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.

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