WE HAD TO GET INFORMATION'
Simon Courtauld discusses torture and
other essentials with the 86-year-old victor of the Battle of Algiers
Montargis WIVE les Paras! Vive la Coloniale! Vive la France!' The rallying cries of the 86-year- old, five-star General Jacques Massu rang round his sitting-room. I imagined that he was interrupting our conversation to recall the successes of the 10th Parachute Divi- sion which he commanded during the Algerian war, and the Colonial Army in which he had served under General Leclerc in Chad and Niger. He was in fact talking to his parrot.
Apparently these are the bird's favourite words, normally repeated to order. But it is shy, the General told me, in the pres- ence of strangers; I regret to report that the parrot, a gift from Zaire, remained silent.
Massu came to live in this old rectory opposite the church, in a tiny village in the Loiret, after he had been sacked by de Gaulle in 1960. At that time he had, after the President, probably the most famous face in France. He had won the controver- sial Battle of Algiers in 1957, and the fol- lowing year, as hero of the pieds noirs, he had headed the Committee of Public Safe- ty demanding de Gaulle's return to power. With a plan codenamed 'Resurrection', he was preparing his troops for an invasion of Paris in case de Gaulle failed to answer the call. Eighteen months later came la bombe Massu: for the only time in his career he was publicly critical of de Gaulle, for betraying l'Algerie frangaise (in a newspa- per interview which Massu later said he thought was off the record).
Massu recalls clearly his summons to the Elysee Palace. 'De Gaulle told me I was not to return to Algeria. I rebuked him for not being frank with the army about his intentions, and I told him he was sur- rounded by a bunch of idiots — though I used a rather more vulgar word. He thumped the table so hard that he broke his watchstrap.' Massu chuckles at the memory.
He was always known to be blunt and plain-speaking, and in the Fifties people liked to make the point that massue means a bludgeon. Having read in Alistair Home's riveting book A Savage War of Peace his description of Massu's 'growling
voice, vigorous hair en brosse, down- turned eyes . . . and aggressive, all-domi- nant nose', I was slightly apprehensive at the prospect of asking the old grognard a lot of questions — in my halting French about the tortures allegedly practised by his paras on their FLN prisoners in Algiers.
But I was amused to receive a letter from Massu, with an invitation to lunch, in which he seemed to take exception to Home's book because he had been described as being of less than average height. (Massu insisted that he was 1.80 metres, probably a slight exaggeration, but I was to able to reassure him that he was several inches taller than Field Marshal Montgomery.) He recommended another book on the Algerian war as being 'plus serieux' and ended his letter, Vive l'Angleterrer As I turned off the road to Joigny, through a village with posters urging sup- port for Le Pen, and down the Rue des Anciens Combattants — this was surely the way to the General's house — I won- dered whether he had any connections with England other than having fought alongside the Eighth Army in North Africa and at Suez in 1956. It was no small sur- prise to be greeted on arrival by Catherine Massu, the General's half-English wife, whom he met while staghunting near Orleans and married after the death of his first wife in 1977.
We fell to talking about Winchilsea and Southwold, where the Massus went last year to visit her relations, and Yorkshire Massu was billeted at Dalton Hall, near Beverley, 50 years ago before returning to France in time for the liberation of Paris. Outside, a horse-box stood in the courtyard and I admired the clematis and peonies. It was almost an English country scene. Wearing a suit of Prince of Wales check, and with white hair no longer en brosse, Massu had the mellowed appearance of an elderly country gentleman.
What about the torture, then? I asked when we had climbed the steps, past an old wine-press, to his book-lined office. Massu's reply was typically robust: `The gegene [a small generator with elec- trodes which were attached to certain parts of the body, usually the penis] was used when we had to get information in a hurry, to prevent yet another bomb going off and killing innocent people, Europeans and Arabs.
`You may have forgotten that, when I was called into Algiers with my paras in January 1957, sixty bombs had already been exploded in the capital. Within a few months we had smashed the FLN in the casbah, restored peace to Algiers, and were able to get back to the djebel to fight la guerre classique.'
The FLN's structure in the casbah con- sisted of a pyramid of small, independent cells. It was very difficult to get to the top; it could not have been done, Massu insists, without the help of la gegene.
`A Catholic monk told me I was right to sanction the use of this instrument, because in doing so we avoided a greater evil,' Massu said. 'The left wing in France, intel- lectuals and communists, all compared my paras to the SS, which was absurd. Anyway, I tried la gegene on myself; it was not so ter- rible.'
`To which part of your body did you attach the wires?' I asked.
I don't remember — it gives you a shock' — then, in a ringing denunciation of his critics, 'but I didn't make a tragedy out of it.'
Of course, Massu was not being physical- ly restrained and threatened when he con- ducted his gegene experiment, nor was he subjected to repeated shocks. One might have asked, if la gegene was 'not so terrible', how it had been so successful in breaking FLN prisoners and making them talk; but I let it pass.
`The gegene had been used before in other parts of Algeria,' Massu went on. 'I was surprised, but then I was told that it had been in general use since Indo-China.
The Battle of Algiers was not something we enjoyed; but we carried it through with a certain style [elegance was the word he used] and with results — which surprised the FLN and their supporters.'
A few months later, on 1 January 1958, de Gaulle sent Massu a letter, which he now showed me, sending his best wishes 'a votre si belle et brave Division'.
