French Justice Struggles with War-Crimes Issues Nazi Collaborator Paul Touvier Is Convicted for Crimes against Humanity

By Sarah Chayes, | The Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

French Justice Struggles with War-Crimes Issues Nazi Collaborator Paul Touvier Is Convicted for Crimes against Humanity


Sarah Chayes,, The Christian Science Monitor


THE courtroom here is simple and very modern. Only the bullet-proof glass box that encloses Paul Touvier and his guards signals the extraordinary event that is taking place. For the first time, France is trying not a German, but a Frenchman, for crimes against humanity. Mr. Touvier has turned his chair on an angle, away from the audience, away from the lawyer who is speaking.

`It's not the violence of the crime - even if the crime is carried out with horrifying brutality - nor the number of the victims, that makes a crime against humanity," lawyer Michel Zaoui says, then pauses. His argument, after four days of often theatrical soliloquy on the part of 23 of his colleagues, rings with lucidity. "There is crime against humanity when murder is made legal for racial or religious reasons."

On June 29, 1944, seven men - Jews - were lined up against the wall of a village cemetery by members of the Lyon Militia and shot. This is the act for which Paul Touvier, chief of intelligence for the Lyon Militia, was tried in Versailles between March 17 and April 20, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Touvier's defense attorney did everything to keep the proceedings focused exclusively on this incident. He has since appealed the verdict. But fitfully, over the course of days of testimony by eyewitnesses and experts, the context that was the trial's constant backdrop was revealed.

The context is Vichy, France's wartime government and the Militia it founded to hunt down resistants of all kinds and to "fight continuously against the Jewish leprosy." Details of how the Militia went about its sworn duty gave further elements of context.

They were evoked by fleeting images: the Jesuit high school that served as headquarters, photographed from every angle; a piece of paper with seven dead faces pasted on, passed from hand to hand; Louis Goudard, begging not to be forced to break his silence and tell how it was to be interrogated - the torture that takes place between sessions of torture in the mind of someone afraid he might speak.

What complicated the analysis of this context is the way French jurisprudence has dealt with crimes against humanity. According to the definition developed over the 21 years it took to bring this case to trial, an act can be a crime against humanity only if it was committed in the name of a "European Axis power."

Thus, if Touvier organized the shooting at Rillieux (there was no doubt he did) under German orders, then he committed a crime against humanity, but if he acted on his own initiative, then he is "merely" guilty of a war crime, for which the statute of limitations ran out 27 years ago.

This irony provoked various logical contortions, notably on the part of the prosecutors. Where the argument for years has been that Touvier acted on his own - a way of countering any notion of duress - now the same lawyers were insisting on a direct Gestapo order, to stay within the strict legal definition of complicity. …

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