Marcel Bigeard, veteran of Indochina, Algeria wars dies

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French general Marcel Bigeard, best known for his role in France's colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, died Friday aged 94, his wife said, as mixed testimonies came in for the controversial figure.

One of France's most decorated soldiers, he fought in World War II, was parachuted into the besieged French base of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, and condoned torture in the unsuccessful battle to defeat Algerian nationalist fighters.

Bigeard died in Toul, the northeastern town where he was born, after recently being hospitalised twice for phlebitis, or inflammation of the veins, his wife said.

"General Bigeard was for the French the incarnation of the heroic figure of the fighter," said President Nicolas Sarkozy in a statement issued on a visit to London to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's radio appeal to his compatriots to resist the Nazi occupation.

A former leading Algerian independence fighter however criticised Bigeard for not apologising for France's torture of Algerians during the war of independence.

"Until the last minute, I thought he was going to acknowledge his actions and present his apologies" to Algerians for his conduct during the 1954-62 war of independence, when Bigeard led a colonial paratroop division, said former liberation fighter Louisette Ighilahriz.

"For us, the name of Marcel Bigeard is synonymous with death and torture."

A Vietnamese veteran of the Dien Bien Phu campaign paid tribute to his former enemy, who later became his friend.

"I am very sorry that I will not be able to see him anymore," retired colonel Pham Xuan Phuong, 81, told AFP.

He said that the two soldiers had "established friendship which overcame challenges of time and the past," and recalled that Biegeard "was very patient in fighting. He was very tough."

Bigeard first earned his spurs in the fight against the Nazis in World War II.

Called up in 1939 at the start of the conflict, he was captured by the Germans who invaded France in the following year but later escaped to north Africa, from where he was able to rejoin the fight.

In 1944 he was parachuted into the Pyrenees mountains of southwestern France, where he led an underground resistance group.

In the early 1950s Bigeard led a parachute battalion in southeast Asia, where France was struggling to regain control of its colonies in Indochina after Japanese occupation during the World War.

Bigeard and his unit were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, which fell to the Vietnamese in May 1954, signalling the end of the French presence in the region -- and the start of direct US involvement in what later became the Vietnam War.

After several months in Vietnamese captivity, Bigeard was released and returned to active service, just in time to get involved in the spiralling Algerian war.

Heading a colonial parachute regiment, he took part in the Battle of Algiers of 1957, when French forces made wide use of torture in their attempt to defeat the National Liberation Front (FLN).

The conflict brought the return to power in Paris of World War II leader de Gaulle, who finally concluded that Algeria, considered by most French politicians as part of the motherland, would have to be granted independence.

When a number of French generals launched a military rebellion against de Gaulle's plans in 1961, Bigeard refused to take part.

His career concluded in the 1970s with a spell as a junior defence minister under president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Bigeard was to return to the issue of torture in Algeria when he published his memoirs in 1999. Referring to bomb attacks carried out on French civilians by the FLN, he wrote: "Was it easy to do nothing when you had seen women and children with their limbs blown off by bombs?"

The following year he caused more controversy by referring to torture -- which in Algeria involved electric shocks to the genitals and waterboarding -- as "a necessary evil".

Bigeard was known to be one of several models for "Colonel Mathieu", the brutal French parachutist depicted in Gilles Pontecorvo's 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers", which was banned in France for five years after its release.

But Bigeard always denied accusations that he had himself ordered torture sessions.

Bigeard was born into a working-class family in Toul on February 14, 1916.

Wounded five times in battle, he was one of France's most decorated soldiers, having among other awards the Medal of the Resistance, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, the British Distinguished Service Order and the rank of Commander of the American Legion.

He also wrote 15 books.

© 2010 AFP

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