By MARILYN AUGUST
Associated Press Writer
PARIS (AP) -- The embodiment of one of the darkest periods in French history, former Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier is about to become the first Frenchman to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
Now nearing 79 and riddled with cancer, Touvier was a key aide during World War II to Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon."
The trial that begins Thursday culminates a painful learning period for France over the past decade. Revelation by revelation, both the wartime generation and its children have learned how deeply and willingly many French citizens were involved in the worst outrages of the Nazi occupation.
Technically, the trial concerns the killings of seven Jews -- Zeizig, Glaeser, Benzimra, Krzyskowski, Schlusseman, Prock and an unknown victim. They were lined up and shot on Touvier's orders 50 years ago on behalf of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime that ruled France during the Nazi occupation.
But the testimony expected over the next five weeks at the Versailles criminal court will go far beyond those executions in June 29, 1944, in Rillieux-la-Pape, outside Lyon. It will provide an unprecedented forum for exploring the extent of French collaboration with Nazi Germany.
For the 45 years that preceded his arrest at a Roman Catholic priory in Nice in 1989, Touvier was a fugitive, moving from convent to monastery under assumed names with his wife and two children in tow.
The jury trial will focus on how a man condemned to death twice in absentia managed to elude authorities for so long, and why nearly 50 Roman Catholic institutions offered him financial aid and logistical support.
"If Touvier comes to trial only at this late date, it's because for decades, he could manipulate and rely on the indulgence of two institutions that have long been synonymous with virtue: the [Roman Catholic] Church and the courts," wrote journalist Bertrand le Gendre in the daily Le Monde. "The trial in Versailles may well put them both in the dock."
The trial will take place in a specially renovated, enlarged courtroom. There will be testimony from three French premiers, several historians, and representatives of Jewish and anti-Nazi French Resistance groups.
One of the historians, Rene Remond, headed an investigation into the case at the request of Cardinal Albert Decourtray, archbishop of Lyon. He concluded that Touvier was helped over the years by [Roman Catholic] church groups ranging from extreme conservatives led by renegade Marcel Lefevre to moderate organizations such as the charity Secours Catholic, which paid him a regular living allowance.
Touvier went underground in 1947 and emerged 20 years later after the statute of limitations expired.
In 1971, Premier Georges Pompidou pardoned Touvier at the behest of leading church officials.
"The time has come to throw a veil over the period when the French were engaged in hatred, civil strife and even murder," he said.
But Resistance groups and Jewish survivors, outraged by the pardon, came forward with evidence to bring new charges. Again, Touvier disappeared, and was not found until police arrested him in 1989.
In April 1992, a controversial appellate court ruling cleared Touvier of six charges in the killing of Jews and Resistance leaders.
In a decision widely denounced as revisionist, the court said Touvier could not have committed crimes against humanity because Vichy never "planned and practiced a consistent anti-Semitic ideology."
In fact, historians have shown that the Vichy regime instigated strict anti-Jewish laws as early as 1940, acting on its own rather than under Nazi orders.
[see PETAINS'S CRIMES by Paul Webster pub by IVAN R. DEE 1991]
In addition, Vichy created the militia in 1943 to combat enemies of the French state, namely the Resistance and Jews. Touvier, the son of a tax collector, joined the militia at 28, after a youth marked by petty crime and pimping.
A higher court overruled the appeals court decision and brought new charges of crimes against humanity against Touvier for the seven Jews executed in 1944 to avenge the assassination of Vichy's zealous propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot.
The men were selected at random, dragged from their prison cells and shot at dawn. Touvier let one man go because he was not Jewish.
Touvier has never denied his role in the killings. But his lawyer, Jacques Tremolet de Villers, contends his client actually saved 93 lives by agreeing to German demands to execute the seven Jews.
Investigators say Touvier boasted of the executions and personally emptied the shop belonging to Emile Zeizig, one of his victims. The first names of the other victims have been clouded by history and were not immediately available.
Touvier will sit alone in a bulletproof glass booth and communicate with his lawyer through an intercom system.
Lawyers for the Jewish and Resistance groups say they are not seeking vengeance, just the truth. Until now, the courts have shown reluctance to try former top-ranking Vichy officials for war crimes.
"Seventy-five thousand Jews from France were exterminated. Can this be forgotten?" said Joe Nordmann, 84, a prosecution lawyer.
"I hope the trial will provide more knowledge to the generations who did not live through the war," he said. "Barbie was tried in Lyon. But the crime of a Frenchman is no less punishable than a German's, quite the contrary."
Barbie, a German, was tried in 1987 for war crimes, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in 1991.
[ France - called the "eldest daughter" of Roman Catholicism ]