by Marco Chown Oved
Article published on the 2008-11-02 Latest update 2008-11-05 09:35 TU
Mixing history, personal anecdote and philosophical reflection, Jacques Vergès has committed the ultimate act of narcissism: he's starring in his own one-man show about himself.
It's the kind of egotistic exercise that only the French would tolerate. But if anyone could pull it off, it's Vergès. This is - after all - a man whose career and personal life have followed the ambiguous moral tides of the cold war world.
As a lawyer he's earned his nickname "the devil's advocate" with audacious defenses of the world's biggest terrorists (Carlos the Jackal), its most despotic leaders (Slobodan Milosovich) and war criminals (Klaus Barbie, the Nazi Butcher of Lyon).
Last year, film-maker Barbet Schroeder released Terror's Advocate, a film about Vergès where he gives the lawyer extensive screentime to explain his involvement with these men, but goes on to suggest that Vergès had far deeper – and personal – connections with the far-left terrorists and revolutionaries he defended.
Perhaps it's in response to the film – a final attempt to get his last word in – that Vergès has taken to the stage this year. Serial Plaideur, showing at the Theatre de Madeleine, is essentially a two-hour monologue in which Vergès justifies his professional decisions and defends himself from perceived attacks, often by openly comparing himself to tragic figures like Antigone and Joan of Arc.
"How could you defend such a criminal?" he asks himself in the course of the play. "Asking a lawyer this question is as absurd as asking a doctor 'how could you treat him?'"
The play pivots on the arbitrariness of the law, and the clear injustice of colonial regimes - a life-long theme for Vergès, who edited anti-colonialist journals before defending those who put his theory into action.
Sitting behind his enormous desk at his office in Paris's 9th district, he explained that even international law was written by the victors.
"There are indeed international tribunals – but in these forums, it's always the victors who judge the vanquished," he says in between puffs of his enormous cigar. "For example, in Nuremburg, the Nazis were clearly guilty – and I don't call that into question – but who judged them? The French? Forced labour was practiced in the French colonies. They rounded up blacks in the villages and made them work at gunpoint."
"The English? In Australia, the aborigines were not counted in the census. Why? Because they were part of the fauna – gorillas aren't counted. The United States? They dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki even though they knew that civilians would be killed. The Russians? They killed thousands of Polish officers at Katyn."
"The victors weren't irreproachable – but no one judged them," he concludes.
Accusing the court of being guilty of similar or even worse crimes than his clients has been the cornerstone of the "rupture defense" tactic on which Vergès has made his reputation.
The first example of this was when he took up the defense of Djamila Bouhired, a young Algerian student accused of planting a bomb in a cafe in Algiers that killed several French military officers in 1957.
Djamila was part of the FLN, the militant revolutionary organization fighting for the independence of Algeria. She was tried before French judges as a terrorist and sentenced to death.
"The judges' values and those of the accused were contradictory," he explains. "For the judges, the accused were French, thus the FLN was a criminal organisation, and the attack was a crime. But the accused considered themselves a different people. They had a different language, a different history and culture. Thus for them, the FLN was a resistance movement, and the attack was an act of war."
"What's more, for them, the only criminals present were the judges: they were maintaining an unjust regime with the use of force."
Calling the judges' authority into question isn't perhaps the most effective rhetorical technique a lawyer could employ – but Vergès sees his job as simply getting his client off. Any tactic that can be employed to that end is fair game.
Following the death sentence, Vergès took Djamila's case outside of the courtroom and appealed to public opinion to have her pardoned. In today's world of humanitarian media campaigns, this seems natural. But in the 1950s it was unheard of.
"You could say that I invented the tactic." he says with quintessential arrogance. "But at the same time, it's clear that this idea has always existed. For example, in the trial of Antigone, Antigone appeals to divine law, while the judge only recognizes the law of the land. There, the conflict of values led to Antigone's death," he explains.
"The only difference is that before I used the trial as a tribune, the accused were isolated. And now they aren't alone and they can appeal to world opinion. The tactic works in today's world."
Fearing the public outroar in Algeria if Djamila were guillotined, French President René Coty pardoned her, and she was released from prison in 1962 – the same year Algeria gained its independence. Djamila and Vergès married two years later.
Vergès then embarked upon a career defending clients that span the political spectrum, from fascists to nationalists, anti-colonialists to plain-old dictators. He says he was approached to act for Saddam Hussein, but turned the offer down because of disagreements among Hussein's family members.
In the post-9/11 world, terrorism has again surfaced on a world-wide scale. Asked whether he has any interest in defending an Al Qaeda terrorist, Vergès demurs and turns the conversation towards the impossibility of a war on terror.
"Terrorism isn't an entity, it's a method," he says. "The judgements we make of terrorists vary according to who is using this tactic."
"In Algeria, the FLN's terrorism triumphed. The partisans of a French Algeria formed their own terrorist organisation called the OAS – the Secret Army Organisation. And they also staged attacks. But instead of serving their cause, the attacks isolated them because the French people weren't ready to accept terrorism."
"So, we can judge terrorism in relation to the popular support it receives."
Sitting in the calm of his book-lined office, surrounded by African and Asian art donated to him by his clients over the years, we return to the documentary. Confronted with Schroeder's suggestion that he spent eight years in the Cambodian jungle with his university classmate Pol Pot, or that he conspired with Carlos the Jackal far before he defended him, Vergès remains elusive, but charming.
Does his sympathy for Palestinian liberation and African decolonisation translate into an affinity with his clients, or was it just a job?
"I am not part of any movement. I am a lawyer. I defend people who are part of this movement, but I'm not in it myself."
With Serial Plaideur Jacques Verges continues to build his own legend.
Serial Plaideur is running at the Théâtre de la Madeleine until the end of the year.
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