Meeting the Devil’s Advocate – An Interview with Jacques Vergès

The following glimpse into the life and mind of Jacques Vergès is brought to you by Chris Tenove. Chris is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of British Columbia where his research explores the political and ethical dilemmas of global governance for international criminal justice and humanitarianism. Chris also runs an excellent blog (see here). Enjoy!

Jacques Vergès (Photo: Bourdas / SIPA)

Jacques Vergès (Photo: Bourdas / SIPA)

Last week the illustrious, despised and devilishly playful Jacques Vergès died. The French lawyer was notorious not only for the clients he defended but for the provocative tactics he used. Most recently, he had defended former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, now being tried at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. I wrote about the ECCC in its early days for Macleans, The Walrus and the Radio Netherlands World Service. I was curious to see whether Vergès might challenge the authority and the narrative of the ECCC, as he had done in previous trials. I therefore secured a meeting at his Paris home in August, 2008. I had planned to write a magazine profile or an academic paper on Vergès but never quite got to it. Re-reading my interview with him I regretted that decision. I continue to find his views on criminal trials to be provocative and interesting, as well as self-serving and sometimes cold-hearted. Vergès saw legal advocacy as profoundly creative and political, particularly if one casts off conventional views about the legitimacy of courts or the desire to have criminal trials establish the truth and provide some vindication to victims.

Before excerpting from that interview, here are a few details from Vergès’ fascinating life. Those interested in more can turn to this superb profile by Stéphanie Giry, the very good documentary Terror’s Advocate and a great character sketch in Erna Paris’ Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair. Vergès was born in 1925 in Thailand to a French doctor and his Vietnamese wife. His father had to quit as French consul because of this interracial marriage, which helps explain Vergès’ love-hate relationship with France. He enjoyed attention from his countrymen, a refined life in Paris and the French tradition of subversive public intellectuals like Voltaire. (Vergès died in a home that Voltatire once lived in.) Yet he spent much of his life attacking the country’s mores and defending some of its enemies.

Vergès rose to fame in 1957 when he defended – and fell in love with – Djamila Bouhired, a young revolutionary with Algeria’s National Liberation Front. Bouhired was accused of planting a bomb in a milk bar in Algiers frequented by French civilians. Eleven people were killed. Vergès did not try to prove that Bouhired was innocent or seek a reduced sentence. Instead he mounted what he called “la défense de la rupture” – to defend the accused by creating a rupture in the trial itself. He did so by challenging the legality and morality of the state that mounted the prosecution, through dramatic speeches to the courtroom and the news media. In Bouhired’s case he attacked the court as a puppet of French colonialism in Algeria. Bouhired was sentenced to death but Vergès’ performance had made her a cause-célèbre. Facing a domestic and international outcry, the court stayed her execution. When Algeria became independent in 1962 she was released and proclaimed a national hero. Bouhired and Vergès together advocated for anticolonial causes, met with Mao Zedong in China, and married in 1965.

In 1970, Vergès told his wife and others that he was going to Spain. He then disappeared for seven years. He has referred to this phase, mysteriously, as the time when he stepped “into the looking glass.” Theories abound concerning his whereabouts: in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (I think unlikely), in Palestinian militant training camps, perhaps living invisibly in Paris, etc. When I asked when he would reveal the truth of those years, Vergès said “perhaps as a last testament.” He added with a laugh, “But for now I am in very good health.”

Jacques Vergès with Klaus Barbie (Photo: AP)

Jacques Vergès with Klaus Barbie (Photo: AP)

When Vergès reappeared he did not rejoin Bouhired and his children but became a Paris-based lawyer. He no longer focused on anticolonial struggles but defended a range of notorious clients, from enemies of the French state (Klaus Barbie and Carlos the Jackal), to African despots (Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema and Henri Conan Bédié of Ivory Coast), to people infected with HIV by tainted blood in France, to celebrities such as Marlon Brando’s daughter Cheyenne. While his clients were often found guilty, he reveled in the notoriety and the proximity to violence, and appears to have made a tidy income doing so.

Vergès used his rupture defense most famously in the 1987 trial of the Nazi official Klaus Barbie, known as the “Butcher of Lyon”. Barbie was accused of overseeing the murder or torture of thousands of French citizens, including Jewish children and French Resistance members such as the revered Jean Moulin. The trial of Barbie was expected to show the suffering and heroic resistance of the French under Nazi occupation. But Vergès used the trial to bring attention to war crimes that France had committed in countries it occupied after 1945, as well as to show the divisions and sometimes betrayals within the French Resistance. Barbie was convicted but Vergès’ successfully ruptured the trial’s dominant narrative.

