A torturer’s apology: France’s acceptance of its use of torture

by Shreyashree Nayak

Emmanuel macron (6)

Emmanuel Macron. Remi Jouan via Wikimedia Commons

Darius Rejali, in Torture and Democracy, defines torture as the systematic infliction of physical torment on detained individuals by state officials for police purposes, for confession, information or intimidation. It is forbidden according to international law and the domestic law of more than 150 countries party to the United Nation Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Various countries have been complicit in the use of torture in their past and even in the present. Instances from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have surfaced in news online frequently in recent decades.

In 2018, France finally accepted the accusations that it used torture against Algerians during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), opening archives for the public to enquire about those who disappeared during the war. The then French colony led by the National Liberation Front revolted against the colonial power and fought for independence. French historians estimate that the war cost 400,000 lives, while Algerian officials claim the number exceeds 1 million. President Emmanuel Macron said France instigated a ‘system’ that led to torture during the Algeria conflict, and the past must now be faced with ‘courage and lucidity’. France had proactively initiated efforts to eliminate the use of torture with the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. Furthermore, it had signed the three main international conventions that specifically outlawed torture. However, France’s past as a colonial power has seen rampant use of torture.

Torture and colonialism

With various accusations, it was alleged that France was guilty of using torture against Algerians. There were also various efforts to silence those who spoke up. Moreover, as mentioned in Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali, France did not have just a history of using torture, but in fact invented innovative and clean methods of torture, that were even used by Nazi officials. Algerians were treated and considered as subordinate to the French. This is reflected in the practice of torture since the establishment of the colony. A tortured party is always considered subordinate and submissive, while the torturer is pedestalised to a high, glorified and heroic status. As in the case of colonialism, torture also thrives on having full control over the tortured party’s life, their wellbeing and destiny. It is oppression of the most visible form. The use of torture as a form of asserting power was rampantly seen during the time of war. The practice was considered legitimate and a vital instrument when nations needed to extract information to protect themselves. There was a shift from classical methods to modern methods to ensure the torturer gained immunity. Unlike classical methods of torture, which leave physical scars to establish authority, modern methods go beyond compliance to intimidate the tortured in a way that makes them lose their sense of self. The physical body is scarless, which makes it harder for the individual to prove their suffering.

Rapid decolonisation in the 20th century and the conjunction of democracy and power resulted in the demand for accountability for these past actions. France was already an established democracy with a legacy of being a colonial power. When the latter’s influence reduced as countries gained independence, it became important for France to respect democratic guidelines. This included getting rid of their violations as a colonial power, either through acceptance or denial.

France’s acceptance can be read as redemption from colonialism, though not denouncing inhuman practices.

France made attempts to take away the credibility of tortured Algerians during prosecution. The prosecutors from Algeria lacked information, as most torture acts included clean methods, leaving little to no marks on the body. In cases where clean methods were not used, scarred victims were hesitant to file a complaint in fear of retaliation. Additionally, some prosecutors made no proper efforts to investigate the cases filed. They either examined the victims’ bodies extremely late or did not examine them at all, leaving the scars to heal and not be documented. In France, the judge, and later investigators that were sympathetic to the police and the military were chosen to look over the cases. A longstanding area of concern for post- and de-colonial thought has been to interrogate the normative frames that cast some lives as waste, bogus and non-human. Therefore, the question of who is considered human and who is not is what drove this selective empathy. After World War II, independent writers initially took the responsibility of documenting various instances of torture. In 1963, Pierre Vidal-Naquet documented French torture in Algeria, giving a detailed description of the use of torture by the French army and police. The French government tried to dismiss and suppress all forms of documentation of its actions.

Acceptance and redemption: what now?

In a democratic system, countries either keep their instances of violations underground or work towards being accountable. France initially manipulated legal procedures and curbed democratic speech. However, as Rejali notes, the documentation of acts of torture became accessible to the public eye in the United States and Europe and a grassroots anti-torture movement started emerging in the 1950s. France was the epicentre of this movement, which then spread across different western democracies all over the world. This anti-torture movement rose in opposition to the war in Algeria. With different independent sources documenting France’s brutal history, attempts to keep allegations underground were unsuccessful, and non-acknowledgement increased dissent. Now, the only form of redemption was state acceptance, which finally came about in 2018. This acceptance was important, as Emmanuel Macron’s effort to recover from the amnesia about France’s role and legacy as a coloniser can be seen as a positive step towards his liberal politics. The acceptance helped France transition towards a culture where human rights violations were unacceptable and accountability for past actions became necessary.

The battle against inhuman acts, however, is only half won. Governments’ acceptance of their country’s cruel past is a selective way of denouncing a previous political system without directly denouncing the act itself. Similarly, France’s acceptance can also be read as redemption from colonialism, though not denouncing inhuman practices. For instance, the living conditions in French prisons degraded considerably around the time of Macron’s apology. Various independent sources, as well as the UN Committee on Torture, have demanded an explanation for the inadequate detention conditions. There have also been reports of insufficient access to mental health services for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities in France. The Committee urged France to solve the issue of overcrowding in detention centres as well as end solitary confinement for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities.

Accepting and solving the issue of cruel and inhuman conditions of prisons in a democratic setting immediately will be more difficult for France than denouncing colonial oppression after decades.

About the author

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Shreyashree Nayak is a student of Political Science and International Relations at Ashoka University, India. Her primary interests include electoral politics, gender studies and international diplomacy.

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