Counting their rosaries

Douglas Johnson

  • Paul Touvier et l’église by René Rémond
    Fayard, 417 pp, frs 130.00, February 1992, ISBN 2 213 02880 X

Just after 8 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 24 May 1989, a special unit of gendarmes entered the priory of Saint François at Nice in search of a certain Paul Touvier, who was living there under the name of Paul Lacroix. An arrest was made and within half an hour Touvier was on his way to Fresnes prison in Paris. He was eventually installed in its hospital. The gendarmes had been searching monasteries in Northern and Central France on the two preceding days and, worried lest their man should get away, had travelled through the night. They were right to be worried: the object of their search, then a man of 74, had been on the run for some forty-five years. The facts were simple enough. Touvier came from a very Catholic, right-wing family in Chambéry in Savoy. He had been discharged from the Army and, on its formation by the Vichy Government in 1943, joined the Milice – a paramilitary force charged with maintaining order, putting down the Resistance and persecuting the Jews. It took over these duties from the regular French Police, whose resolve was supposedly flagging, and from the too easily outwitted Germans. Touvier rapidly reached a position of some administrative authority in the organisation and was allegedly prominent in a number of well-known cases involving the murder and deportation of Jews and Resistance fighters in the Lyons region. When the Liberation came, his name was included on the list of those who were to be brought to justice, but he always got away – even when he was arrested in Paris he succeeded, mysteriously, in walking out of the police headquarters in the Rue des Saussaies.

In 1946 and 1947 two separate courts of law, those of Lyons and of Chambéry, sentenced him to death in his absence. He continued in hiding until 1967, when the French equivalent of the statute of limitations rendered the death sentence null and void. Some legal restrictions remained, however, and Touvier found them particularly unacceptable because they could have disqualified him from inheriting his share of his father’s house. He therefore sought, and in 1971 obtained, a pardon from Georges Pompidou. It was a feat which proved his undoing. From being a forgotten, and supposedly minor character in the unfortunate complexities of the war years, he became a focus of national interest. A journalist wrote at length about his alleged crimes. Jewish organisations protested. Old collaborators who had been punished for their offences, former Resistance leaders, a middle-aged man who in 1944 had seen his father arrested suddenly remembered Touvier and spoke up. So it was back into hiding. And successfully so until 1989, in spite of being accused of crimes against humanity, charges that were not covered by any pardon.

Then a further question was asked. How was it possible that a man who had been the object of police enquiries since September 1944 should have been able, not only to escape arrest for so long (and for many of those years he had been accompanied by his wife and two children), but also to have organised a campaign protesting his innocence? The answers weren’t encouraging. It was said that the Church had looked after Touvier, thus proving that it doesn’t see itself as part of the normal democratic process. Even more controversial was the claim that the Church had supported Vichy, that the clergy had acted as ‘Pétain’s groupies’, as one strident newspaper put it, that the Church was essentially reactionary and scarcely patriotic. When General de Gaulle was in London he had said that it was the Protestants and the Jews who had provided his supporters, rather than the Roman Catholics.

Contrary allegations appeared; Touvier’s enemies were Communists, Freemasons and Jews, who, during the Occupation, had pursued their own interests rather than those of their country, and were only too anxious to take their revenge against those who had supported the true France. Jean-Marie Le Pen brought matters up to date when he declared that arresting Touvier after so many years was a manoeuvre designed to placate the Jewish lobby, which had taken umbrage when Mitterrand had received Yasser Arafat at the Elysée.

The scene was set for a traditional quarrel between Catholics and anti-clerics, but, on the one hand, memories of the war and its victims and, on the other, the sight of an elderly man who had not known a normal life for nearly half a century brought to it an unusual degree of bitterness. In the circumstances, the Archbishop of Lyons took a remarkably bold step. He asked René Rémond, one of the most distinguished historians of contemporary France, a known Catholic universally respected for his independence and integrity, to get a committee of historians together to investigate the ways and means whereby Touvier had managed for so long to enjoy the protection and help of the Church. As an essential part of the investigation, the Archbishop announced that the archives of the Archbishopric would be made available. The announcement was greeted with cynicism in some quarters, and inevitably, there were journalists who claimed to have seen boxes of documents being transferred from Lyons to a destination where their secrets would never be penetrated – the vaults of the Vatican or the outhouses of some isolated rural monastery.

Not everyone agreed that it was right for historians to sit in judgment: only a court of law could determine whether or not Paul Touvier had taken part, for example, in the assassination of Victor Basch and his wife, both of them over eighty, in January 1944. The case had a particular resonance, because Basch was president of the League of the Rights of Man, a former supporter of Dreyfus as well as a close collaborator of Léon Blum and a Freemason. The bodies were discovered in a quarry, with a piece of paper attached to them on which was written: ‘Terror against terror. The Jew always pays ... Down with de Gaulle.’ There was some evidence, included in an official report of 1972, that Touvier had been among those who had arrested and then killed Victor and Helen Basch, although he had not himself fired the fatal shots. Touvier denied this, and his lawyer, the aristocratic Jacques Trémolet de Villers, maintained that there was no evidence at all to link his client to this crime. How, he asked, can a group of historians decide where the truth lies? The intervention of Marc Ferro, another well-known historian but not a member of the investigating team, further complicated matters. Judges, Ferro said, have not been trained to look at people’s actions in their historical context. When judges pronounce on history, they are abusing their position.

Professor Rémond’s team denied that they were setting themselves up as judges of whether Touvier is guilty of the crimes of which he is accused (the murder of Victor Basch and his wife is only one of several). Their concern was the Church and how it had protected him for so many years. Their task, they said, was to examine in detail the nature of the so-called lobby ecclésiastique. And their report, which has to be admired for its scholarly presentation and assessment of the evidence, uncovered an astonishing fact: very few of the clerics concerned, who must be numbered in scores, were interested in knowing whether or not Touvier is guilty. From time to time, one or other of them declares his belief in Touvier’s innocence, but gives no good or sound reasons for doing so. Monseigneur Julien Gouet, for example, secretary-general of the French episcopacy, declared that Touvier was neither a murderer nor an informer. Yet he seems to have made no enquiries about him at all. Monseigneur Alfred Ancel was persuaded of Touvier’s innocence by reading a short article in the right-wing paper Minute. Others were not so convinced. The profoundly Catholic Gaullist minister Edmond Michelet argued that if Touvier was innocent then he should face his accusers. The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel, who had agreed to take up Touvier’s cause, took the precaution of making enquiries, which caused him to withdraw his support and to denounce him as a criminal and a liar.

Why then were so many clerics so zealous in Touvier’s support? Professor Rémond’s commission set out to destroy a few myths. To begin with, they claim that one cannot talk about ‘the French Catholic Church’ as a unity. No decision was ever taken at a high level concerning Touvier. Nor is it true that he was supported by the schismatic traditionalists within the Church, those who followed the anti-Vatican movement of Monseigneur Lefebvre (although it appears that Touvier did meet the rebellious bishop in Switzerland, and the priory where he was arrested was certainly part of Lefebvre’s intégriste movement). The evidence shows that the whole gamut of French Catholicism, from the humblest parish priest to charitable organisations like the Société Saint Vincent de Paul or Secours Catholique, from the Jesuits to the Benedictines, Dominicans and Carmelites, was at some time or other directly involved. Nor were those clerics who supported Touvier necessarily Vichy sympathisers: on the contrary, some of his clerical supporters were associated with the Resistance and de Gaulle.

