My War With the Algerian War

President Emmanuel Macron of France greeting people in the streets of Algiers, in December 2017. Credit Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President Emmanuel Macron of France greeting people in the streets of Algiers, in December 2017. Credit Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

I was born eight years after the 1962 Algerian declaration of independence. I didn’t experience the war, but it was present in my imagination, through my parents, their friends and their discussions, and through the state: in school, on television, on national holidays and in official speeches. As for many people my age, everything I heard brought on saturation and then rejection.

When I was a child, one way to get people to laugh was to make fun of war veterans and their tendency to exaggerate or invent acts of bravery in the past in order to gain privileges in the present. As young as school-age, we could sense the lying. This intuition was reinforced by our parents, who told us about fake mujahideens — supposed former combatants — more and more of whom were claiming rights, and also by the spectacle of the injustices brought about by those rights: privileged access to housing and employment, tax exemptions, special social protections, among other things.

I was made to feel guilty for not having been born earlier and not having participated in the war. Indebted to those who fought France, I was ordered to revere my elders. So I’m part of the generation for whom the memory of the war in Algeria — and, according to our schoolbooks, its 1.5 million martyrs — is shrouded in suspicion. We grew up convinced that this story was no longer an epic, but about profits.

Today, the France of Emmanuel Macron — a president who, like me, has no experience of the war — has decided to recognize an important event: the torture and execution of Maurice Audin, a young French Communist, by the French Army during the Battle of Algiers in 1957.

Already, on an earlier visit to Algeria during the presidential campaign last year, Macron had referred to French colonization as a “crime against humanity.” The declaration was both dramatic and unexpected. I was in France at the time, and I was repeatedly asked about the comment, which, it was thought, might undermine Macron’s political miracle as a self-made man, at least among some conservative voters.

I had a hard time finding something sincere to say. I wanted to salute the courage of Macron’s statement but didn’t want to trap myself playing the part of the decolonized subject who can only ever rehash his colonial memory and wail for an apology. I wanted to both honor the past and assert my freedom from it.

And now here I am commenting on a recent communiqué from the French president that “recognizes, in the name of the French Republic, that Maurice Audin was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home.” Audin was a young mathematician who was killed for supporting Algerian independence and was forgotten over the decades despite pressure from his family and historians.

Maurice Audin, a communist and advocate for Algeria’s independence, who is thought to have been killed by French paratroopers in 1957. Credit Stf/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Maurice Audin, a communist and advocate for Algeria’s independence, who is thought to have been killed by French paratroopers in 1957. Credit Stf/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This official recognition by the French state seems just as dramatic and courageous, and it may clear the way for a re-examination of a period in history that has been denied by some and embellished by others. But I can’t help asking: Of what use is it to me, an Algerian born after the war?

My concerns and commitments in Algeria today are about individual liberties, a regime incapable of change and the rise of Islamism. The murder of Audin goes back so far, to before the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, with its own use of torture, disappearances, massacres and its 150,000 deaths. Macron’s acknowledgment could even undermine my struggle, by reinforcing a convenient explanation for our failures: Instead of using it to start a discussion about Algerian memory, the Algerian government may, once again, try to bolster its legitimacy by pointing a finger at colonization.

In fact, the reaction here was tepid. For the minister of veterans’ affairs, France’s “recognition of the murder of Maurice Audin is a step forward.” Hardly an enthusiastic response. Shortly after saying this, the minister announced that a census would be conducted to inventory all crimes committed during colonization, between 1830 and 1962. Yes, there was trauma, but the victim continues to cultivate it.

Macron wants to take responsibility for the past, while the government in Algiers wants to keep living in it.

So is recognizing this colonial past, this colonial liability, counterproductive? I hesitate to take the point that far.

The move does seem necessary, especially in France. The war serves as an excuse for certain members of French society from the former colonies who struggle in metropolitan France to close themselves off. Radicals draw their isolationist stances from it, justifying rejection and their refusal to integrate. The discomfort of the banlieues is also discomfort about memory.

Therefore, recognizing the crime of colonialism is also, for the French government, a way to check those who want to throw the past like a Molotov cocktail into the present.

But for me, for us? What should decolonized people do when their former colonizer apologizes to them?

For a segment of the Algerian public, Macron’s gesture is a trick: Here is a French leader recognizing the torture and murder of a French citizen by French soldiers. In this whole affair, some say, there are no Algerians. The largest Islamist party here even concluded that Macron’s declaration was an act of “scorn toward Algerians.”

But this criticism expresses a simplistic understanding of history, which troubles me because it values nationality and religion above ideals. For me, Maurice Audin is a hero because of his sacrifice, French or not. To revisit Algerian history based on origins would lead to another form of injustice.

The main Islamist party in Algeria did honor Audin as a hero — “even if his name was Maurice,” as its leader said. But the Salafists and Islamists who have no direct political mandate have insisted instead on the fact that Audin was a Communist and an atheist. For them, the war of independence was above all a religious war, with Muslims on one side and Christian or nonbelieving colonists on the other.

Some say that Macron’s gesture isn’t enough and should only be a beginning. I think it represents more than that. Macron is the president of France, not Algeria, and if he hopes to settle disputes over this period it makes sense for him to start with a figure who garners consensus — including in Algeria (except among radicals). Yet some would use the limits of his acknowledgment to promote an identity-driven and religious version of Algerian history.

Audin has finally been recognized as a victim of torture, and his death as a crime. That’s a very good thing. But if colonizers need to emerge from the colonial past with honor, the decolonized must get beyond the past, and take responsibility for their present, with sincerity.

Kamel Daoud is the author of the novel The Meursault Investigation. This essay was translated by Elisabeth Zerofsky from the French.

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