President Emmanuel Macron admitted for the first time that French soldiers had assassinated a great figure of Algerian independence, then covered up his death in Paris’ latest acknowledgment of his colonial-era crimes.
Macron met four of Ali Boumendjel’s grandchildren and admitted “on behalf of France” that the lawyer was arrested, tortured and killed in Algiers on March 23, 1957, his office said on Tuesday.
French authorities had previously claimed he had committed suicide while in detention, a lie his widow and other family members had campaigned for years to see overturned.
“Looking our history in the face, recognizing the truth, will not allow us to heal all the wounds that are still open, but it will help create a path for the future,” the statement from Macron’s office said.
As the first French president born in the postcolonial era, Macron took several unprecedented steps to face France’s brutal fight to retain control of his North African colony, which gained independence in 1962.
In 2018, he admitted that France had created a “system” that facilitated torture during the war and admitted that French mathematician Maurice Audin, a pro-independence communist activist, had also been assassinated in Algiers.
In July last year, he commissioned French historian Benjamin Stora to assess how France handled its colonial heritage.
Stora’s report in January made a series of recommendations, including recognition of Boumendjel’s murder and the creation of a “memory and truth commission” that would hear testimonies from people who suffered during the war.
However, he did not suggest an official apology from the state and Macron said there would be “no repentance or apology” but rather “symbolic acts” to promote reconciliation.
Boumendjel was a French-speaking nationalist lawyer and intellectual who served as a link between the moderate UDMA party and the National Liberation Front (FLN), the underground resistance movement.
Macron praised his “humanism” and “courage” in his statement, adding that Boumendjel had been influenced by the values of the French Enlightenment in his fight against “the injustice of the colonial system”.
In 2001, the former head of the French intelligence services in Algiers, Paul Aussaresses, published a book – Special Services 1955-1957 – in which he describes how he and his “death squad” tortured and killed prisoners, including Boumendjel.
Aussaresses wrote that the government, including then-justice minister François Mitterrand, who later became president, had been informed of and tolerated the use of torture, executions and forced displacement.
Last month, Boumendjel’s niece, Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour, denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle, which had never been officially corrected.
Macron also said on Tuesday that he would continue to open the national archives and encouraged historians to continue their research into Algeria’s war of independence, which saw atrocities committed by all sides.
Paris ruled Algeria for over 100 years and the 1954-1962 War of Independence killed 1.5 million Algerians, leaving deep scars and a toxic debate over the legacy of colonization.
During his 2017 election campaign, Macron declared the occupation of Algeria a “crime against humanity” and called the French actions “truly barbaric”.
But despite his outreach efforts, he has been criticized for dismissing the state’s apologies, with the Algerian government calling Stora’s latest report “non-objective” and “below expectations.”
To the right and to the far right of France, many politicians oppose the recovery of the past, French colonialism still being defended as a “civilizing” enterprise which has contributed to the development of the occupied territories.
During his presidential race in 2017, Macron’s remarks on Algeria were denounced by his defeated right-wing rival François Fillon as “this hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance”.