The Truth About Algeria

General Paul Aussaresses (Photo: AFP)

It's both true and false to say that Algeria is to France as Vietnam is to the United States. True, because the Algerian independence conflict from 1954 to 1962 embroiled France in a colonial war that cost tens of thousands of French lives (not to mention the huge cost in Algerian lives), triggered violent protests, and brought about a change of leadership in the home country. False, because while the United States has largely gotten over Vietnam, it seems that France, four decades later, still hasn't recovered from Algeria.

Such is the lesson of l'affaire Aussaresses, the moral-political drama that has consumed French public opinion since early May. That's when Gen. Paul Aussaresses, an 83-year-old reserve officer, published memoirs in which he calmly confessed to the torture and murder of dozens of Algerian civilians between 1955 and 1957—practices that, he said, were both common and known to France's political leaders, including the late François Mitterrand. Mitterrand, who in the 1980s and 1990s became France's longest-serving president, was justice minister at the time.

Here's a sample of Aussaresses' prose, as published in the liberal Le Monde of Paris (May 3): "Those we brought to Tourelles [a torture center run by the French army's intelligence service] were sufficiently implicated in terrorist activity that there was no way we were going to release them alive. On busy days, when all the regiments were overwhelmed with prisoners, they would send me everybody they had no time to interrogate. At Tourelles, as at the regimental headquarters, torture was always used if a prisoner refused to talk....When the suspects had talked and seemed to have nothing more to men would take a batch of them out in the bush, 20 kilometers or so from Algiers, shoot them down with a machine-gun burst, then bury them.

"Regimental headquarters also sent me prisoners they had interrogated and who were no longer useful. Nobody ever asked me what I planned to do with these people. Long story short: when the army wanted to get rid of somebody, he would end up at Tourelles." After recounting incident after incident of torture and summary execution, Aussaresses said he'd be willing to do it all again.

Predictably, French politicians on the right and left attacked such "disgusting cynicism," Didier Hassoux reported in the leftist Libération of Paris (May 4). In fact, it was more Aussaresses' tone than his revelations that shocked people. As editorialist Jacques Amalric pointed out in Libération (May 5-6), "by the late 1950s, it was known with certainty that torture and executions had taken place."

President Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist, called for Aussaresses' suspension from the Order of the Legion of Honor, France's highest distinction, and for disciplinary action by the armed forces. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, told the National Assembly that "those who carried out barbaric, inhuman, and dishonorable acts must be condemned," according to the conservative Le Figaro of Paris (May 16).

The trouble is that whatever condemnation Aussaresses receives is likely to be more symbolic than substantive. Amnesty laws make it difficult to bring legal action for war crimes committed in Algeria. The French courts are weighing charges of "glorification of war crimes" against the former intelligence officer. But the Paris prosecutor's office rejected a plea from France's Human Rights League for a charge of crimes against humanity, which would have circumvented the amnesty laws.

Beyond the legal fate of Aussaresses, some French leaders are pushing for the creation of a blue-ribbon panel of prominent citizens, judges, and historians to investigate the army's conduct in the Algerian war. "Because justice through the legal system is impossible in this case, a truth commission is the only way to calm passions and deal with the sorrow of the survivors," Robert Badinter, who was justice minister under Mitterrand, wrote in the leftist weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (May 24).

Indeed, there remains both passion and sorrow in the minds of the aging Frenchmen who were drafted and sent across the Mediterranean to fight the war. "Everybody is suddenly remembering that there was torture in Algeria, when in fact it's been known for 45 years," a former paratrooper told Le Monde (May 21). "We tried to talk about it back then, but nobody wanted to listen; everybody called us killers."

Amalric put it this way in Libération: "Today, above all, it's essential to dispel the fog created by the various amnesties that closed the book on the Algerian war. Who knew what? Who didn't want to know? Who made suggestions? Who simply let things happen?"

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