PARIS — One of the ugliest unsolved crimes of France’s long-ago, quasi-colonial war in Algeria was finally laid to rest on Thursday, as President Emmanuel Macron recognized that the French Army had tortured and killed a youthful antiwar intellectual in 1957.
The death in custody of Maurice Audin, a 25-year-old mathematician, has for decades been a symbol of the French Army’s brutality during the Algerian War, much as the My Lai massacre became for the United States’ war in Vietnam. But unlike My Lai, which led to prosecutions, the Audin affair was never investigated.
There have been books, films and furtive late-life declarations by aging officers, but the mystery has never been solved. And until now, France had never admitted that it used torture in Algeria.
For 61 years, Mr. Audin’s widow, Josette has battled the French state to have her husband’s killing recognized as the murderous work of military torturers during a critical phase of the Algerian War.
On Thursday, Mr. Macron took responsibility for it, officially acknowledging for the first time the widespread use of torture by French forces in Algeria.
“It’s really a big, historic turning point for the history of France,” said Benjamin Stora, a leading historian of France’s relationship with Algeria. “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 was emblematic, but this touches the whole history of colonization.”
Official France has had a complicated relationship with its recent past. It took decades for the French state to acknowledge its responsibility for collaborating with the Nazis in the genocide of the Jews during World War II, long after historians had made it irrefutably clear.
The Algerian War remains highly sensitive, as many veterans are still alive, as are millions of former French residents of Algeria and their children, the so-called “pieds noirs.” French politicians have trod gingerly.
As president, Nicolas Sarkozy never answered a 2007 letter from Ms. Audin demanding that the mystery of her husband’s death finally be unveiled. Mr. Macron himself created a ruckus during the 2017 presidential campaign when he said, in a visit to Algiers, that French colonialism had been a “crime against humanity.”
Several historians compared Mr. Macron’s new declaration on torture in Algeria — he said the mathematician’s death was the result of a “legally established system” — to the 1995 speech by then-President Jacques Chirac taking French responsibility for a major roundup of Jews in 1942, the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup.
“The comparison is valid,” said the historian Raphaëlle Branche, who has written about the French Army’s use of torture during the Algerian War. “They both took as their jumping-off point a particular case to then speak of a global responsibility.”
Mr. Macron’s words were “extremely strong,” she said. “An official declaration recognizing that crimes were committed in Algeria is very important.”
The French president said he “recognized, 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.” On Thursday he went to the home of Ms. Audin, now 87, in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet, hugged her and asked for forgiveness.
Mr. Audin was a reputedly brilliant professor at the Sciences University of Algiers, a communist who went to antiwar rallies but was not implicated in any violent acts of resistance. Late on the night of June 11, 1957, when the city was in the throes of what became known as the Battle of Algiers, a struggle between French soldiers and Algerian independence fighters, French paratroopers burst into the Audin family’s apartment.
As Ms. Audin watched, the soldiers marched her husband down the stairs. He shouted, “Look after the children,” in reference to the couple’s three young children. She never saw him again.
Officially, the French Army insisted that Mr. Audin had run away while being transferred. But his body never turned up, and within a month his wife pursued a court case alleging murder. In 1958, the French classical historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet published a bombshell book with witness accounts of the young mathematician being tortured at the notorious El-Biar prison in Algiers. But amnesty laws and court judgments stifled any change in the story.
“You never stopped trying to have the truth recognized,” Mr. Macron told Ms. Audin on Thursday — not even when, in 1966, France’s top appeals court officially closed the books on the case. Early in 2014, French television broadcast a statement from Paul Aussaresses, the dying general who had been in charge of intelligence operations during the battle of Algiers, saying that he had ordered the killing of Mr. Audin.
Mr. Stora said Mr. Macron’s declaration was important for France’s former colonial possessions in Africa, where indignation over its imperial behavior remains at a low boil.
“It’s a gesture that touches foreign policy, the northern and southern banks” of the Mediterranean, the historian said. “There’s a lot of fear, endless crisis on both sides. So this is an act of foreign policy as well.”