiers once known as the Place Maréchal Lyautey came to be named in 1963 after Maurice Audin, a young Frenchman who, as the war reached one of its bloodiest climaxes, was abducted, tortured and killed in Algiers by his own people.

Audin “disappeared” in 1957. He was 25 years old, a brilliant mathematician at the local university, a member of the Algerian Communist Party who, like other party members, was a supporter of the Algerian nationalists (the Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN). He was arrested during the Battle of Algiers, when the French military led by General Jacques Massu effectively locked down Algiers. His forces divided the city into zones that were surrounded by barbed wire and placed under searchlight, launched house-to-house searches, rounded up hundreds of suspects and subjected them to torture – although this was always officially denied.

Until now the French version of events was that Audin had escaped arrest and fled, probably to Tunisia, and then simply dropped out of history.

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Although the Algerians claim to have known the facts since 1957, it has taken the French government nearly 60 years to admit its responsibility for his murder. In 2012, the then French president, François Hollande, came close when he stood respectfully at the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Audin at the entrance to the Tunnel de Facultés, the road that lies at the top end of the Place Audin. However, standing in front of the plaque, surrounded by many who had campaigned for over five decades to get the French to tell the truth, Hollande did not say a word about what had actually happened to Audin. 

It was to be another six years before President Emmanuel Macron announced, on 13 September 2018 in a speech drafted by a team of lawyers and historians, that the French military authorities – in other words representatives of the French state – were directly responsible for Audin’s death. This is the first time that France has admitted that it sanctioned the use of torture during the Algerian War.

Since then, Macron has been widely applauded on the international stage. Most significantly, he has been compared to Jacques Chirac, who made the brave and momentous statement in 1995 that France had played a role in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps during the Second World War. This was an admission that fundamentally altered how the French, and the rest of the world, saw their history. Macron’s apology for the Audin affair marks a parallel shift, indicating that it is time to start telling the truth about a part of French history that many French people would like to forget.


The Algerian War evokes such bad memories because it was a particularly vicious conflict even by the standards of anti-colonial warfare. It began on 1 November 1954, with the shooting by the FLN of two young French schoolteachers who had recently married and were on holiday in the Aurès mountains – the wife survived but the husband died. This slaughter was an appropriate prelude to a long and murderous fiasco. Notably, the war was characterised by the use of terrorism by the nationalists and torture by the French.

There were various torture techniques used by the French, depending on the circumstances and supposed danger from the suspect. Documented sources record that the most popular method was the gégène, a piece of military equipment that could be attached to the human body – invariably the penis – and delivered a powerful shock. Other techniques included water torture – hoses in mouths, half-drownings in baths of salt water, pressure hoses in rectums – and broken bottles thrust into the vaginas of Muslim women. The journalist Henri Alleg, who was captured at the same time as Audin but who lived to tell the tale in a book called La Question, which became an underground bestseller in France, described what he saw in the Algiers prison of El Biar, the main torture centre, as “a school of perversion for the French nation”.

The war was not a straightforward conflict between colonisers and the colonised. For one thing, Algeria was not strictly speaking a colony of France, but actually three départements with the same administrative status as Alsace-Lorraine or the Dordogne (this is one reason why the architecture of Algiers looks so characteristically French – the ville nouvelle was designed and built by French architects who believed that they were building a French town).

On 12 November 1954, only a few days into the conflict, Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France made a combative speech in the National Assembly in Paris, declaring that what was at stake in Algeria was the very existence of France: “One does not compromise when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity and the integrity of the Republic. The Algerian departments are part of the Republic…There can be no conceivable secession. Ici, c’est la France! – ‘This is France!’ ”

Matters were complicated even further by the fact that Algeria had its own white settler population, the pieds-noirs (perhaps so called because they wore shiny black shoes, unlike the Muslim population). This was a pan-Mediterranean community made up of French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Portuguese and Greeks, who had their culture and dialect (called pataouète), were mainly working class, and who identified as Algerians and thought that they had as much right to Algeria – if not more so – than the indigenous population of Arabs and Berbers. When it seemed that France was losing the war against the anti-colonial nationalists, most of the pieds-noirs saw the inevitable French surrender as a betrayal.

From this point on, the conflict became a three-way civil war, fought between the French government, the pieds-noirs and the mainly Muslim nationalists. There were no longer any clear battle lines or loyalties: there were Arabs who fought for the mother country, France (these were called harkis: these days there is no greater insult in the Arab banlieues of France than to be called an harki); and Frenchmen, like Audin (called a pied-rouge, a nickname for leftist French supporters of the FLN), who fought for the nationalists.

Algiers, which has mostly erased the former French colonial presence from daily life. Relations between the two nations have long been marked by mistrust. Credit: Phil Witte

It is these bitter divisions that have been passed down through the years and are still alive in France; and it is why not everyone in France welcomed Macron’s apology. Most notably there were grumblings in the right-wing press about how Macron was virtue-signalling to an international audience with no real knowledge of the complexity of French history. In the right-leaning Valeurs Actuelles the journalist Mickaël Fonton argued that French repentance for Algeria had gone far enough; that it was now turning into self-flagellation, that the French were not the only war criminals and if this continued it would make a farce out of what was a mutual Franco-Algerian tragedy. In the same pages, the professional provocateur Éric Zemmour went one step further, writing that even if Audin didn’t deserve to be tortured, he still deserved “twelve bullets in the skin” for betraying his country during the height of “a furious war”.

