95-year-old general remained unapologetic about his role in a conflict that is still ultra-sensitive 51 years on
The death of Paul Aussaresses was announced by the association of French ex-paras known as “Qui ose gagne” (Who dares wins) and it’s a measure of how deep an open wound the Algerian War still is in France that this man who broke the omerta on French clandestine activities in Algeria still causes scandal in his native country.
The permanent eye-patch is misleading: his particular wound was not battle-inflicted but from a cataract operation that went wrong. It was in an interview published back in 2000 that he unleashed a storm of reaction in France and Algeria when he gave a series of long and shockingly frank interviews on his time as an enforcer of French colonial law in Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Born into a Bourgeois family near Bordeaux in 1918, the keen literature student joined the allied forces in London in 1943 and his patriotic actions earned him numerous decorations for acts of bravery. One of his most notable and daring operations was when he parachuted behind enemy lines wearing a German uniform in April 1945 to open prison camps and relay instructions from the Allies.
The decorated war hero was a founding member of the “11e Choc” brigade – the armed wing of the counter-espionage grouping SDECE – a role of which he was eternally proud. Head of a parachute battalion, he served time in the former French colony of Indochina (today, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) under his hero General Pâris de Bollardière. The former was one of the most outspoken opponents of torture in the French Army and if he had stayed under de Bollardière’s command, then his career might have taken a very different course.
As it happened, he was called to assist General Massu in 1957 in Algiers as the French role in Indochina crumbled. Aussaresses applied himself with a cold-blooded vigour that apparently left some of his superiors shaken, but these were violent times in Algeria as a bloody series of attacks by paramilitaries seeking independence from France were met by operations on the French side that sought to match them in levels of brutality.In his 2000 revelations, Aussaresses did not hold back on the details that his comrades had not spoken of until that point: death squads, torture, summary executions… all told with an indifferent tone “without remorse or regret,” he said. Some of his revelations contradicted official French military records of the time. In 1957 at the height of the Battle of Algiers, for example, Aussaresses says that he hung Larbi Ben M’Hidi – a man that Algerian nationalists consider a national hero of independence. Aussaresses also said that he killed FLN lawyer Ali Boumendjel. The official story to this day is that both these men committed suicide.
The backlash against Aussaresses was severe. Starting with the (then) French President Chirac, who stripped him of his Légion d’Honneur award
and the French justice system which instigated proceedings against him on the charge of “apology for torture”.
His three daughters renounced him, with one of them refusing to bear his name any more. His wife – a former member of the Résistance – stayed by his side and died a few months later (Aussaresses was to marry again, also to a former Résistante). His other family – the French Military – turned its back on him. Some of them feared further revelations that would be damaging to them personally and Aussaresses began to receive death threats, including three attempts on his life. Two separate letter bombs sent to his Paris residence were defused and on another occasion at the Place de la Bastille in the city centre, he was shot at. One of his friends who also served as his bodyguard, took a bullet in the thigh for him.
After his second marriage at the age of 79, Aussaresses moved to the countryside near Strasbourg, where he lived until his death two days ago. One of the secrets that he did take to his grave was the story of what happened to mathematician Maurice Audin. He was “disappeared” in 1957 in Algiers and Aussaresses would only agree to the tell the story if his boss General Massu gave his consent. To the despair of Audin’s widow and family, Massu refused.