Devil’s Advocate: Meet The French Lawyer Who Defended The Worst 20th Century Rogues
Jacques Vergès took on the cases of Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal and Slobodan Milosovic. Now, he makes the case for himself.
PARIS - "She would say to me: ‘You are as cold and dangerous as this snake,"" Jacques Vergès recalls, proudly pointing to the rattlesnake-shaped, crystal lamp adorning his desk. "It is a gift from Cheyenne Brando. She was fond of me, but she also feared me." Vergès recounts how Marlon (Brando) asked him to defend his daughter, Cheyenne, after her half-brother killed her lover. "She eventually killed herself," Vergès says curtly.
France's most controversial lawyer loves being provocative. He revels in his ambiguous reputation of a lawyer for terrorists, and the label of an "enlightened bastard." Every time the role of fascinating monster gets too heavy for him to bear, the man who worked on behalf of the Algerian National Liberation Front, Klaus Barbie and a number of Cambodian dictators transforms himself into a "Serial Defender." For the past month, Vergès has been performing a play about his life to remind people that "I can sometimes be a different person", and to say that for him defending people is a way of life. His empathy will always allow him to understand the silence of an assassin, of his fellow creature, of his brother.
On the stage of the Madeleine Theater in Paris, Vergès delivers a two-hour long monologue in which he extols the "rupture defense," a legal theory he invented that calls into question the very authority of a court. It has become a trademark of virtually all his political trials. "By opposing divine laws to the laws of Creon, the king who denied a proper burial to his brother and ordered that his body be given as prey to vultures, the heroine Antigone invents a trial in which judges and the accused are opposed by antagonistic values," he explains. "Joan of Arc does the same thing by contesting the supremacy of state laws over divine laws. Enemies of the public order, both women are sentenced to death."
Verges understood early in his career the traps laid by irreconcilable justice systems, and he knows when "truthfulness can become incriminating evidence." Take for example the war in Algeria, where Jacques Vergès defended Algerians accused of terrorism -- and refused to cite mitigating circumstances on their behalf. It was a tactic aimed at undermining the legitimacy of special courts, and their unjust laws. This strategy helped him to shift the blame and denounce the entire colonial order.
Ever since that time, the man who defended the icon of the Algerian revolution Djamila Bouhired, has grasped his leading arguments without hesitating. Whether he claims to fight for independence, or on behalf of the developing world or ethnic minorities, this lawyer has always found it easy to convince people of the greatness of his profession and his own courage. "Having enrolled in the Free French Army at the age of 17, I have never been scared of the all the people who threatened me and accused me of being an assassin's accomplice," Vergès says.
Bowing down to no one
He is a rather small man with an abundance of grey hair; often dressed in black, his cigar ever present. ("I acquired this habit the day when El Che sent me the best Havanas', he says). Born 85 years ago to a French father and a Laotian mother, Vergès likes the mystery surrounding him, but loves the limelight even more. He grew up and studied on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, where he inherited his anti-colonialist views. Being a communist is a life calling, he says. "I enrolled in the first central school of the Communist Party for colonies the day I left the army," he recalls.
His politically incorrect stance stems from his temperament. "I never bow down to anyone," he says. Joining the Bar was nothing but a coincidence "I wanted to be a historian," he says. Often depicted as an angry man, he denies the reputation by mentioning the calm of the place where he spends most of his time: a huge office replete with rare books, African statues and Khmer Buddhas, situated in a Parisian private hotel.
But at what precise moment did the ambiguity of this friend of Mao, Pol Pot and Bouteflika explode in the public conscience? Was it after he started passionately defending terrorists and tyrants like Venezuela-born Carlos the Jackal, Lebanese terrorist Anis Naccache, and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic? Or after the period when he disappeared from public life (1970- 1978)? Were his actions motivated by his desire "to be part of politics', as he claims today? But what sort of politics, since "lawyers who become ministers betray their mission," as he puts it? Is he too close to the dark side of the world, too close to terrorist networks?
The moral earth is round too
Jacques Vergès replies that defending a man does not imply embracing all his ideas. Lawyers, he insists, never become their clients' accomplices. But the accusation hurts him nonetheless. Is he subversive? "There is no place for revolution today in France," he insists.
All things considered, he sees himself as a rebel. Vergès proudly displays De Gaulle's message in response to his demand to pardon Djamila Bouhired. In his letter, the former French president claims to recall the once young resistance fighter with "faithful precision." Vergès also says that he has always been on the best of terms with Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour and Jacques Isorni, "French Algeria" and far right supporters, who have always refused, just like him, "to obey to orders and betray their lawyer's oath."
He offers a quote from Nietzsche's "The Gay Science": "The moral earth is also round. The moral earth also has its antipodes." And he accuses, not without a touch of narcissism, "the press and their hunger for provocation of having transformed him into a provocateur and a dandy." What about Laurent Gbagbo, the fallen Ivory Coast president he is currently defending? "I don't consider him a saint, but I once told him the following: ‘You are a symbol. Your trial is that of the entire African continent against foreign involvement, against a protégé of the West. This symbol forces you to hold on." And symbols, like the lawyers who help invent them, are destined to have their day in court.