Jacques Verges
French lawyer Jacques Verges who defended ‘Butcher of Lyon’ Klaus Barbie died in Paris (Reuters)

A famous and controversial lawyer dubbed the "Devil's advocate" for his flamboyant courtroom defences of war criminals, high-profile Nazis and international terrorists has died in Paris.

Jacques Verges died of cardiac arrest aged 88 in the Paris house that was once the home of 18th century philosopher Voltaire, who was famed for his attacks on the establishment.

The house was described as "the ideal place for the last theatrical act that was the death of this born actor who, like Voltaire, cultivated the art of permanent revolt and volte-face," by publisher Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, who printed Verges' memoir My Confessions.

"He had a fall a few months ago, he had since lost a lot of weight and walked very slowly. We knew the end was near but we didn't know it would come so soon," said Christian Charriere-Bournazel, head of France's main bar association.

Verges made a name for himself defending the indefensible. He once famously said he would have defended Adolf Hitler if the Nazi dictator had gone on trial instead of committing suicide.

Born in Thailand in 1925 to a father from Reunion Island and a Vietnamese mother, Verges was an outspoken communist and anti-colonialist.

During World War II he fought against the Nazis with General Charles de Gaulle's Free French resistance.

Forty years later, in 1984, Verges proudly defended former Gestapo captain Klaus Barbie, nicknamed the Butcher of Lyon for allegedly personally torturing and killing prisoners while stationed in the French city.

After the war Verges joined the French Communist Party and started out his controversial career by defending Algerian nationalists accused of terrorism against France in the 1950s.

He married Algerian anti-colonialist militant Djamila Bouhired after securing her release.

Said to be a personal friend of Pol Pot, in 2011 Verges took up the defence of the former Cambodian dictator's deputy Khieu Samphan, who faced charges of crimes against humanity over the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge rule.

At the trial Verges likened the prosecution's long descriptions of atrocities and killings to something out of an Alexandre Dumas novel.

Describing prosecutors' account as a "fantastical view of reality", Verges told the court: "Remember what monsieur de Talleyrand, Napoleon's foreign minister, another bandit, said: 'Everything that is excessive is vain'."

"Everything you said was excessive and therefore vain. May the tribunal remember that. I hope I haven't wasted your time, thank you very much."

His clients also included Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz.

In 2004 he also offered to defend late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but the family opted for another lawyer.

Devil's advocate Jacques Verges
French lawyer Jacques Verges was dubbed the "Devil's advocate” for he defended war criminals and dictators. Here in court with his client Lebanese militant George Ibrahim Abdallah in 1986 (Reuters)