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The Ghost of Maurice Audin

After decades, French authorities admit to the torture and execution of a young activist in Algeria. But the mystery is far from solved.

Youcef Oussama Bounab Oct 10

Issue 240

About an hour before midnight on June 11, 1957, Maurice Audin was at home with his wife and three small children at the family’s apartment in Algiers when a dozen French paratroopers broke in and carried the young activist and mathematician away.  

“Look after the children!” his wife Josette recalls him shouting out as he was carried down the couple’s stairway.

It was the last time she saw her husband alive. His body has never been recovered.

‘The case of Audin is emblematic, but this touches the whole history of colonization.’

Audin’s disappearance was the subject of widespread coverage in the French press at the time and numerous firsthand accounts of both the intellectual’s brutal treatment and the widespread use of torture by French authorities during the country’s bloody, colonial war in Algeria have since been published. Less than a month after abducting Audin, French authorities claimed that he managed to escape while in transfer from one detention center to another. The French government never acknowledged the full scope of the violence it deployed to suppress the resistance in Algeria, including the systematic use of torture, nor has it come entirely clean about Audin’s death, until now. 

Accompanied by a number of historians and journalists on a visit to the home of Josette Audin on Sept. 13 in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, French President Emmanuel Macron confessed to the 87-year-old widow that her husband “was tortured and then executed, or tortured to death, by soldiers who arrested him at his home.”

The admission was the result of decades of advocacy on the part of Josette Audin and her children to uncover the truth about the activist’s final days in the face of denials and deception on the part of French authorities. In 2009, Audin’s daughter Michèle, also a mathematician, even declined the Legion d’Honneur, the nation’s highest emblem of achievement, citing the government’s treatment of her father.

Macron’s acknowledgment of France’s responsibility gives rise to a number of further questions concerning other dissidents who met the same fate as Audin, if not worse.

“This recognition also aims to encourage the historical work on all those who have gone missing during the war of Algeria, whether they were French or Algerian, civilians or soldiers,” said the French president, who also conceded during a visit to Algiers in 2017 that French colonialism was “a crime against humanity.”

“It’s really a big, historical turning point for the history of France,” said Benjamin Stora, an Algerian-born French historian who accompanied the president on his visit to the Audin family. “It’s much bigger than the case of Maurice Audin. Macron spoke of a system that allowed torture, violence, crimes — a direct responsibility of the state. The case of Audin is emblematic, but this touches the whole history of colonization.”

Torture was widely deployed from the beginning of the colonization of Algeria in 1830 but was finally “institutionalized” when, in 1956, a guerrilla insurgency began attempting to rout the French from Algiers, intensifying the Algerian Liberation War, which ultimately claimed 1.5 million lives in the North African country. 

French resident minister and governor-general of Algeria, Robert Lacoste, was granted “special powers” by the National Assembly to suppress the Algerian rebellion. Lacoste assigned Gen. Jacques Massu, commander of the French 10th Parachute Division, to “pacify Algiers.” Massu entered the city with some 8,000 paratroopers whom he gave carte blanche to “establish order by all means” and proclaimed martial law. The military intervention only inflamed tensions in the city in revolt, haunted by insecurity and suspicion.

At the time, Audin was teaching at the Science University of Algiers while preparing his Ph.D. thesis for the Sorbonne in Paris. Although French, both Audin and his wife were advocates of Algerian liberation and members of the Parti Communiste d’Alger (PCA), a Marxist, pro-independence party. Though he had distributed war circulars and had harbored fugitives, Audin never was directly involved in the fighting.

In The Audin Affair, published a year after the activist’s disappearance, French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet insisted that Audin died due to torture. The book puts forth the witness of Dr. Georges Hadjadj, another PCA member and independence advocate, who was also held on the same day in a covert detention center situated in El-Biar on the heights of the city.

“On the night of June 11 to 12, I was put in the presence of Maurice Audin,” Hadjadj recounts. “It was about one o’clock in the morning. … Audin was in underwear, lying on a board. Pliers connected by electrical wires to a generator were attached to his right ear and his left foot. … I was then taken back to the infirmary, and for a long time I heard the shouts of Maurice Audin that seemed to be stifled by a gag.”

In 2012, French journalist Nathalie Funès uncovered a document handwritten by Colonel Yves Godard, a former commander in Algiers during the war. The colonel writes that Audin was confused with another detainee whose killing had been ordered and that Audin was stabbed to death by a non-commissioned officer. Godard also notes in the record that Audin was buried in a pit about 12 miles from the city. Complicating the plot but not its basic conclusion, the French general Paul Aussaresses later admitted to ordering Audin’s death.

Audin’s arrest, torture and killing is just one instance among many during this sanguinary era of French-Algerian relations. During the war, two million Algerians by some estimates were interned without trial, detained and deported to “villages de regroupement” and to concentration camps built by the French army in desolate rural areas. Many were beaten into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

Vidal-Naquet, considered the leading historian of the war, notes that the practice of torture affected an uncountable number of people, some “hundreds of thousands,” the majority of whom were civilians.

In one instance, Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the six founders of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) was captured by paratroopers in February 1957, tortured and executed while in detention. That same month, Ali Boumendjel, a lawyer and activist, was thrown from the sixth floor of an interrogation building. Boumendjel’s death was later passed off as a suicide. Gen. Aussaresses admitted to ordering these killings as well.

In his book The Real Battle of Algiers, published in 1972, Gen. Massu, by then retired, evoked the practice of torture in Algeria and particularly in Algiers. Speaking with the French newspaper Le Monde in 2000, he said that widespread use of torture, while “certainly reprehensible, was covered, and even ordered, by [French] civil authorities, who were perfectly aware of it.”

France’s political leaders have been more reluctant to discuss their country’s brutality in Algeria. It was only in 1998 that the French Embassy in Algiers apologized for the 1945 Sétif and Guelma massacre, in which French police and colonial settlers killed thousands of civilians in central Algeria. In 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy declined to even respond to a  letter from Josette Audin herself.

The evasion held up until June 2014, when Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, made it clear that Audin had never escaped but died while in detention. On a presidential visit to Algeria in 2012, Hollande recognized, in vague terms, “the violence of colonization” but failed to make any further statements regarding when or how Audin died.

While meeting with Audin’s widow, President Macron announced that he would be opening up French intelligence archives to historians and to the families of those whose bodies were never found.

Audin’s son Pierre, who was just one month old at the time of his father’s extra-legal kidnapping, told French radio: “From now on, it is necessary to tell the truth and to transmit the documents which will make it possible to know, for my father and for thousands of others, what happened precisely.”

For Maurice Audin’s widow, Josette, many questions remain and her fight is far from over. “How was Maurice killed? What are the names of his torturers? What has been done to his body?” she wondered aloud during Macron’s visit.

Not everyone in France was in favor of Macron’s declaration. “Maurice Audin helped hiding FLN terrorists who committed attacks,” Marine Le Pen, who heads the National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, tweeted shortly after Macron’s visit with Audin’s widow. “Macron commits an act of division while thinking to flatter the communists.”

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who also led the National Front, fought in a paratrooper regiment between 1956 and 1957.

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Illustration by Esteban Guerra.