In 1983, when Jacques Vergés announced that he would defend Klaus Barbie against the French government’s charges of crimes against humanity, the lawyer also declared that if he had met the so-called Butcher of Lyons 45 years ago, “I would have killed him.” But the 62-yearold veteran of the Free French forces, which fought vigorously against Germany during the Second World War, is seemingly untroubled by his decision to defend the ex-Nazi against charges of torturing and murdering thousands of French civilians. Indeed,
Vergés appears to be relishing his role in the trial which began last week in Lyons.
Poison: But critics say that the enigmatic, controversial lawyer is not so much interested in defending Barbie as he is in seizing the opportunity to attack France and the Western establishment. And Vergés said himself that he hopes to use Barbie’s long-awaited trial to smash what he calls the “official lie” of wide resistance on the part of the French during the German occupation. He says that he intends to prove that most Frenchmen collaborated willingly with the enemy.“It is time,” he declared,
“for the French to release the poison, to cast a lucid and critical gaze on their past.”
Vergés’ determination to use the Barbie trial to vent his anti-establishment views has puzzled and upset many Frenchmen and provoked outrage on the part of some. But since being called to the Paris bar in 1955, Vergés has made a career of championing unpopular causes. Over the years his clients have included Algerian rebels, rightist African leader Moise Tshombe, Palestinian and Armenian terrorists and, most recently, Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, a Lebanese guerrilla leader sentenced to life imprisonment in Paris in February for complicity in the murder of U.S. and Israeli diplomats. Vergés’ courtroom
method, based on what he calls a “strategy of provocation and rupture,” has made him widely disliked but has also won him a reputation as a master of dramatic effect and witty banter.
Wealth: Away from the courtroom, Vergés has been active in a number of revolutionary causes, and his political leanings have embraced Stalinism, Maoism, anticolonialism and anti-Zionism. A polished, sophisticated man with a cynical manner, the youthful-looking Vergés (he has admitted to having had cosmetic surgery) is fond of smoking fat cigars and drinking good wines. He courts publicity and admits that he enjoys the limelight: he was recently pictured in the weekly magazine Paris Match reclining in a bubble bath with a newspaper. A wealthy man, he lives
alone in a Paris townhouse valued at half a million dollars. On his office wall is a magnificent 17th-century tapestry depicting a peacock.
Some of Verges’ critics say that his rebellious nature can be attributed to his mixed racial background and the environment of his youth. Born on March 5, 1925, in Siam (now Thailand) to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, Vergés spent most of his childhood on the French island colony of Réunion, off Madagascar. Jean-François Kahn, editor of the Paris-based weekly newsmagazine L ’Evénement du Jeudi, says that Vergés’ behavior is motivated by a “hatred of Western society” born of a desire for revenge following the humiliations he suffered as a youth of mixed blood.
Conscience: Other French critics, like Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld and writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, say that antiSemitism played a role in Vergés’ decision to defend Barbie. That charge stems chiefly from an anti-Zionist book Vergés wrote after Swiss authorities would not permit him to defend Palestinian guerrillas accused of attacking El AÍ aircraft in Zurich and Athens in 1969. But although Vergés acknowledges his
anti-Zionist leanings, he dismisses any suggestion of bias against Jews. During a TV interview on May 10, he declared, “How could I, a child who was spit upon because of his race, discriminate against another for his creed, origin or color?” However confusing and contradictory his code of behavior may appear to observers, it is clear that Vergés is determined to see that his brand of justice is done. “It is delicious,” he once wrote, “to strip away the good conscience of others, to see them in their natural nudity.” In view of that determination, the people of France may soon find themselves as much on trial as the twice-convicted war criminal in their midst.
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