PARIS — Gen. Marcel Bigeard, 94, who led French forces in colonial wars in independence-seeking Indochina and Algeria after serving in the French Resistance in World War II, has died.
“He has been called the best paratrooper in the world, and whatever the truth of that, he most certainly has a claim as the most battle-proven,” said Martin Windrow, a British historian and expert on France’s colonial wars.
Born Feb. 14, 1916, in Toul in eastern France, Bigeard rose to fame during France’s untimately doomed effort to reassert control over its colony in Vietnam, after it proclaimed independence in 1945. He served three combat tours there, and his crack 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion became France’s spearhead in the war against President Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist guerrillas.
He was captured along with about 12,000 other defenders when insurgents overran the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 — knocking France out of the war and paving the way for the 20-year American involvement in Vietnam.
Within a year, Bigeard — then in command of a parachute regiment — was back in action, battling Algerian freedom fighters in the capital, Algiers.
His ruthless methods helped stabilize the military situation there. But they also linked him to widespread torture of captured insurgents, an accusation Bigeard always denied.
He emerged from the Algerian war, which France finally lost in 1961, as one of the country’s most decorated military officers.
He went on to serve as secretary of state for defense in the 1970s and as a legislator in France’s lower house of parliament.
During World War II, Bigeard served in the French Resistance. His death came as France was marking the 70th anniversary of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s defiant broadcast on BBC radio urging the French people to resist the Nazi occupation.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, in London today to mark the anniversary, expressed in a statement his “deep sadness” at Bigeard’s death, calling him an “ardent patriot.”
No details about the cause or time of death were immediately available. Arrangements for funeral ceremonies were under way today.