The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, May 08, 2004

Torture, public opinion and the Aussaresses case

I mentioned on May 5 that, in November, we will be entering an eight year period of fiftieth anniversaries of the Algerian War.

With torture filling headlines all over just now, the strange case of General Paul Aussaresses springs to mind. The guy previously figured here, first, on November 8 2002, in connection with the then recent death of General Jacques Massu, victor (kinda) of the Battle of Algiers; and then, on March 12 2003, kibitzing on what looks like a blogospherical indignation meeting of the air on torture and terrorism.

The Algerian War was one in which the French made great use of torture [1]. Weak governments in Paris - François Mitterrand a notable member of a couple of them as, from memory, Justice and Interior Minister - turned a Nelson's eye: policy in Algeria was under the effective control of the pieds noirs - Mediterranean rag, tag and bobtail whose merit lay in their not being Arab or Berber [2].

Aussaresses served under Massu in Algiers in 1957, supervising the interrogation of suspects: generally, electricity and water were used, and the suspect killed afterwards.

The use of torture in Algeria was widely known in France by the end of the war in 1962, despite heavy government censorship. But the subject was more or less taboo.

The General's crime was to speak of it with approval in his autobiography [3]. Literally, a crime: apologie de crimes de guerre. He was tried, convicted and fined, essentially for failing to stay quiet, or grovel, about the use of torture in Algeria [4].

Unlike the Indo-China War, a large number of young French conscripts, Jacques Chirac amongst them [5], found themselves in Algeria at one time or another (though only a small proportion would have taken part in torture sessions). The social pressure for oblivion was, and is, considerable.

(I now recall that Algeria was first put in my mind by a BBC radio docco - streamed here until sometime next Wednesday. The programme, just about worth half an hour's bandwidth, features Aussaresses and also Pierre Vidal-Naquet, of whose 1963 Penguin Special [6] Torture: Cancer of Democracy I have a rather battered copy. It's Algeria War Torture 101.)

  1. I'd be pretty sure the FLN did likewise: they were certainly no slowcoaches at mutilating their victims, French and native alike.

    A compare and contrast of the use of photographs for propaganda then, and now in Iraq, might be instructive.

  2. There were also noted as being athletically inclined. Albert Camus was a (soccer) goalkeeper, notoriously.

  3. In English, The Battle of the Casbah: (review). What purports to be long extracts - 18,000 words - from the original are here.

  4. The is a whole pile of snippets, but nothing satsifyingly comprehensive on the case. There is promising stuff here and here.

  5. The Elysée site has an extract from a 1987 bio by Franz-Olivier Giesbert which mentions Chirac's service in Algeria. He's posted
    à Souk-el-Arba, prêt de Montagnac, tout prêt de la frontière marocaine.
    He leads
    des opérations de ratissage
    - the natives are ratons (rather like Arabs are colloquially arabushes to Israelis). And then, out of the blue, a truly bizarre fact:
    Le sous-lieutenant Chirac a toujours un nerf de boeuf sur lui.
    That the French president should be associated with such an arcane instrument as a bull's pizzle! (As they say in the Michelin Guides, il vaut le voyage...) Note that Chirac did not use the thing for torture - Heaven forfend! - but, it says here, to chastise his own men:
    J'en faisais usage quand les gens se comportaient mal avec les Algériens pendant les opérations de ratissage...
  6. Où sont les Penguin Specials d'antan? The rise and fall of the brand would be a useful peg to hang a social history of Britain in the mid-20th century. For another time.

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