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The Torture of Algiers


by Louisette Ighilahriz, as told to Anne Nivat
Paris: Fayard/Calmann-Lévy, 274 pp., 18.25s (paper)

Une Vie Debout: Mémoires Politiques, Tome 1: 1945–1962

by Mohammed Harbi
Paris: La Découverte, 420 pp., 22.00s (paper)

Les Harkis: Une Mémoire Enfouie

by Jean-Jacques Jordi and Mohand Hamoumou
Paris: Autrement, 137 pp., 19.00s (paper)

Une Drôle de Justice: Les Magistrats dans la Guerre d’Algérie

by Sylvie Thénault
Paris: La Découverte, 347 pp., 23.00s (paper)

Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria

by James D. Le Sueur, with aforeword by Pierre Bourdieu
University of Pennsylvania Press, 352 pp., $46.50

La Gangrène et l’Oubli:La Mémoire de la Guerre d’Algérie

by Benjamin Stora
Paris: La Découverte, 377 pp., 12.00s (paper)

La Torture et l’Armée pendant la Guerre d’Algérie, 1954–1962

by Raphaëlle Branche
Paris: Gallimard, 474 pp., 26.68s (paper)

Aux Origines de la Guerre d’Algérie, 1940–1945

by Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer
Paris: La Découverte, 403 pp., 25.00s (paper)


In the fall of 1957, Louisette Ighilahriz, a twenty-year-old soldier in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Algerian nationalist underground seeking to end French rule, was captured by French paratroopers on the outskirts of Algiers. Badly wounded in battle, she was transferred to a prison in the capital, where she spent the next three months under interrogation. According to Ighilahriz, now a psychologist and a grandmother of three, she was stripped naked, raped, and tortured repeatedly, before being rescued by a French military doctor who found her huddled in a pool of excrement and menstrual blood.

In the summer of 2000, Ighilahriz spoke of her torture for the first time in an interview with Florence Beaugé, Le Monde‘s correspondent in Algiers.1 Thanks to Beaugé’s story, which ran on the paper’s front page, Ighilahriz became the catalyst of a debate about the legacy of the French-Algerian war—a largely French debate, but one that is beginning to have ripple effects on the other side of the Mediterranean.2

Ighilahriz’s testimony was especially powerful because of who she is. A student of the work of Victor Hugo and a fluent speaker of French, she has far more in common with her French contemporaries than with the bearded fundamentalists who waged jihad in her country throughout the 1990s, often singling out secular, professional women for assassination. What made her interview particularly poignant was that she seemed to be moved less by rage at her jailers than by gratitude to the doctor who saved her. She told Beaugé she broke her silence in the hope of finding Dr. Francis Richaud. (He had died in 1997.) At the same time, Ighilahriz did not hesitate to name the officers in attendance during her ordeal, most notably Jacques Massu, the head of the 10th division of paratroopers and a trusted ally of De Gaulle. Her charges provoked an uproar.

A distinguished ninety-four-year-old retired general, Massu has long acknowledged the use of torture by the French army, and his reply to Ighilahriz was remarkably temperate. Although he said he did not recall witnessing her torture, he said her testimony was otherwise credible, and that he knew the doctor to whom she paid such moving tribute. “Torture,” he told Le Monde, “isn’t indispensable in times of war, and one can very well do without it. When I look back on Algeria, it saddens me…. One could have done things differently.” Massu’s peers were furious. General Marcel Bigeard, who was also accused of torture by Ighilahriz, and who is said to have thrown Algerian prisoners from helicopters during the war, called her remarks a “tissue of lies.” But the most explosive reply of all came from Paul Aussaresses, an obscure, eighty-four-year-old general, in an interview with Le Monde in the fall of 2000.

Aussaresses is a veteran of De Gaulle’s Free French Forces. An undercover agent during the Second World War, he served the Resistance with great valor, parachuting into Germany in a Nazi uniform in 1945. During France’s war in Indochina, he carried out operations behind Viet Minh lines. Aussaresses was assigned to the Constantine province of eastern Algeria in 1955, a few months after the outbreak of the insurrection. He became Massu’s right-hand man the following year during the Battle of Algiers, which began with a wave of FLN bombings of crowded marketplaces and cafés in the capital’s European section.