Some devoted themselves to Touvier’s cause out of personal sympathy. Outstanding among them is Monseigneur Duquaire, whose almost obsessive desire to assist Touvier assumed considerable importance because Duquaire was, first, secretary to Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, and then secretary to Cardinal Villot when he became Secretary of State at the Vatican in 1969. Who could doubt but that a letter from Duquaire pleading Touvier’s case (and he wrote several hundred such letters) carried authority. Certainly ministers of justice and their officials, even Presidents of the Republic, would not treat such missives lightly. There was something a little eccentric about Duquaire’s behaviour – as if he had for some time been on the lookout for a suitable cause. But the ‘affaire Touvier’ involves a more general principle: the Church’s duty to assist those in distress, no matter what the cause of that distress. The Bishop of Grenoble has compared the assistance given to Touvier with the way individual churches allow immigrants to stage hunger strikes on church property.

Professor Rémond is naturally critical of those who tried to prevent the law from following its course, and points out that Touvier was accused of exceptionally serious crimes, but one wonders if the Commission doesn’t even so display a little too much indulgence where these ‘well-meaning’ ecclesiastics are concerned. It so happens that the publication of the report coincided with the appearance in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a memoir supposedly written in 1944 by Cardinal de Lubac (who died last year), in which he accused the bishops of the time of moving from papolâtrie to Pétainolâtrie. René Rémond and François Bédérida, another member of the commission, were quick to respond, claiming that the text was suspect and that it represented an attempt to put the blame on the Church hierarchy rather than on individual priests.

There are other elements which have to be considered, the most important being Touvier himself. Although the Church may have been the ostensible subject of the book, it is Touvier who dominates it. He is an obstinate man, expressing no regrets, never admitting that he has done anything wrong, tireless in his quest to get what he wants and shameless in presenting himself as an exemplary Catholic who is merely the victim of other people’s hatreds and incomprehension. At times he shows obvious cunning. Just before the liberation of Lyons two teachers involved in the Resistance were forcibly detained in the house of a priest. The next day Touvier and an associate were forced to take refuge in the same house. As the Allies approached and the Germans blew up bridges, he claims that the four of them, the two members of the Resistance and the two members of the Milice, sat on the terrace with the priest and counted their rosaries. It is a nice image of Christian reconciliation. On another occasion Touvier explains how he drove a captured member of the Resistance back to join his father. On the way he produced a sandwich and offered to share it with his prisoner. The prisoner accepted, and they broke bread together.

It was not only priests who were persuaded by him. The singer Jacques Brel, who knew Touvier under one of his numerous pscudonyms, helped him start a new career producing gramophone records advising young people on sexual matters. (Brel’s daughter remembers him as an old bore who was very unpleasant to his wife.) André Lavagne, who had served with Pétain in 1941, was an adviser to the episcopacy on legal matters and prodigal in his support for Touvier. Anne-Marie Dupuy, President Pompidou’s private secretary, also supported Touvier, in spite of her Gaullism.

Last month new allies declared themselves. On 13 April, the Court of Appeal determined that there was no case to answer. The evidence against Touvier ws inadequate; or the charges against him could not properly be considered crimes against humanity. In order to justify their decisions, the three judges claimed that the Vichy Government had not been Germany’s partner and had never followed any consistent ideological policy for which it could be condemned – never had a plan for the extermination of Jews. And if Vichy innocent, then Touvier must also be innocent.

Naurally, this verdict has been received with amazement and indignation. ‘I am ashamed to be a Frenchman’ was the reaction of a man who says he was tortured by Touvier in 1944. The Minister of Education has asked all schoolteachers to ensure that their pupils know the truth about Vichy and about French collaboration with the Germans (although he has been economical with advice as to how this should be done). Further appeals are in train, but it is a lengthy process, and there are already those who say that la chose jugée (remember Dreyfus?) must be respected, and even more who insist that it is time for a veil to be drawn over these unfortunate events.

It is an extraordinary story, and made all the more remarkable by the fact that, despite everything we now know about Touvier and his activities, he remains a distant and mysterious character. But the most important feature of the affair is what it tells us about France. Every attempt that is made to wipe out the war-time past always fails, as Pompidou discovered in 1971. Every time one group of Frenchmen scrutinises the behaviour of another the result is bewilderment. The country remains overwhelmed by its history and dominated by its diversity. L’affaire continue. And there will be others.