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
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.
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
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
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
As for torture, it was tolerated if not recommended,
he writes. He said Mitterrand had an emissary in Algeria
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
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 Arab.net, in its history of
Algeria, writes matter-of-factly about
the cruelty and brutality of
the French colonial forces and how they used
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
Apocalypse Now, the French campaign in Algeria was
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.