This approach makes sense in international criminal tribunals, where the court’s legality and legitimacy are often in question. Defense lawyers often challenge the jurisdiction of international tribunals’ over their clients, and defendants such as Slobodan Milosevic have tried to create ruptures in their trials in order to tell alternate histories of events. Vergès intended to challenge the ECCC’s limited focus on crimes under the Khmer Rouge regime, ignoring the horrific American bombing of Cambodia before 1975 and the later involvement of China and Vietnam in the country (see below). I haven’t watched the trial of Khieu Samphan closely, but several people have told me that Vergès’ performance was not particularly impressive or effective.

The Interview: August 6, 2008.

I met Vergès at his private residence and office on a quiet street in Paris, a stone canyon of Haussman-era buildings brightened by the occasional spray of geraniums on marble balconies. In the antechamber to his office a dozen chess sets from different countries were laid out on a low table—a reminder to the visitor that they are about to meet a man of the world and a master strategist. Vergès met me here, wearing a pale lavender dress shirt and silk vest and his familiar round-rimmed glasses. He shook my hand and guided me into his office. Wall-to-wall bookshelves extended to the high ceilings, thousands of books ranging from legal tomes, leather-bound volumes of theology and history to works of literature from Molière to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Around the office were mementos of Vergès’ past clients, such as the wooden mask given to him by Cheyenne Brando and a ten-foot tall statue of polished mahogany, a deity with the mouth of a crocodile and kangaroo ears, given to him by the Malian strongman General Moussa Traore.

Vergès spoke in elegant and clear French, interrupted by pauses to let a particularly apt phrase register or to punctuate a rhetorical question. He speaks warmly but with a steely conviction in his views. From time to time he laughed at some absurdity that he wanted to share with me, a strange chortle that began in his stomach and bubbled up through his chest to emerge just as he concluded his phrase.

His remarks that follow are not direct quotations. Vergès did not permit me to record our conversation and both my French and my shorthand are imperfect.

Verges with Laurent Gbagbo (Photo: Lydie/Sipa Press)

Vergès with former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo faces charges relating to alleged crimes committed in Ivory Coast in 2010. Prior to his death, Vergès had been Gbagbo’s legal counsel. (Photo: Lydie/Sipa Press)

On Who He Defends

I believe a lawyer has an extraordinary opportunity. Perhaps one that is like no other profession, because has the chance to meet such different faces of humanity. I have not only defended the terrorist, I have also defended the victim of the terrorist, and the victim of the police who was trying to fight against the terrorists.

I can defend an enemy. An enemy intrigues me. As I’ve said before, I’d even defend [George W.] Bush, but only if he pleaded guilty.

Not all the cases I take are high profile. I have done many cases of divorce and fiscal matters. Some I take simply because they interest me. I once read a newspaper story that resembled a thriller – a bourgeois woman was killed and her body was found in the cellar. Written in her blood was the name of her gardener, “Omar.” I took this case simply out of interest.

On the Trial of Khieu Samphan

The tribunal refuses to enlarge its scope of inquiry. It can’t touch the Americans, the Chinese or the Vietnamese. But a large part of the population in Cambodia died from the American bombings and war during the Lon Nol years.

So I will use two strategies in the case. One, I will try to force the tribunal to widen its scope, to look at all the crimes committed in Cambodia. Two, I do not disagree that the Khmer Rouge committed crimes, but I will argue that Kheiu Samphan is not personally responsible.

Khieu Samphan was a figurehead who the Khmer Rouge used because the people liked him. He was not directly involved in the violence. The words he said during that time were twisted. He said people needed to be eliminated from political power. He just wanted them to lose their jobs; he didn’t plan for them to be killed…

On Trials as Works of Literature

A court case is similar to a great work of literature, and especially a tragedy. It always includes an infraction and it reveals the character of human beings… I see my work as similar to that of great literary writers whose characters were culprits, like Shakespeare with Macbeth and Richard the Third, or Dostoevsky and his Raskolnikov.

Trials have a perverse ability to create personages. If Joan of Arc had been killed without being put on trial, she would never have become a saint, she would have been no one.

A trial can’t honor the dead. The accused are the principle people in a trial. All attention is on them, not on the victims. The victims should be honored in another domain… Perhaps a musician would be better able to stimulate the emotions, rather than a judge.

On His Own Legacy 

[In response to the question, ‘What will you be remembered for?]

First, I created the defense of the rupture.

Then, second, I experimented with the mediatization of trials as a result of this rupture defense.

Third, I contributed to the aesthetic transformation of the court case. I showed how they it never really touch reality. It is always a story.

On Resisting Black and White Judgments

Man is very complex, his opinions and his mind are neither black nor white. The judge, however, asks binary questions that must be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’. At the end of the trial there is the prosecutor facing the defense. Both lawyers are drawing their arguments from the same dossier – how can either account be the complete truth?

Society has difficulty seeing other than black or white. People can’t accept that Hitler killed millions of people but loved his wife.

People don’t believe in these complexities because they are afraid of what every person is capable of. We, who believe ourselves to be good people, also contain monstrosities.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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