In Le Monde, Aussaresses defended the use of torture and confessed to summary executions and political assassinations (often arranged to look like suicides). In his memoirs, Services Spé-ciaux: Algérie 1955–1957, which was published in the spring of 2001 and which has now been translated into English as The Battle of the Casbah, he writes of his exploits in graphic, often gleeful detail.3 He is eager to take credit for France’s “victory” in the casbah, but the credit, he admits, is not his alone. As he points out, all the major parties backed the war, even, for a time, the Communists. Far from being vigilante “excesses,” as France’s political class has long maintained, torture and other war crimes were widespread, systematic, and largely approved by the government, which had acquired special powers in a unanimous parliamentary vote in early 1956. Aussaresses says he reported to one Judge Jean Berard, an emissary of François Mitterrand, who was then the minister of justice in Guy Mollet’s cabinet. Berard “covered our actions…. I had an excellent relationship with him, with nothing to hide.”4

Although Aussaresses says he was reluctant at first to use torture, he appears to have been easily convinced of its usefulness. Shortly after his arrival in Constantine, a policeman told him he could either “torture a suspected terrorist or tell the parents of the victims that it’s better to let scores of innocent people be killed…than make a single accomplice suffer. That short discussion swept away any doubts I may still have harbored.” Then came the FLN massacres of August 20, 1955. In Philippeville and in other cities throughout the Constantine province, Algerians brandishing knives descended on people in their cars, killing seventy-one Europeans and fifty-two Muslim “traitors.” As Aussaresses recalls, “When I saw children chopped up into pieces, with their throats slit or crushed to death, the women who had been disemboweled or decapitated, I think I really forgot what having any pity meant.”

Aussaresses’ reaction is understandable. But the cruel repression that followed Philippeville only stiffened Algerian resistance, following a pattern established by earlier French reprisals. Aussaresses and his men arrested one hundred suspects and shot them on the spot. By the end of the week, well over a thousand Algerians, mostly civilians, lay dead, marking what Frantz Fanon later called “the point of no return.”

Here was a tale of two horrors—that of terrorism, and that of counterterrorism. Yet French liberals paid scant attention to the former, which is perhaps a measure of the distance they have placed between themselves and the Algerian war.5 Early this year, a petition signed by twelve prominent left intellectuals calling for an official statement of repentance for French torture, similar to Chirac’s apology to French Jews in 1995, rapidly gathered tens of thousands of signatures. The “manifesto of the twelve” was the subject of sympathetic articles in newspapers across the political spectrum, from Le Monde to Le Figaro. Most polls have indicated that a majority of the French—particularly those born after the war—support legal action against French officers who ordered torture.

In an editorial titled “After Vichy, Algeria,” Le Monde likened the impact of Aussaresses’ revelations to that of Marcel Ophuls’ 1971 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which prompted the French to confront the sordid history of collaboration under General Pétain. Jean Daniel, the Algerian-born director of Le Nouvel Observateur, suggested that France’s crimes might be better understood against the backdrop of the FLN’s atrocities against innocent civilians, but his was a lonely voice.

Why did Aussaresses’ confession have such a cathartic effect? French torture in Algeria is hardly news. Journalists like Claude Bourdet exposed the use of torture in the early days of the war.6 In 1960, La Question, Henri Alleg’s gripping first-person account of his own torture, sold 60,000 copies in one day, before being banned by the French police. Aussaresses wasn’t telling the French something that they could claim had been kept from them. Yet his very brazenness forced the French public to confront some uncomfortable truths about their mission civilisatrice in Algeria. His story seemed to contain a disturbing parable, that of the resistance hero who saves France’s honor during the black days of the Nazi occupation, only to squander it in a dirty colonial war. For some, he was the monster in the closet, and he looked the part, with an eyepatch that made him an irresistible subject for cartoonists.

Aussaresses’ tone, moreover, was not only remorseless but fearless, as if he were taunting the political establishment to try to punish him because he felt certain that it would not. He spoke with the protection granted by the amnesties of 1962 and 1968, which insulate Algerian veterans from prosecution for war crimes.^7 The International Federation of Human Rights tried to pursue a case against Aussaresses, but it went nowhere, leading the editors of Le Monde to wonder, “How can we pursue a trial of Maurice Papon and the crimes of his bureau and refuse to judge the equally real crimes of General Aussaresses?” In late January, Aussaresses was forced to pay a $6,500 fine for “justifying war crimes,” a sentence so trivial that it served only to underline the fact that his deeds were exempt from punishment, and that France had little interest in revisiting the past.


