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Tuesday, 9 January, 2001, 15:07 GMT
France confronts Algeria torture claims
French soldiers
French soldiers in Algiers during the war
By James Coomarasamy in Paris

Fresh allegations have emerged about the use of torture by French troops during the Algerian war.

The torture debate has been reopened by senior officers, one of whom has admitted to executing more than 20 Algerians personally.

It has long been common knowledge that French troops tortured Algerians, but France has never acknowledged it publicly.

General Marcel Bigeard, hero of the battle of Algiers and France's most decorated serviceman, has not escaped criticism.

"My life has been France, my fatherland," he said in an emotional speech following a ceremony in which he awarded medals to younger colleagues.


There is a duty for the French people and for the French government to accept the truth

Daneil Sarera, French Communist Party
"So when they treat Bijar as a torturer, I feel sick. But I will die with these words on my lips: I believe in my country."

The French Communist Party, always against the eight-year colonial war, is now sponsoring efforts to raise the question of official repentance in parliament.

"There is a duty for the French people and for the French government to accept the truth, that between 1954 and 1962 members of the French army participated in the torture," says Daniel Sarera, the party's international secretary.

Death threats

The official French history of the Algerian war did speak of torture, but only that carried out by the Algerian side. The French journalists who wrote about the electrodes and the Nazi-style water tortures used by their compatriots faced death threats.

Jacques Duquesne was one of them. He showed me horrific photos of raped Algerian women which he has only now felt able to publish. But as Daniel Sarera acknowledges, even 39 years after the war, this is not easy.

"In the US for example, we have a lot of movies about the Vietnam war and other things," he says.

"But in France, it's a very great effort to accept that at the end of the 50s and beginning of the 60s was a terrible period for the French. We must accept that during this war, it was a terrible thing on the name of the French people."

Boris Vian's 'The Deserter' was one of a string of songs and films critical of the Algerian war, which the French authorities censored for years.
President Chirac
Chirac is reluctant to acknowledge torture allegations

Some believed this attitude served to deepen the wounds which the conflict left on the nation, and helped ensure those wounds have never fully healed. And according to Algerian expert Remy Leveau, it's unlikely they will under the current regime.

Chirac's past

"President Chirac was a captain during the war in Algeria. He was doing his military service; he was not a professional officer," he said.

"A lot of people in his generation have been in the same condition, so for them it will be difficult to accept the debate on the way they were engaged in that war."

And, indeed, neither the government, nor the French president, is showing signs of taking up the Communist challenge.

The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, has spoken simply of a new historical analysis, while President Jacques Chirac is more categorical.

"I'll never do anything to harm the memory or the honour of the men who fought for France," he told a recent interviewer. "In these sorts of events, the best thing is to stand back and let history do its work."

But history alone will not be enough to bury this deep-rooted taboo. President Chirac's successors will find it increasingly difficult to leave the problem behind.

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See also:

04 Jan 01 | Middle East
Algerian violence flares
07 Dec 00 | Middle East
Timeline: Algeria
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