Electric Koran

Richard Vinen

  • Services Spéciaux Algérie 1955-57: Mon témoignage sur la torture by Paul Aussaresses
    Perrin, 198 pp, frs 99.00, May 2001, ISBN 2 262 01761 1
  • Appelés en Algérie: La Parole confisquée by Claire Mauss-Copeaux
    Hachette, 332 pp, frs 140.00, March 1999, ISBN 2 01 235475 0

In 1957, Louisette Ighilahriz, a member of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in Algeria, was captured by French paratroopers. She was tortured and repeatedly raped. Until a French Army doctor arranged for her to be transferred to hospital and then to prison, her only hope was that her guards might be careless enough to leave her with the means of killing herself.

Ighilahriz’s story was told in French newspaper reports in June 2000, when she tried to trace the doctor who had saved her life. It provoked intense discussion about atrocities committed by the French Army and police between 1954 and 1962 during the Algerian War. In November 2000, two former generals, Paul Aussaresses and Jacques Massu, made long declarations to Le Monde, in which they admitted that men under their command had tortured suspects and killed prisoners. Massu expressed his regret, said he no longer believed that such violence was a necessary part of war, and supported calls for a public enquiry. Aussaresses was unrepentant: torture, he said, had been horrible but necessary. He didn’t shift the responsibility onto his political superiors or his military subordinates (he admitted having killed prisoners with his own hands), and he refused to apologise.

Aussaresses, who spent much of his career on secret missions, seems to have acquired an insatiable taste for publicity – a taste said to have been exacerbated by the ravages of old age, drink and an unrequited passion for Christine Deviers-Joncour, the discarded mistress of Roland Dumas. He has now published a book. The details it gives about torture and killings by the French Army and its defiant, often light-hearted tone have caused outrage (particularly in circles normally sympathetic to the Army and to the memory of ‘l’Algérie française’). He was equally light-hearted in his interview for Le Monde, recalling an occasion when a group of French MPs, investigating torture in Algiers, had come across an officer interrogating a suspect. The spokesman of the group asked the officer: ‘What about torture?’

The officer replied: ‘Well, you see, I listen to what my prisoner says.’ ‘And how are you sure that he’s telling the truth?’ … ‘I make him swear on the Koran,’ said the intelligence officer, managing to keep a straight face. At that moment the guerrilla cried out: ‘Yes, on an electric Koran’

– a pun on courant éléctrique that delighted Aussaresses. ‘It was Denoix St Marc who told me this story,’ he said. ‘It made me laugh a lot.’ Aussaresses spent a relatively short time in Algeria as a junior officer, but now he seems to have achieved a perverse ambition by becoming the symbol of French atrocities.

In one sense, none of this has taught the French anything they didn’t already know. There was never any real secret about torture and summary execution; no one was expected to believe the clumsy euphemisms contained in official declarations. An Army officer, giving evidence at a trial in 1962, said: ‘Monsieur le président, en langage militaire on dit “faire du renseignement”, en langage du monde on dit “presser des questions”, en français on dit “torture”.’ Atrocities may have been widely discussed among left-wing intellectuals, but knowledge of them was not confined to habitués of the Deux Magots. Jean Lartéguy’s popular novels about the Parachute Regiment, which could be picked up at any station bookstall, were quite explicit about the brutality of their heroes. Many French people had first-hand knowledge of the way Algerians were treated. On 17 October 1961, in Paris, dozens of Algerians (there is still debate about the precise number) attending a nationalist demonstration in defiance of a curfew were killed by the police. Parisians saw men with bullet wounds slumped on Métro benches, policemen kicking inert bodies in the gutter and corpses floating in the Seine. A 1991 survey conducted among young people born after the end of the Algerian War showed that 95 per cent knew that the French had used torture in Algeria, and that most had heard about it directly from acquaintances or relatives who had seen it with their own eyes.