The response to all of this in Algeria was muted. The only well-known politician to speak out was Tayeb Zitouni, the minister for the moudjahidine (war veterans), who said that Macron had made “a positive step forwards” and that henceforth French crimes against Algeria during the war could only be denied by those who “deliberately forget or are ignorant of history”. In the Arab-language newspaper El Khabar, an anodyne editorial praised Macron without any great enthusiasm, arguing wearily that although “France had finally recognised its crimes” there needed to be greater acknowledgement of other transgressions.

Macron’s apology was, however, warmly welcomed in the French language newspaper El Watan, with a full page and a glowing portrait of Maurice Audin as an Algerian patriot under the headline “la Vérité… en Marche!” (“Truth… on the march”, a glancing reference to Macron’s political party, which is called En Marche!).

The piece was written in a spirit of ironic provocation. More specifically, the journalist Samir Ghezlaoui wrote approvingly of Macron’s honesty, arguing fiercely that Audin was only one of thousands from both sides who had been tortured by the French state. The apology for Audin’s death was therefore only a partial truth. It was now time for the French to confess to all the other crimes that they had committed. This was the only way for France to restore the moral legitimacy it had lost during the war by using torture as a weapon. He finished by calling for public squares and streets throughout France to be named after Maurice Audin, and other French and Algerian victims of state torture, as a reminder to the French people of the shame and dishonour that their own military had brought to their country.

This will, of course, never happen, any more than the British government will build memorials to IRA martyrs. But Ghezlaoui is making a serious point and, most importantly, speaking to the young present-day population of Algerian descent in France. This is a generation that is often stigmatised in the right-wing French press for generally delinquent behaviour, riots and so on, or worse still involvement in Islamist terrorism.

At the same time, French politicians on the left lean in the opposite direction, deliberately avoiding what they call the amalgame – the mistake of mixing up the violence of Algeria’s past with modern problems, which, they argue, are mostly the result of bad housing, unemployment and poor life prospects. 

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in Caché. Credit: Andrew Testa/Panos Pictures

This is precisely why the Algerian War, and how it is remembered in France, is so important. It is not just an issue for politicians and historians but of great meaning for those Algerian families whose parents and grandparents came to live in France after a war that they had “won”, and who were all too often made to feel like outsiders, to sense that somehow the war of independence had either been lost or was still unfinished.

This was the argument made in Algeria in the early 1990s by Ali Benhadj, the leader of the Front Islamique du Salut (the FIS), who, supported by the poorest in Algerian society, launched a war against the Algerian state. Thus began the second Algerian War, which raged throughout the decade, when Algiers became one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Nobody knows how many people died in the war, although sensible estimates are never much short of 200,000.

Nobody knows either how much of the violence was orchestrated by the Algerian government – allegedly aided by the French – to terrify the population into supporting it. Inevitably the violence in Algeria during the 1990s spilled over into France, with shootings in the mainly immigrant Parisian quartier of Barbès and the 1995 bombing at Place Saint-Michel, which killed eight people and left 117 injured.

That was more than 20 years ago, yet few Algerians really know or understand what happened in their country during the “black decade” of the 1990s.

It is not quite the same situation with the Algerian War of Independence, at least in France. Over the years many authoritative studies have been published by French and non-French historians alike. More significantly, following a change in the curriculum in 2011, the Algerian War is studied at secondary level in French schools, where it is considered alongside the Second World War and discussed as an intellectual challenge to the historian on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The proper challenge here is making sure that the histories told in Algeria and France match up, which even now is not quite the case. That the French version of events has been blocked by official lies – as the Audin case illustrates – has only increased resentment among Algerians, especially including those who lived through the war, as well as young Algerians who would like to know what really happened to their parents and grandparents during the war. Ignorance of the facts is just one of the ways that the unresolved legacy of the Algerian War has lived on in the banlieues and the prisons of present-day France.

This legacy lives on too in the conscious and unconscious mind of mainstream, middle-class France, mainly as a repressed form of guilt and denial. These complex, half-buried emotions, which are often interchangeable, are captured perfectly in the intrigue and shocking violence in Michel Haneke’s film Caché (“Hidden”) of 2005. This is a story of murderous revenge in which a Parisian celebrity intellectual, called Georges, is stalked by someone from his past, who may or may not be an Algerian child called Majid, who was adopted and mistreated by George’s parents. The film is not only a taut psychological thriller but a political allegory whose real purpose is to show how trauma can be transmitted from one generation to another.

Over a decade on from Haneke’s diagnosis of post-colonial tensions in his film, in the wake of the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, the allegory also reads like a prophesy, or at the very least a premonition.

Macron’s apology over the Audin affair – which he made personally to Josette Audin, Audin’s widow, who is 87 and who has spent her life campaigning for this moment – is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The hope now is that Macron’s admission about Audin will ultimately allow the French and the Algerians to approach their history with a new openness. The broader expectation is that this will eventually lead to reconciliation between the two governments whose relationship has long been marked by antagonism and mistrust. No less important is the hope that the people who lived through the war, and their descendants, on both sides of the Mediterranean, might finally be healed of the wounds inflicted by cruelties that took place over half a century ago.

The trauma of the Algerian War is still far from over. You can see this if you ever visit Algiers. As you enter the city for the first time, you notice that the bay is dominated by the Monument aux Martyrs, a brutal concrete sculpture on one of the heights of Algiers. It is shaped – surely an accident? – like a huge gallows. This is meant to commemorate those Algerians who gave their lives for independence. The ugliness of the monument is terrifying, but it is a suitable emblem for a city and a country haunted by past and present fears. For too long, Algiers has been a site of impossible mourning for both French and Algerians.

Macron’s apology for the Audin affair will be an opportunity for the expert historians to deepen their research. But let us hope it will also let the hard work of mourning on both sides begin. 

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis