PARIS (Dec. 1)
France’s highest court has ruled that French war crimes suspect Paul Touvier may stand trial for his role in the killing of seven Jewish hostages in 1944.
But that does not necessarily mean he will be brought to justice at any time in the near future. The case against him could still be thrown out by a lower court, triggering a new round to a legal battle that has dragged on for years.
Touvier was head of the Milice in Lyon, a paramilitary militia that rounded up Jews. He was a close aide to Klaus Barbie, the Lyon Gestapo chief, who was known for his brutality toward Jews and Resistance figures.
After the war, Touvier twice received death sentences in absentia. Granted refuge by members of a right-wing splinter group of the French Catholic Church, he evaded capture until his arrest in 1989.
The Paris Court of Appeals had ruled in April that Touvier could no longer be tried for war crimes, especially if they were committed under orders.
That ruling was met with strong protest throughout France, from Jews and non- Jews alike. It was regarded as a whitewash of the Vichy regime, which operated under Marshal Philippe Petain.
The decision was overturned last Friday by the French Supreme Court, which ruled that Touvier could be tried for crimes against humanity, which are not subject to a statute of limitations.
However, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court to dismiss, for lack of evidence, charges that Touvier killed the head of the French League of Human Rights and his wife. It also said he could not be prosecuted for allegedly handing over Resistance fighters to the Nazis.
The Supreme Court referred the remaining case against Touvier to the Court of Versailles. It will now have to investigate Touvier’s responsibility for rounding up the seven Jews who were shot in July 1944 in Rillieux-le-Pape, near Lyon, in retaliation for the assassination of a Vichy minister by Resistance fighters.
Although Touvier admitted he singled out Jews for execution, he said he was just following orders.
If the Versailles Court rules against Touvier, he would be the first Frenchman to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
Two other high Vichy officials, both in their 80s, are also awaiting trials. Maurice Papon administered the Bordeaux region. Rene Bousquet was head of the Vichy police.
All three men were involved in deporting Jews to their deaths.
Observers predict that none of these men will ever be brought to trial. In the Touvier case, the Versailles judges could throw the case out of court, in which case a new appeal would probably follow.
The only thing likely to bring these men to justice is a signal from French President Francois Mitterrand that he is in favor of such a trial. But such a move is considered highly improbable, since Mitterrand has said often that modern-day France bears no responsibility for the crimes of the wartime Vichy regime.
What is more likely is that in order to calm the anger of the Jewish community, Holocaust survivors and former Resistance fighters, Mitterrand will decide to make the anniversary of the roundup of the Jews an official commemoration.
This is what French Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy hinted at last Saturday night at the annual dinner of CRIF, the representative body of French Jewry.
Beregovoy said that Mitterrand would soon answer a request on this issue made by CRIF’s president, Jean Kahn.
Beregovoy also said he believed that crimes committed by Frenchmen against Jews should be tried. But he emphasized that those French of Vichy days were not France.
“My France, your France was in London” in exile, he said.