The violence may have been known about but it was never thought to have come from the conscripts, who made up the great majority of those who served in Algeria. The people who celebrated the part played by the French tended to stress the role of elite troops, drawing a distinction between the mundane duties of conscripts and the heroism of the regiments (especially the parachutists) who actively sought contact with the rebels. The Indochina war, which had been fought exclusively by regulars, had created a new gulf between them and the conscripts, and many veterans of Indochina transferred their attitudes from one war to the other – indeed, official instructions were issued that soldiers should not refer to the FLN as ‘les Viets’. Opponents of the war also liked to distinguish conscripts from regular soldiers, and many people subscribed to the comforting belief that torture and summary executions were carried out only by professionals. The Foreign Legion was a particularly useful scapegoat, especially since almost half its soldiers were German.

The marginalisation of the conscripts was partly to be explained by France’s recent history. The Algerian War (in fact, the French Government refused to define it as a war until 1999) was overshadowed by the experience of its participants’ fathers and grandfathers. The interval that had elapsed between the battle of Verdun in 1916 and the first conscripts’ departure for Algeria was less than the interval between the Algerian War and the present. Many conscripts were painfully aware that their elders had fought a ‘real war’ of pitched battles and horrifying casualties. Writing about the anciens combattants of the Great War, Antoine Prost remarks on how conscious he was that their sufferings dwarfed his own experiences in Algeria. As a young lycée teacher, another historian, Alain Corbin, tried to solicit the indulgence of a disapproving school inspector by pointing out that he had just been called up for service in Algeria. He received the devastating reply: ‘Moi, monsieur, j’étais à Verdun.’

As Françoise Giroud once observed, the Algerian War never mobilised the young in the way that Spain or the Resistance had mobilised her own generation. Resistance veterans often denounced torture, and Massu recalled a civil servant forcing his way into the headquarters of the Parachute Regiment and showing officers photographs of the Nazi death camps. Curiously, though, the moral example of the Resistance does not seem to have helped the cause in which it was enlisted. References to the Occupation tended to widen the gap between the European population of Algeria, who had not experienced it, and people in France. They also alienated professional soldiers, who often felt that the Army’s defeat in 1940 was being contrasted with the Resistance ‘victory’ of 1944. Defenders of l’Algérie française were exasperated by their opponents’ claims to a monopoly of virtue. One soldier, enraged by an FLN militant who refused to talk under torture, cried out: ‘Tu te prends pour Jean Moulin?’

In the last few years, conventional views of the war have changed, and conscripts have finally moved into the foreground. They are reaching an age when they wish to talk about their experience, to set the record straight before they die. It was Bertrand Tavernier’s documentary La Guerre sans nom (1991) which first treated conscript experience seriously, later provoking or encouraging others to give their own accounts, often to the young researchers who are part of a new wave of oral historians in France.

The conscripts’ testimony has destroyed the notion that ‘ordinary Frenchmen’ had nothing to do with the atrocities. One recently published diary reveals that within a month of setting foot in North Africa its 20-year-old author had seen his comrades practise both torture and murder. Three quarters of the forty or so conscripts interviewed by Claire Mauss-Copeaux witnessed episodes of torture and at least three of them admitted practising it. One of the testimonies she cites inverts the conventional wisdom that conscripts were passive bystanders in a war conducted by professionals: ‘I saw a kid tending sheep and he was signalling. I had taken out my gun to knock him off and then the sergeant major gave me a wallop. “Are you off your head?” he said to me. I told him: “In the next 500 metres we will fall into an ambush.” We had not gone 500 metres when we fell into an ambush.’

In the current discussion an older emphasis on the collective injustice of colonialism has been replaced by a much more specific interest in the abuses committed by individuals. During the war itself, and its immediate aftermath, the Left rarely spoke about individual victims of the French Army (the few who did attract attention tended to be of European origin), but then some anti-colonialists did not have good credentials as humanitarians. Many came from the French Communist Party, which had been, until very recently, a loyal defender of Stalin. Jacques Vergès, who made his name as a lawyer defending Algerian nationalists, had spent several years in Prague at the height of the Stalinist repression.

