France Faces Its Demons For Algerian War Brutality

By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, Thursday 10 May 2001; Page A26

General's Admission of Torture, Executions Sparks Outrage

PARIS—In the same way that revelations about former senator Bob Kerrey's role in civilian deaths in Vietnam 32 years ago have prompted the United States to reopen old war wounds, France is re-examining a painful chapter of its own recent past, the Algerian war for independence from 1954 to 1962.

The old demons were unleashed by the unvarnished memoirs of an aging general, 83-year-old Paul Aussaresses, who admits taking part in torture and summary executions during France's long, losing battle to keep Algeria.

Aussaresses' detailed accounts have brought cries of outrage in France, which has never fully explored long-standing allegations of atrocities in Algeria, and never underwent the kind of emotional exorcism that gripped the United States for nearly two decades after Vietnam.

President Jacques Chirac last week said he was horrified by the general's accounts, and said nothing could justify them. Chirac said Aussaresses would be stripped of the Legion of Honor, France's highest award, and called for the defense minister to propose other disciplinary actions.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said he was deeply shocked by the account. In Parliament, the leftist Green Party and the Communists, part of Jospin's ruling coalition, called for a commission of inquiry into Aussaresses' revelations, but the president of the assembly said he thought it would serve no purpose.

Also, the Paris-based League of Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the general for being an apologist for crimes and war crimes, while the International Human Rights Federation said the general could be charged with crimes against humanity. France's justice minister, however, was quoted in the daily newspaper Le Monde this week as saying that such a case seems difficult, unless it was brought by Algerian victims or their families.

The book, Special Services: Algeria 1955-1957, was published this week after being excerpted in Le Monde. In it, the former general describes the first time he tortured an Algerian rebel suspected of terrorism—and expressed disappointment that the man died without divulging any information. I thought of nothing, he writes. I had no regrets over his death.

He also says the authorities in Paris were fully aware of what was happening once they sent troops to crush the rebel movement in what has come to be known as the Battle For Algiers, which lasted from January to March 1957.

In calling the military in to establish order in Algiers, they implicitly admitted the principle of summary executions, he writes. The French eventually won the battle—by the end of March, not a single rebel bomb was exploding in the capital, according to historians.

In one of the book's most damaging sections, the general claims that the methods of his Algerian special services unit were known and approved by Justice Minister Francois Mitterrand, who later became president. As for torture, it was tolerated if not recommended, he writes. He said Mitterrand had an emissary in Algeria who covered for us and knew exactly what was going on at night.

What many French have found most chilling is the general's open defense of torture as a legitimate tool against the Algerian independence guerrillas, the FLN, who he describes as terrorists with their own extreme methods.

While politicians have expressed shock at the general's confessions, the allegations of French torture and executions in Algeria are not new. In the 1977 book, A Savage War of Peace, British historian Alistair Horne wrote that torture was to become a growing canker for France, leaving behind a poison that would linger in the French system long after the war itself had ended. Citing official French documents, Horne described various torture methods used, such as electrodes and the water pipe, used to pump a victim's stomach full of water.

The French excesses in Algeria were also well known among Algerians and in other Arab countries. The Web site, in its history of Algeria, writes matter-of-factly about the cruelty and brutality of the French colonial forces and how they used concentration camps, torture and mass executions of civilians suspected of aiding the rebels . . .

But the volume of evidence of torture and executions has been largely ignored here—or not openly discussed—because, unlike the United States after Vietnam, France managed to avoid the same kind of critical self-examination that might have shed light on the longstanding accusations. While the United States went through its Vietnam catharsis with a spate of books, anti-war songs and such movies as Apocalypse Now, the French campaign in Algeria was rarely discussed.

That time may be coming now, thanks to the debate opened by Aussaresses. In published interviews, he said he was writing his accounts for history. He said he is ready to be tried for his acts. But he may not be tried. Parliament passed a law in 1968 giving blanket amnesty to all acts committed during the Algerian war.