PARIS — Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier, his voice barely a whisper at times, testified in his defense Tuesday, giving a detailed account of the decision to execute seven Jews during World War II and portraying himself as a troubled functionary acting only under German orders.
"Right to the end, I tried to find another solution," said Touvier, 78, the first Frenchman ever brought to trial on charges of crimes against humanity. Shown photographs of the slain Jews, mouths and eyes wide open in death, Touvier sputtered, "These photos . . . it's horrible."
Touvier, the former intelligence chief of the pro-Nazi French militia, has been on trial for 10 days in a court in Versailles, where a jury of nine is deciding his fate. The maximum penalty under French law is life in prison.
The trial, and the legal battle waged to bring Touvier to court after his arrest in 1989, has renewed a painful, 50-year-old debate in France over the Vichy government's collaboration with the German occupation during World War II.
Touvier, who was hidden for 45 years by right-wing Catholic priests and monks, has admitted that he handpicked the men who executed the seven Jews in Rillieux-la-Pape, near Lyons, on June 29, 1944. The executions were in reprisal for the assassination by Resistance fighters of the Vichy regime's propaganda chief, Philippe Henriot, after the D-Day landing.
In earlier testimony, Touvier had claimed memory lapses. But Tuesday, he said he wanted to give a full account of the events leading up to the executions.
He said he had just returned to Lyons from Vichy on June 28, 1944, when his French superior, Victor de Bourmont, told him of Henriot's death and of the decision by Lyons Gestapo chief Werner Knab to respond with "a spectacular execution of 100 Jews."
"De Bourmont was panic-stricken, and I was panic-stricken too," Touvier testified, noting that an agreement then was struck, cutting the number of Jews to be executed.
"We tried to reduce the number of victims from 30," he said. "I said we would do seven at a time."
Touvier said Knab became preoccupied with other matters and didn't notice the change in number. Touvier's aide, Albert Reynaud, chose the seven prisoners, he testified.
"We could not avoid the catastrophe," Touvier had testified earlier. "But I did, even so, save 23 human lives." That is the crux of Touvier's defense: that he was following German orders and that, by his actions, some lives were saved.
The seven refugees, ages 23 to 64, were lined up against the wall of a cemetery in Rillieux and shot one by one, first in the back, then in the head. "It had been decided. It had been done," Touvier said.
After the executions, "I spent a very bad night," he testified. And the next day, he said, he saw a Jesuit priest and confessed. "I never forgot this tragedy," he testified. "I said Mass. Mass for Jews is valid."
Touvier's fate rests in large part on whether the jury decides that the executions fall under the legal definition of a crime against humanity, which is a crime willingly carried out as a deliberate policy of genocide. And a key question is whether the Vichy regime had, on its own, a policy of genocide.
Robert Paxton, a historian at Columbia University in New York and author of two acclaimed books on France under the occupation, testified Monday that the Vichy government "adopted a policy of exclusion of the Jews from the economy and culture, for its own reasons and not to please the Germans."
Paxton argued that in 1942, when the Vichy government turned Jewish refugees in unoccupied zones over to the Germans, "the French services became accomplices in the 'final solution.' "