For such as Vergès, talk of torture was a propaganda weapon to be used against the Government and to defend Algerian militants in court, but not a real source of indignation. For them, the crime was colonialism itself rather than the means by which colonialism was maintained. Attempts by the ethnologist Germaine Tillon to draw attention to torture were denounced as an expression of liberal hand-wringing: she talked about French responsibility to the Algerians at a time when more radical figures believed that France had no responsibility other than to leave the country, a position illustrated by Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, where the real debate is about ends, not means.

Things have now changed. The colonialism question that dominated debate in the 1960s has been played down. Ideological affiliations matter less. The questions that exercise people have to do with human rights. The figures who seem to be most generally admired are not anti-colonialist militants but those soldiers (such as General Pâris de la Bollardière, who was imprisoned for protesting against the use of torture) who fought a ‘clean war’ to defend l’Algérie française.

Changing relations between the sexes have had an effect, too. Many of the historians working on the war are women who tend to ask uncomfortable questions. Even General Aussaresses, who has defended his use of illegal violence, is pained by the fact that his wife and three daughters disapprove of what he did. Many of the conscripts interviewed by Claire Mauss-Copeaux chose to speak in the presence of their wives, who often pressed their husbands to reveal painful details they had previously refused to discuss with strangers.

Will this renewal of interest in atrocities produce any concrete results? Some have called for France to confront its Algerian past in the same way that it has confronted Vichy – with official enquiries and public expressions of contrition. Politicians on the Right have indignantly rejected such requests, however, and even Lionel Jospin, who has gone further than anyone in expressing regret for what happened, has stressed that this is a matter for historians, not for politicians or judges.

Aussaresses’s book has been condemned by Jacques Chirac, previously reluctant to denounce French atrocities in Algeria – which may make Aussaresses vulnerable to prosecution for ‘apologie de crimes de guerre’. Aussaresses’s tone is exceptional, however, which to some extent separates him off from the wider debate. Indeed, his account of the war may salve French consciences, because he provides such an obvious scapegoat and because he himself insists, in the face of persuasive evidence to the contrary, that the ‘sales boulots’ of the Army in Algeria were almost exclusively carried out by a small group of professional soldiers like himself.

Any official atonement for the war or condemnation of atrocities would raise difficult questions, not least concerning General de Gaulle. In fact, de Gaulle seems to have reined the Army in after his return to power in 1958, but he did so mainly because he regarded torture and summary execution as a challenge to the state’s monopoly of violence; concern about the victims was scarcely an issue. Most important, the massacre of Algerians in October 1961 occurred in the centre of Paris, and Pierre Messmer, de Gaulle’s Minister for the Army, pointed out that, if it was to be considered a criminal act, the crime was one that implicated every member of the Government, ‘from the humblest secretary of state to the President’. In his memoirs, Maurice Papon, the prefect of the Paris police at the time, justified the massacre by a particularly brutal, and authentically Gaullist, form of realpolitik. It was intended not as a defence of French Algeria (de Gaulle had already decided to leave), but as an ostentatious crushing of support for the FLN: if de Gaulle was going to negotiate with the leaders of the FLN he would do so from a position of strength.

There was a similar brutalism in the way in which de Gaulle secured the loyalty of the Army in the 1960s. The departure from Algeria brought him into violent conflict with part of the officer corps. In 1961, four generals attempted a military coup against his Government; assassination attempts by former soldiers followed. In these circumstances, a tacit agreement was reached between de Gaulle and the Army – an agreement that took legal form with the amnesty law of March 1962. Soldiers who showed themselves to be loyal to the Head of State would not be pursued for crimes they had committed in Algeria. Thus Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry (who tried and failed to kill de Gaulle) was executed, while Aussaresses, who admitted to having murdered 24 Algerian prisoners, has not – so far – forfeited one centime of his state pension.

General Massu was an important figure in this context. He was the most prominent senior officer to be responsible for torture but he was also, in spite of disagreements over Algeria, a loyal Gaullist who refused to support the putsch of 1961. When de Gaulle suffered a loss of nerve during the student riots and strikes of 1968, it was to Massu’s headquarters in Baden Baden that he flew to reassure himself that he could depend on the Army’s support in the event of civil war.

