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Frenchman on Trial for Crimes Against Humanity : World War II: Officer in the pro-Nazi militia allegedly ordered Jews executed. Defense likens him to Schindler.


PARIS — Still wrestling with its World War II past, France put Paul Touvier, the 78-year-old former intelligence chief of the pro-Nazi French militia, on trial Thursday in a heavily guarded courthouse for crimes against humanity committed half a century ago.

Touvier--now a balding, feeble man--sat quietly in a bulletproof glass enclosure as a jury of nine, seven of whom were born after the war, began hearing allegations that he ordered the execution of seven Jewish hostages in Rillieux-la-Pape, near Lyon, on June 29, 1944.

The trial in Versailles, on the southwest edge of Paris, and the difficult legal battle that was waged to bring Touvier to court have touched a raw nerve throughout France.

The country, painfully fractured during World War II by the Nazi-installed Vichy government's collaboration with the German occupation, is again divided.

Many French see the trial, which is expected to last five weeks, as a way to finally exorcise the ghosts of the past, allowing the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings in Normandy in June with a clear conscience. Only with such a trial, they say, can the country truly heal the wounds of its past.

But others in France see the proceedings, against an elderly man with prostate cancer, as a waste of time and taxpayers' money. And they say it is time now to forgive, once and for all, their German adversaries.

"We are, by far, the European country that has had the most trouble managing and digesting its collective attitude toward World War II," Bertrand Poirot-Delpech, of the French Academy, wrote recently. "The Versailles trial will not be in vain if the past finally finds its place there."

Touvier is the first Frenchman to be tried for crimes against humanity, although his former boss, Klaus Barbie, the Nazi police chief of Lyon, was convicted of crimes against humanity in 1987. Barbie died in a prison hospital in Lyon in 1991.

This landmark case, which, like Barbie's, is being filmed for posterity, began Thursday with a defense motion to dismiss 33 of 34 plaintiffs in the case, most of whom are Holocaust survivors or relatives of the executed Jews.

Gerard Weltzer, a lawyer for one of the civil plaintiffs, argued that Touvier "does not want to hear his victims speak." The motion was dismissed by Henri Boulard, the presiding judge.

Several hundred people packed the courtroom, including almost 40 lawyers. Outside the courthouse, behind barricades manned by more than 100 riot police, several dozen relatives of Jews sent to Nazi death camps protested, unfurling banners that read: "Touvier-Barbie, Same Fight."

The protesters argue that France is trying to cover up the occupation government's role in the killing of Jews.

Touvier was arrested in 1947, but escaped and spent 45 years concealed by conservative Roman Catholic priests and monks, mostly in Italy and France, and for a time received a regular pension from a Catholic charity.

He was arrested in 1989 at a monastery in Nice and released on bail. But he is being held in custody during the trial, as required by law.

Touvier has admitted that he handpicked the men who executed the seven Jews in reprisal for the assassination, by Resistance fighters, of the Vichy regime's propaganda chief, Philippe Henriot, after the D-Day landing. The victims, ages 23 to 64, were lined up against a cemetery wall, shot in the back, then in the head.

But Touvier's attorneys intend to argue that, in selecting seven Jews for execution, Touvier saved 93 other Jewish hostages whom the Nazis wanted to kill as well.

His lawyer, Jacques Tremolet de Villers, has compared Touvier to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and Nazi party member who saved more than 1,100 people from death camps.

The prosecution, however, along with relatives of the victims as plaintiffs, blames Touvier for dozens, if not hundreds, of killings of Resistance fighters. And they contend that Touvier was one of 30,000 French militiamen who collaborated with the Nazis out of a shared desire to exterminate the Jews.

Touvier was twice sentenced to death in absentia after the war.

He was pardoned in 1971 by then-President Georges Pompidou after appeals from Catholic clergy. Asked why he made that decision, Pompidou once said: "Must we keep the wounds of national discord eternally bleeding? Has not the moment come to cast a veil, to forget those days when the French people hated each other?"

Touvier, in a pamphlet that appeared in 1979, argued: "All I ever did was to protect the French state."

But another time, cited by the newspaper Le Monde, Touvier confided to a friend: "My whole life has been an enormous deception."

Touvier won an appeals court verdict in 1992 that barred the state from putting him on trial for other murders and acts of torture, which were deemed to be war crimes and, as such, covered by the statute of limitations.

Only the execution of the seven Jews qualified as a crime against humanity, for which there is no time limit for prosecution.

A crime against humanity, in French law, is defined as a crime willingly carried out as part of a deliberate policy of genocide.

Several current and former government officials are on the list of witnesses. But the judge said Thursday that Prime Minister Edouard Balladur had indicated that he would not testify. Balladur was a middle-level bureaucrat in Pompidou's office when the pardon was issued.

About 10,000 French people were executed as collaborators after the war, often after summary trials. Those prosecutions ended in the 1950s as postwar French authorities attempted to downplay the activities of the Vichy regime and cast the French as a heroic people, betrayed by only a few traitors.

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