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.

Jacques Verges (dalbera)
Jacques Verges (dalbera)
Jean-Gabriel Fredet

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.

Jacques Vergès (dalbera)

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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