But were there not some excesses which the General regretted? Massu did a bit of growling.
`The gegene was sometimes employed too generously. There were mistakes, and a few paras may have been too brutal. But we had to use this method when it was the only way to get results.' At this point a cuckoo clock broke into song to announce the hour. I looked behind me, to see pictures of Napoleon and General Leclerc on the wall. Le bon Massu, as he was known, the bluff, hon- ourable soldier, was surely speaking as straightforwardly as he always has.
`I had to carry the can for this episode,' he said. 'But it has never troubled my con- science.'
I wondered what Massu had thought of that remarkable film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, which was banned in France when it was released in 1966. He had never seen it, he told me. Pontecorvo 'n'etait pas un type serieux' and the film was probably `une fantaisie des Arabes'. But what about the other forms of torture alleged in the film, such as hanging Algerians by their feet, with their heads in water?
`This was never done under my orders,' Massu replied bluntly.
We walked into the garden, past ranks of raspberry and blackcurrant bushes and the jardin potager tended by his Algerian gar- dener, to the gate of a paddock. The Gen- eral's 15-year-old mare, Melodie, which he still rides regularly, approached us.
`Colonel Argoud [who was later to be sentenced to death in absentia and then became a prominent member of the OAS] came here in 1960 to ask me to lead a rebellion against the government. I told him he was mad.'
Argoud then persuaded General Mau- rice Challe, with Generals Salan, Zeller and Jouhaud, to take the fateful step. Massu remembers the day of the putsch, 21 April 1961, with astonishing clarity. `I was in Biarritz for the funeral of a brother officer. I was returning home by car via Pau — where I joined some com- rades for my last parachute jump — and then I took the Route des Cathedrales and stopped at Albi to visit the Toulouse- Lautrec museum. It was there that I heard the news. When I got home, there were gendarmes waiting for me, believing that I was part of the putsch. They hung around the village for a few days.
`Argoud and I fell out some years ago; he still says he would have been happy to kill de Gaulle.' It was inconceivable that Massu would take up arms against de Gaulle, whom he had known since 1940, in Chad, at the start of the long march back to France. Though Massu admits it would have been harder to stand aside from the generals' revolt had he still been in Algeria, he has said that 'I would never haVe marched with the putsch, because I have always been with de Gaulle, whatever'. It is a statement that carries conviction, and recalls the famous exchange between de Gaulle and Massu soon after de Gaulle's return in 1958: Alors, Massu, toujours con?'
Dui, mon general, et toujours gaulliste.'
In his office, Massu keeps a photograph of de Gaulle on his desk, also another of de Gaulle's coffin draped in the tricolour.
`He was more intelligent than I am,' Massu said, tut his decisions caused a lot of unhappiness. In 1958 most of Muslim Algeria was with us; French Algeria was a reality. When de Gaulle decided to aban- don Algeria, tens of thousands of loyal Muslims were killed by the FLN.
`If only de Gaulle had said at the start that our hopes were impossible to realise. We could have changed our objectives, a lot of lives would have been saved and I believe the putsch would never have hap- pened.' Perhaps, perhaps.
In any event, relations between de Gaulle and Massu improved again after independence in 1962, and by 1966 he had been given his fifth star, made general d'armee (equivalent of field marshal) and sent off to command the French forces in Germany. It was in May 1968, at the time of the evenements in Paris, that de Gaulle and all his family, with their luggage, turned up one day at his headquarters in Baden-Baden.
`I had about three minutes' notice of his arrival,' Massu recalls. 'De Gaulle was tired and indecisive, and he seemed to have had enough.'
How one would love to have a recording of the 90-minute conversation which then ensued. By the end of it, Massu had per- suaded the President to reprendre courage and go back to the Elysee Palace.
`I told him it was better he should be killed in Paris than stay here. He asked me to keep talking, and I was able to convince `Do you mind — this is my usual seat.' him that he must not resign. I also told him that, having just amnestied all those imbe- cile students in Paris, he could at least let my comrades out of prison, who had done little more than fight for French Algeria.' All imprisoned officers were freed later that year; most of the generals, such as Salan and Challe, are now dead.
Many Frenchmen, not least de Gaulle and his Prime Minister, Pompidou, were grateful to Massu for his powers of persua- sion that day. 'You played an important political role,' I said.
The old soldier grunted. 'I had already played rather too much politics in Algeria. I was asked to go into politics in 1969 but I said no. I've got no taste for it.'
Massu broods instead on what might have been in Algeria, pointing optimistical- ly to the statesmanship of de Klerk and Mandela in South Africa. Referring to the catastrophe of Algeria today, he handed me a recent cartoon from Le Figaro. It shows Islamic fundamentalists on the march, and a man with an FLN armband in a tele- phone box. He is calling General Massu for help.
Since the day de Gaulle recalled him in 1960, Massu has never been back to Alge- ria, though his affection for the country is still evident. He and his first wife brought back with them two Arab children whom they adopted. Now in their early forties, they have both married in France and Massu has half-Algerian grandchildren.
Among the medals in his office, Massu showed me the DSO which was presented to him by King George VI in 1945 at the British Embassy in Paris. It is another English connection of which he is plainly proud.
As I came to leave, the parrot was still saying nothing. So I called across the room, 'ye Massie, in the hope of adding anoth- er two appropriate words to its vocabulary.