One can condemn what the French did in Algeria without wishing to see the men who fought there subjected to the opprobrium that surrounds everyone associated with Vichy. Many revelations about torture have come from soldiers themselves and they are sometimes haunted by remorse. The young conscripts were themselves victims as well as tormentors. Even the senior officers who gave the orders have ways of exonerating themselves. Massu elicits particularly complicated reactions. He is the man most associated in the public mind with torture. He is also a devout Christian, who claims to have disliked violence even when he practised it, a decorated soldier, who fought against Nazism, and a naive enthusiast for racial integration, who adopted two Algerian children.

In fact, most of the violence in the war was inflicted by one Algerian on another. Two rival nationalist organisations (the FLN and the Mouvement National Algérien) killed large numbers (perhaps hundreds of thousands) as they sought to impose their authority, raise funds and prevent Algerians from having anything to do with the French. The most obvious victims were the harkis, auxiliary soldiers who fought on the French side and were, for the most part, abandoned to the vengeance of their compatriots when the French pulled out. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the harkis tended to be ignored; those who reached France were dumped in remote camps. To the Right, the harkis symbolised defeat and to the Left treachery (they had fought against ‘their’ country). In recent years, this has changed. The harkis, and more especially their children, have become more assertive and the Left more sympathetic to them.

This has gone with a re-evaluation of the war, which is no longer seen as a conflict of committed nationalists against the French and their lackeys but rather one in which many Algerians were victims of violence from both sides. The people who suffered the most from French violence had often been driven into apparently anti-French positions by a fear of reprisals from nationalists. Thus, Algerians in Paris in 1961 sometimes had the disagreeable choice of being murdered in their lodgings by the FLN if they refused to join the demonstration or murdered in the streets by the Paris police if they did join it.

Views of the war have also been affected by what happened in the newly independent Algeria. The intellectuals who had opposed the French presence were sympathetic to the new state and some even went to live there. Boumedienne’s coup of 1965 and the increasing power of the military drove most of them out, however. By contrast, Gaullism’s fanatical respect for national sovereignty, which had justified French atrocities up until the moment of independence, meant that de Gaulle’s Government took little interest in the atrocities that occurred afterwards. The French military establishment came to enjoy good relations with the Algerian state.

It may be that those who have most to fear from the current discussion of French atrocities are the generals in the present-day Algerian Army, men who draw whatever legitimacy they have from the memory of the armed struggle against the French. Some of those in France who opposed torture during the Algerian War have also come to understand that the violence of the contemporary Algerian state is rooted in the violence of the FLN’s war of independence. This realisation has become particularly acute in the last few years with the rise of an Islamist movement that challenges the FLN’s historic nationalism, attended by a wave of massacres estimated to have killed almost 100,000 people and widely attributed to the Algerian Army. The desire to see France acknowledge the crimes that it committed during the Algerian War often goes with a desire to see her defend human rights in contemporary Algeria – the former Algerian Defence Minister Khaled Nezzar had to be hastily flown out of Paris last April after two enterprising French lawyers attempted to have him detained under the terms of the UN Convention against Torture. The lawyers were acting on behalf of three Algerian expatriates, one of whom had already died in France as a result of his injuries.

Many Algerians have been enraged to hear a spokesman close to the Algerian Government describe the current debate over the atrocities of the Algerian War as an ‘affair for the French’. It is easy to see why powerful men in Algiers feel that too much discussion of French crimes might elicit some uncomfortable comparisons. In February, a book was published in Paris by a man who had been a junior officer in a parachute regiment. La Sale Guerre[*] described torture, summary executions and all the horrors of living in an ‘interrogation centre’ where soldiers drank themselves unconscious in order to avoid hearing the screams coming from the cellar below. The author of the book, Habib Souaida, was an officer not in the French Army in the 1950s, however, but in the Algerian Army in the 1990s.

[*] La Découverte, 204 pp., 95 frs, 8 February, 2 7071 3358 2.