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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 12:48 GMT
France's 'brutal colonial war'
Paul Aussaresses
General Aussaresses defends his actions during the war
By the BBC's European analyst Jan Repa

A former French general went on trial in Paris this week charged with justifying war crimes comitted during France's brutal colonial war in Algeria in the 1950s.


I got no pleasure from doing it

General Aussaresses interview

Paul Aussaresses, aged 83, was stripped of his army rank and his highest decoration, the Legion d'Honneur after admitting torturing and killing Algerians in a bestselling book "Special Services, Algeria 1955-57", published in May.

But he has repeatedly said he feels no remorse for the way Algerian prisoners were treated - or for his own involvement in summary executions - as he confirmed in a radio interview last year:

Q: How did it happen? Was it after the torture?
A: Sometimes there was not any torture.
Q: And how were they executed?
A: By a burst of gunfire.
Q: A burst of gunfire?
A: Yes.
Q: Without second thoughts?
A: I got no pleasure from doing it.

War of independence

The Algerian war of independence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, cost the lives of 30,000 French people and at least half a million Algerians.

A petrol station burns in the European sector of Algiers
The general says France fought a "war against terrorists"
The French conquest of Algeria, which began in the 1830s, had been conducted with great savagery.

Officially, Algeria was declared an integral part of France - and the best land set aside for French and other south European settlers.

In many ways French behaviour and attitudes mirrored the Russian conquest of another largely Muslim territory - Chechnya and the Caucasus - which occurred at about the same time.

In the 1950s France committed more than half a million troops to the suppression of the Algerian "rebellion".


There were millions of French people of Algerian origin or from metropolitan France, who fought for France... France can be proud of them

President Chirac

Although the more densely populated coastal areas were secured, they failed to re-establish firm control of the mountainous and desert interior.

With the army left more or less to its own devices, torture and other atrocities became widespread.

This, and the obvious failure to bring the Algerians to heel, led to widespread moral revulsion in France itself and loss of faith in the squabbling politicians of France's "4th Republic".

Atrocities

General Charles de Gaulle became president in 1958, with considerably enhanced powers - and a mandate to end the war.

Jacques Chirac
President Chirac offered no apology
The French Government conceded independence to Algeria in 1962- a decision overwhelmingly endorsed by the French people in a referendum.

The reminiscences of former French soldiers, recently published at length in French papers like Le Monde, leave little to the imagination.

Algerian prisoners were subjected to electric shocks, forced to drink petrol, horrifically sexually abused, and encouraged to fight each other to the death - with a promise that the winner would be spared further torture.

Another aspect of the war, highlighted by veterans, was the sheer boredom of barracks life in a dangerous and largely alien environment - with little to do but get drunk, play cards and molest local women.

Paul Aussaresses continues to argue that France was involved in a "war against terrorists" and that torture was "useful and necessary".

He could face up to five years in prison.

French policy

The Algerian war continues to stir deep emotions in France.

For years, French settlers repatriated to metropolitan France faced ostracism and mockery.

They were nicknamed "black feet", for their alleged habit of walking barefoot in the desert.

Meanwhile, the "Harkis" - Algerians who had fought on the French side - were mostly abandoned to a horrible fate in Algeria itself.

Various French organisations have called for a an official French apology - but President Jacques Chirac has refused.

"There were millions of French people of Algerian origin or from metropolitan France, who fought for France under the French Government's orders.

"They did it with courage, determination and France can be proud of them. I will never do anything that might darken their image or sully their honour," he said.

It could be argued that torture and summary executions were not official French policy - and that France, as such, does not need to apologise.

But, as with the belated arguments about France's record under the German occupation, the argument seems as much about French self-image and self-esteem.

See also:

06 Jun 01 | Europe
Torture general punished
14 May 01 | Middle East
French general in Algeria torture claim
04 May 01 | Europe
Chirac condemns torture general
07 Feb 01 | Europe
France plans Algeria memorial
07 Dec 00 | Middle East
Timeline: Algeria
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