Some things, the French still do with more panache. For all the efforts of people like Michael Mansfield, the English legal system in modern times has never produced a radical lawyer with quite the controversial aura of Jacques Vergès, who died in Paris yesterday at the age of 88.

If the name rings no bell with Anglophones, try his media nickname ‘the devil’s advocate’. Vergès attracted worldwide fame for acting for the defence in the trials of former Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, archetypal terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan.

An obituary in the leftish daily Libération observes that this ‘media-wise and narcissistic’ lawyer ‘loved to provoke and destabilise’. That is an understatement. Vergès described his technique as ‘defense de la rupture’, meaning to defend by confronting all laws. ‘My law is to be against all laws. My morality is to be against all morality,’ he was once famously quoted as saying.

While those phrases sound like the facile slogans of a child of 1968, Vergès’ radicalisation began long before. He was born in French Indochina to a French father and Vietnamese mother and at the age of 17 enlisted with the Free French Forces in London. After the war he joined the Communist Party of France and qualified as a lawyer in 1955.

He first rose to fame – or notoriety – acting for National Liberation Front members accused of terrorism in the brutal and protracted war for Algerian independence. (The classic account in English is Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace.) There, he won a reprieve from the guillotine for a young woman convicted of an Algiers bombing after it emerged that she had been tortured under interrogation. On her release, he married her and the two founded a radical magazine in the revolutionary year 1968.

From 1970 to 1978 Vergès’ whereabouts are a notorious mystery – the widely held assumption is that he was for at least some of the time in Cambodia, with his old student friends Samphan and Saloth Sar, who by then was known as Pol Pot. In 1978, just before Vietnamese invasion forces revealed the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, Vergès resumed his career at the Paris bar, revelling in defending unpopular clients.

His general technique, as seen in his defence of Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon’, was to ignore the charges against his client and attack the foreign and colonial policies of France and other western allies. It didn’t do Barbie much good: he was convicted, sentenced to life and died in prison in 1991. Typically, Vergès also offered to defend Saddam Hussein, but was turned down. Saddam was hanged in 2006.

Vergès had a more comfortable end, succumbing to a heart attack before dinner in a Parisian house once inhabited by Voltaire. Even his harshest critics will agree he did things with a certain style. But they will also point out that his confrontational defence technique rode roughshod over the feelings of victims of genocide.

And that ‘defense de la rupture’ is permitted only in the bourgeois democratic societies that he affected to despise.

Michael Cross is Gazette news editor

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