The French-Algerian war began early in the morning of November 1, 1954, when the FLN led a series of assaults that killed nine people, and ended on March 19, 1962, with the signing of the Évian Accords between France and the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA), the FLN’s government-in-exile. Even by the bloody standards of colonial warfare, the war was astonishingly brutal. About 300,000 Algerians died,8 and hundreds of thousands were tortured. More than two million Algerian civilians were forcibly relocated, many of them concentrated in “accommodation centers” surrounded by barbed wire. The French “pacification” campaign resulted in the destruction of 8,000 villages. Approximately 24,000 French soldiers never returned home, and several thousand French Algerians were killed in acts of terrorism. When the war was over, the FLN slaughtered tens of thousands of harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought in mobile auxiliary units alongside the French. (Harka means “mobile” in Arabic.)

The war created sharp divisions within France itself, precipitating the collapse of the Fourth Republic and ultimately pushing the country to the edge of civil war. Intellectuals on the left viewed the “ultras,” i.e. the extreme right-wing settlers, as homegrown fascists; a handful offered their services to the Algerian underground. Francis Jeanson, a protégé of Sartre, created a network of “baggage carriers,” composed of thousands of men and women who laundered money for the FLN. As the journalists Patrick Rotman and Hervé Harmon have argued in an engrossing book on Jeanson’s cell,9 most of the baggage carriers believed that in supporting the Algerian resistance they were upholding the values of French republicanism and antifascism. Jeanson hoped that an FLN victory would set off a socialist revolution in France itself. Sartre, who had been relatively quiescent during the occupation, became increasingly intoxicated by the Algerian revolt, which, as the historian Benjamin Stora suggests in his recent book La Gangrène et l’Oubli, offered him “psychological compensation for the lack of revolutionary perspectives in France.” In his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Sartre came up with a dangerously seductive justification for terror: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppresso, and the man he oppresses at the same time.”

  1. 1

    After the war, the FLN discouraged torture victims from talking about the experience, which was considered shameful.

  2. 2

    Ighilahriz’s revelations were icily received by the Algerian government. General Khaled Nezzar, the former minister of defense and an influential figure within the pouvoir, Algeria’s shadowy governing clique, said the debate on torture was an “internal French affair.” In spring 2001, while on a book tour in Paris, he was charged with war crimes, including torture and summary executions, by the families of disappeared Islamists. Nezzar—nicknamed “Nezzaresses” by protestors on the streets of Algiers—immediately flew home. The members of the Algerian government “aren’t interested in the debate on torture because they’re doing the very same thing today,” the exiled historian Mohammed Harbi told me recently.

  3. 3

    The book’s title refers to the Battle of Algiers, brilliantly recreated by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo in his 1965 masterpiece, La Bataille d’Alger.

  4. 4

    The only negotiation is war!” Mitterrand said in November 1954. In his 1981 presidential campaign, he appealed to the pieds noirs, the French citizens who settled or were born in Algeria, by promising more indemnity payments; shortly after his election he restored full military honors to the generals who conspired against De Gaulle for “selling out” French Algeria.

  5. 5

    In America, Aussaresses has recently found a more receptive audience. Appearing as a terrorism expert on 60 Minutes, he was asked whether he would torture al-Qaeda suspects. “It seems to me it’s obvious,” he replied.

  6. 6

    See Bourdet’s article, “Votre Gestapo en Algérie,” France-Observateur, January 1955.

  7. 8

    The Algerian government’s official estimate is “a million and a half martyrs.” Shortly after the Évian Accords were signed, Louis Joxe, the head of the French team of negotiators, had dinner with his Algerian counterpart, Mohammed Yezid, who had been Joxe’s student at the Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Politiques. “Tell me,” Joxe is reported to have asked Yezid, “what’s this about a million dead? You know that’s not true.” Yezid, a mordant wit, smiled. “Well, Professor, it doesn’t mean you killed all of them.”

  8. 9

    Les Porteurs des Valises: La Résistance Française à la guerre d’Algérie (Éditions Albin Michel, 1979).

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