Born on 5 March 1925 in Ubon Ratchathani, Siam, and brought up on the island of Réunion, Jacques Vergès was the son of Raymond Vergès, a French diplomat, and a Vietnamese Teacher named Pham Thi Khang. In 1942, with his father's encouragement, he sailed to Liverpool to become part of the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle, and to participate in the anti-Nazi resistance. In 1945 he joined the French Communist Party. After the war he went to the University of Paris to study law (while his twin brother Paul Vergès went on to become the leader of the Reunionese Communist Party and a member of the European Parliament). In 1949 Jacques became President of the AEC (Association for Colonial Students), where he met and befriended Pol Pot. In 1950, at the request of his Communist mentors, he went to Prague to lead a youth organization for four years.
After returning to France, Vergès became a Lawyer and quickly gained fame for his willingness to take controversial cases. During the struggle in Algiers he defended many accused of terrorism by the French government. He was a supporter of the Algerian armed independence struggle against France, comparing it to French armed resistance to the Nazi German occupation in the 1940s. Vergès became a nationally-known figure following his defence of the anti-French Algerian guerrilla Djamila Bouhired on terrorism charges: she was convicted of blowing up a café and killing eleven people inside it. This is where he pioneered the rupture strategy, in which he accused the prosecution of the same offenses as the defendants. She was sentenced to death but pardoned and freed following public pressure brought on by Vergès' efforts. After some years she married Vergès, who had by then converted to Islam. They had two children, Meriem and Liess Vergès, later followed by a granddaughter, Fatima Vergès-Habboub, daughter of Meriem and her husband Fouad. In an effort to limit Vergès' success at defending Algerian clients, he was sentenced to two months in jail in 1960 and temporarily lost his licence to officially practice law for anti-state activities. After Algeria gained its independence in 1962, Vergès obtained Algerian citizenship, going by the name of Mansour.
Vergès attracted widespread public attention in the 1950s for his use of trials as a forum for expressing views against French rule in Algeria, questioning the authority of the prosecution and causing chaos in proceedings — a method he promoted as “rupture defense” in his book De la stratégie judiciaire. An outspoken anti-imperialist, he continued his vocal political activism in the 2000s, including opposing the War on Terror. The media sensationalized his activities with the sobriquet "the Devil's advocate", and Vergès himself contributed to his "notorious" public persona by such acts as titling his autobiography The Brilliant Bastard and giving provocative replies in interviews, such as "I'd even defend Bush! But only if he agrees to plead guilty."
After Vergès's return to normal life he resumed his legal practice, defending Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, convicted of terrorism, and Nazi war Criminal Klaus Barbie. The thrust of his defence in the latter case was that Barbie was being singled out for prosecution while the French state conveniently ignored other cases that qualified as crimes against humanity. Vergès adopted a tu quoque defense, asking the judges "is a crime against humanity is to be defined as only one of Nazis against the Jews or if it applies to more seriously crimes...the crimes of imperialists against people struggling for their independence?", going on to say there was nothing his client did against the Resistance that was not done by "certain French officers in Algeria" whom Vergès noted could not be prosecuted because of de Gaulle's amnesty of 1962. As such, Vergès argued that the republic had no right to convict Barbie of anything given that French officers like the war hero General Jacques Massu had also engaged in torture and extrajudicial executions during the fight against the FLN. Besides for his tu quoque defense of arguing that French actions in the Algerian War were no different from Barbie's, Vergès spent much time attempting to prove Jean Moulin had been betrayed by either the Communists, the Gaullists, or both, which led him to argue Barbie was less culpable than those who had betrayed Moulin. Vergès claimed Moulin's colleagues were "playing a double game" and all those in the Resistance "whether they were anti-Gaullists or anti-Communists forgot their duty to the Resistance because of partisan political passions". At one point, Vergès claimed that Moulin had actually wanted to be tortured to death and tipped off Barbie himself. Reviewing the film Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, the film critic David Denby wrote the climax of the film was when the French filmmaker Marcel Ophüls pressed the "despicable" Vergès during an interview about his defense of Barbie, whom Denby wrote "...persists in pretending that Barbie is a victim of some sort".
In 1965, Vergès arrived in Israel, seeking to represent Mahmud Hijazi (מחמוד חיג'אזי), a Palestinian member of the Fatah movement who had at the time been sentenced to death by an Israeli military court, on charges of terrorism - specifically, of having infiltrated into Israeli territory and attempted to blow up an agricultural installation . Israel's Justice Minister Dov Yosef forbade Hijazi's being represented by a foreign Lawyer. Nevertheless, though Vergès did not succeed in getting to represent Hijazi in court, his initiative generated considerable publicity and controversy which were influential in Hijazi's death sentence being eventually commuted by an appeals court. (Hijazi was later released in a 1971 prisoner exchange). The Hijazi affair had a long-lasting effect: Israeli civil and military courts, since then and up to the present, refrain from imposing the death penalty on Palestinians charged with terrorism, even in the most severe cases where an accused was found guilty of multiple murder charges.
From 1970 to 1978, Vergès disappeared from public view without explanation. He refused to comment about those years, remarking in an interview with Der Spiegel that "It's highly amusing that no one, in our modern police state, can figure out where I was for almost ten years." Vergès was last seen on 24 February 1970. He left his wife, Djamila, and cut off all his ties, leaving friends and family to wonder if he had been killed. His whereabouts during these years have remained a mystery. Many of his close associates of the time assume that he was in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, a rumour Pol Pot (Brother #1) and Ieng Sary (Brother #3) both denied. There have also been claims that Vergès was spotted in Paris as well as in Arab countries in the company of Palestinian militant groups.
In 1999 Vergès sued Amnesty International on behalf of the government of Togo. In 2001, on behalf of Idriss Déby, President of Chad, Omar Bongo, President of Gabon, and Denis Sassou-Nguesso, head of the Republic of the Congo, he sued François-Xavier Verschave for his book Noir silence denouncing the crimes of the Françafrique on the charges of "offense toward a foreign state leader". The attorney general observed how this crime recalled the lese majesty crime; the court thus deemed it contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, thus leading to Verschave's acquittal.
After the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 and deposed Saddam Hussein, many former Leaders in Saddam's regime were arrested. In May 2008, Tariq Aziz assembled a team that included Vergès as well as a French-Lebanese and four Italian lawyers. In late 2003, Vergès also offered to defend Saddam if he was asked to. However, Saddam's family opted not to use Vergès.
In April 2008, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan made his first appearance at Cambodia's genocide tribunal. Vergès represented him, using the defence that, while Samphan has never denied that many people in Cambodia were killed, as head of state he was never directly responsible.
Jacques Vergès died on 15 August 2013 of a heart attack in Paris at the age of 88. His funeral was attended by Roland Dumas and Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. Vergès is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.