He was known as ‘the devil’s advocate’ and ‘the advocate of terror’. Jacques Vergès, doubtless the most provocative and mysterious French lawyer of his generation, died at the age of 88 on Thursday night.
Vergès left the world with his usual theatrical flair, by dying in the very room where the philosopher Voltaire expired 235 years ago, on the Quai Voltaire, overlooking the Louvre.
The son of a French consul from the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion and a Vietnamese mother, Vergès was born in present-day Thailand. His sobriquet was ‘the Chinaman’. He received visitors in a sombre office filled with oriental objets d’art. Blowing puffs of smoke from his beloved Havanas, he peered quizzically through round, wire-rimmed glasses.
His presence was at the same time mesmerising and unsettling; Vergès gave the impression he could convince one of the most blatant untruths.
Vergès grew up on La Réunion. In 1942, at the age of 17, he and his brother Paul made their way to Madagascar and London, to join the Free French Forces who were fighting the Nazis. Though he proclaimed admiration for Gen Charles de Gaulle, he joined the Communist Party and became, in his own words, “a little anti-colonialist agitator in the Latin Quarter” after the war. Pol Pot, the future perpetrator of the Cambodian genocide, was one of his student friends in Paris.
Vergès's position as secretary of the international union of communist students took him to Prague in the 1950s. He frequently visited Erich Honecker, east German dictator in the making, and the future KGB chief Alexander Shelepin.
But in 1957, Vergès resigned from the French Communist Party, calling it “lukewarm”. By now a trained lawyer, he went to Algiers to join in the defence of members of the national liberation front (FLN) accused by the French of terrorism.
He first used his famous défense de rupture to plea for the life of the FLN bomber Djamila Bouhired. The strategy consisted of refusing to engage with the justice system on its own terms, instead accusing the accusers. Bouhired was sentenced to be guillotined, but the French backed down in the face of an international outcry. Vergès married her.
After showing up in Beirut with the PLO, Vergès disappeared completely from 1970 until 1978. One theory said he was in Cambodia with Pol Pot. Though Vergès wrote 20 books, he never elucidated the period, saying only that he had been "on the other side of the mirror".
In the 1980s, Vergès defended Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan extremist known as Carlos. Carlos told a judge he asked Vergès to defend him because Vergès was "more dangerous" than he was. As reported by Le Monde, Vergès said he was flattered because "the combat of ideas is as dangerous as fighting with bombs".
Most of Vergès’s clients shared notoriety and suphurous reputations. Among others, he defended the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Waddi Haddad, Anis Naccache, who attempted to assassinate the former Iranian prime minister Shapour Baktiar at Tehran’s behest in Paris.
There were also: the wartime Gestapo chief of Lyon Klaus Barbie, the Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein's foreign minister Tariq Aziz. In 2011, Vergès travelled to Cambodia to defend the Khmer rouge leader Khieu Samphan in his trial for crimes against humanity.
Vergès called himself "the luminous bastard", the title of his autobiography. Barbet Schroeder's documentary interview with Vergès, The Terror Advocate, was shown at Cannes in 2007. In 2008, Vergès told the story of his own eventful life on stage, at the Théâtre de la Madeleine in Paris.