Leading Article: Last chapters in a bitter history

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The Independent Online
THE TRIAL of Paul Touvier, now concluded with the life imprisonment of this former wartime leader of the milice (militia) intelligence in Lyons, is one of the final public chapters in France's coming to terms with its troubling wartime history. It was less dramatic than the trial in 1987 of Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi police chief in the same city: whereas the full range of Barbie's crimes was being examined, only Touvier's murder of seven Jews was at issue, a fraction of the horrors attributed to him; and there were few surviving witnesses.

Yet in many ways it was even more instructive, since a Frenchman rather than a German was in the dock. No doubt was left about the complicity of the Vichy regime in the persecution and deportation of France's Jews; and once again the French were obliged to face up to their widespread collaboration with the invaders.

That process of self-examination did not gather pace until the cinema screening of Max Ophuls' 1979 documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitie; and it took an American historian, Robert Paxton, to produce the first written history of collaboration in 1973 - just two years after President Pompidou had pardoned Touvier in the oft-invoked name of national reconciliation. Since then soul-searching in France has become pretty thorough. Many French people would like to see it continue with the trial of Maurice Papon, a zealously anti-Jewish official in wartime Bordeaux who rose to be budget minister under President Giscard d'Estaing. Unfortunately, the most promising candidate for trial, the Vichy police chief Rene Bousquet, was shot dead in Paris last June.

The Touvier trial brought back painful memories, too, of the sympathy of the Catholic right for the German occupiers. It was ultra- conservative factions of the church that protected Touvier after the liberation in 1944 until his arrest in 1989. They thus saved him from certain execution in the drastic settling of scores that followed the end of the occupation: sensible estimates put the number of victims between 10,000 and 30,000.

Although many Catholics acted with conspicuous courage and died in concentration camps, others saw the Germans as preferable to French Communists and anti-clerical radicals. One result of the occupation was to reopen and deepen divisions that had run through French society since the 1789 revolution, and even earlier.

Most Britons have little conception of this country's good fortune in being spared a similar experience. Coupled with the imminent 50th anniversary of D-day, the Touvier trial can serve as a reminder of how much has been done to bring reconciliation and peace to a continent with a bitter history.