Emmanuel Macron, France’s 40-year-old president, has had a rough few months. Amid a scandal about his bodyguard beating a protester, his environment minister’s abrupt resignation, and unpopular economic reforms, his approval rating has fallen to a dismal 25 percent. But last week, he did something that earned praise even from his staunchest critics: He officially acknowledged the French military’s systemic use of torture during the Algerian war of independence from 1954 to 1962.
The president’s recognition came in the context of his call for transparency about the death of Maurice Audin, a 25-year-old anti-colonial activist that the French army abducted in 1957 during the Battle of Algiers. Although officials alleged that the young mathematician had fled from custody, Audin’s body was never found, and his wife pursued legal action, accusing the army of executing him.
The following year, the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet released a book that contained witness testimonies of Audin being tortured in an Algiers prison. Around the same time, pro-independence communist Henri Alleg published a grisly account of his own treatment by French paratroopers, which included waterboarding and electrocution. He wrote that in prison, Audin, who was strapped to a chair, warned him that interrogation would be “hard.” Alleg reportedly heard screams from other detainees and what he believed to be Audin’s death. His book—which he wrote in secret while in detention and was smuggled out by his lawyers—sold 60,000 copies in two weeks, and was promptly censored in France, before being republished two weeks later in Switzerland.
The exact circumstances of Audin’s shadowy death were never determined, and his case was officially closed in 1966. Some believe he was strangled. In 2014, Paul Aussaresses, the general who had headed intelligence operations during the Battle of Algiers, admitted to having ordered Audin’s murder. Later that year, then-President François Hollande, who had opened Audin’s archived dossier, confirmed that he “died during his detention.”
Both Audin’s plight at the hands of French forces and the generalized use of torture in Algeria, then, were little mystery to the public. But until last week, no French government had officially and explicitly recognized what took place—and that’s why Macron’s strongly worded statement is so noteworthy. “Everyone knows that, in Algiers, the men and women arrested during these circumstances didn’t always return,” the president said, lamenting the “thousands” of disappearances that took place during the war. The official response to Audin’s disappearance “suffered from too many contradictions and improbabilities to be credible,” Macron said, adding that it was, “manifestly, a display aiming to hide his death,” which was “possibly the result of torture.” All of this was made legally possible by a system of “special powers” that “allowed torture to go unpunished.”