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.

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