For more than a year irrefutible new evidence of war crimes committed by French forces during the Algerian war of independence has been surfacing in French newspapers and in memoirs by senior French generals. These men personally directed the atrocities now being revealed, and revel in their grisly stories, confirming in the process the role of French politicians in them. Yet while French politicians publicly deplore the atrocities, the authorities refuse to accept responsibility for them, let alone apologise or offer compensation. Indeed, such is their hypocrisy that, while these revelations were being made, Paris had the audacity to condemn the Algerian government for its crackdown on Berber protesters in Kabyla, saying that it would not stand aside and do nothing while innocents were being massacred. Even more reprehensibly, the Algerian government reacted angrily to French criticism of its Berber policy, but remained silent on the new revelations that set out in grisly detail the atrocities committed against Algerians.
The latest revelations come in a book published recently by General Paul Aussaresses, 83, who was in charge of undercover operations during the battle of Algiers in 1957 at the height of the war for Algerian independence. The general admitted — indeed boasted — in his book, and in newspaper interviews, that he and his men had tortured and summarily executed ‘rebels’ as well as civilians, with the knowledge of the French government. According to him, the late president Francois Mitterand, who was minister of justice at the time, was well aware of the atrocities and condoned them.
In particular, Aussaresses admitted in the book, Services Speciaux, Algeri 1955—1957, to personally assassinating two Algerian leaders and to torturing scores of prisoners, saying that he felt no shame because he had no respect for “individual human life”, including his own. He has said that torture and murder were justifiable weapons against Algerian ‘rebels’, while he and his men were ‘patriots’. The general added: “The situation was explosive; there were threats of bomb attacks on all sides. I needed information to gain time and I couldn’t afford to hesitate. Torture is very effective. Most people break and talk. Afterwards for the most part we would finish them off.”
This is another way of saying that he committed war crimes against people whose lives he considered had no value because they were Algerians who dared to defy the might of France. French politicians were horrified by the revelations not because they disapproved of the acts, as they pretended, but because the general took the lid off the sinister secrets of their state. So they sought to blame France’s war crimes on him personally, and appealed for this chapter of Franco-Algerian history to be closed. President Jacques Chirac, who described the book as “shameful”, could only allow himself to call publicly for Aussaresses to be suspended from membership of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.
French leaders, like their Algerian counterparts, are not calling for an investigation into the question of war crimes to find out who was guilty of what, since Aussaresses and those who helped him or directed him were acting in the name of the French state. In fact, the French and Algerian authorities have been engaged in a conspiracy of silence from the beginning. As long ago as 1955 a French magazine referred to the French forces in Algeria as “our Gestapo in Algeria”, comparing them to the Nazi mass-killers of the Third Reich. But in 1962, when the French and Algerians met to sign a peace treaty, the FLN and Paris agreed to keep details of atrocities secret. As a recent newspaper report put it, “for four decades [since the peace treaty of 1962] there has been a conspiracy of silence, rudely disturbed by Aussaresses’ unrepentant memoir.”
In these four decades Paris has succeeded in corrupting successive ruling elites in Algeria, in order to steal the country’s rich resources of oil and gas, and another conspiracy of silence has been established between the ruling elites of both countries. The Algerian military leaders, who rule the country from behind the scenes, are major beneficiaries of the culture of corruption, and will go to great lengths to prevent the lid from being blown off. President Boudiaf, for instance, was murdered because he had spoken of corrupt practices in high places, and vowed to expose them. But corruption cannot be only one-way: French leaders are also deeply corrupt and have strong personal reasons for keeping the lid down.
Allegations of corruption involving French presidents from Charles de Gaulle to Chirac hit the headlines on May 18 as French media and politicians discussed the fall-out from the revelations made in general Aussaresses’ book. A former director of the state-owned (now privatised) oil company Elf-Aquitaine said that the five past presidents had condoned bribery and other corrupt practices. He gave full details of how they used the company to “buy influence” for France in other countries. The current president, Chirac, came to office after Le Floch-Prigent left the company. But Elf’s former director general and president said that Chirac, in his previous positions as prime minister and head of the RPR party, was fully aware of how the company was used as a conduit for bribes and covert policies of the French state. “Jacques Chirac knows all that I know, as Mitterand did”, he said.
In this atmosphere of corruption and fear of exposure, neither French nor Algerian politicians or generals will be eager to demand trials and investigations in connection with war crimes. The French argue that in 1968 the French parliament declared an amnesty for all crimes committed during the Algerian war, and that in any case the French statute of limitation for murder is just ten years. Yet only two years ago Maurice Papon, a former civil servant, began a ten-year sentence at the age of 89 for his crimes of collaboration during the Nazi occupation of France.
The Algerians in the 1950s were fighting to rid themselves of foreign occupation as France was in the 1940s , and the war crimes committed against them should also be regarded as crimes against humanity that are subject to international law and conventions, not to French legislation that seeks to limit the scope of international law and norms. Otherwise the only conclusion to be drawn from all this is that conspiring in the murder of French people is punishable, while the same acts against Algerian victims are all right.