Vichy or not Vichy?
Richard Christiansen reports from Paris on a war crimes trial that raises
controversial questions about France's past and future
'This decision ends up rehabilitating the Vichy regime in brushing aside
the fact that the French Milice was the twin brother of the German Gestapo.'
That was how one lawyer greeted a French court's April decision not to prosecute
Paul Touvier, the former head of the Lyons Milice brigade, for 'crimes against
humanity' committed during the Second World War. The case has fuelled the
current French controversy over the role of the puppet Vichy regime, which
governed wartime France under German military occupation. It is a controversy
with serious implications for deciding what modern France stands for and
Touvier was first officially reprieved by the French authorities in 1971,
as a gesture to the Germans who did not want the embarrassment of another
war crimes trial. He was arrested again in 1989, barely 18 months after
the trial of Klaus Barbie, on similar charges, had become the focus for
renewed anti-German hysteria in France. It seemed that dragging Touvier
out of the history books once more for his collaboration with the 'Bosch'
was another attempt by the French authorities to alert public opinion to
the dangers of resurgent German power in Europe today.
From the start, however, Touvier was bound to be a problem. Unlike the Gestapo-chief
Barbie, Touvier was a Frenchman. His Gestapo-style organisation was set
up by French police chiefs and judges, many of whom are still alive, and
some of whom are still serving. And he had been hidden for 45 years by the
Catholic church. Putting Touvier on trial seemed sure to highlight the hidden
story of how various arms of the French establishment had collaborated with
The Touvier controversy has come to symbolise the contradictory pressures
on the French establishment as it seeks to define its national identity
The French right needs to rehabilitate the Vichy regime somehow. The discredit
which it acquired through its wartime collaboration with the Nazis has been
largely responsible for the weak and divided state of the right in France
over much of the postwar period. Settling scores over Vichy is vital if
the French right is to rise to power again.
At the same time, however, the right and the wider French establishment
are also under pressure to keep their anti-German credentials intact. Hostility
to Germany has been a major component of French nationalism for well over
a century, and remains a powerful banner behind which the authorities can
rally support. From this perspective, the traditional view of the Vichy
collaborators as traitors to France remains important.
The Touvier case was to be a calculated gamble to establish how far the
authorities can afford to go in rewriting wartime history. A recent report
commissioned by the Church, and widely welcomed by the media as a sign of
a 'new openness', indicated how far the boundaries could be pushed back.
One passage, quoted in the final judicial report, stated that 'certain members
of the Milice, in the name of the Milice and the secretary of state for
law and order, colonised...the Vichy state apparatus'. In this schema, the
Vichy regime itself was not pro-Nazi, but was manipulated by a kind of pro-Nazi
'lobby' in the form of 'certain members of the Milice'. This has long been
a key proposition of the revisionist right in France. They argue that the
vast majority of Vichy officials were not French Nazis, but were 'pragmatic'
collaborators who saved Jews from a worse fate and were at heart anti-German.
The revisionist interpretation was effectively endorsed by the judges who
finally decided not to prosecute Touvier. Six charges were originally brought
against Touvier, including one for the execution of seven men as 'revenge'
for the killing of Philippe Henriot, a Vichy. All seven were Jewish. Five
of the six charges were thrown out because the witnesses' testimonies were
'foggy'. The lawyer who unsuccessfully defended Klaus Barbie against similar
charges declared that 'France has become France again. We cannot believe
witnesses 50 years on. This decision appears to signal an end to the trials
of this period'.
The sixth charge, that of the execution of seven Jews, stirred up the hornet's
nest. One man testified that he had been spared from the firing squad explicitly
because he was not Jewish. Yet the court ruled that the decision to execute
was not part of a 'systematic project of extermination', since the victims
were chosen at random 'in the heat of the moment'.
Besides, the court decided, Vichy could not do such things 'systematically'
because, unlike in Nazi Germany, the Jew was never declared an enemy of
the state. The judges ruled that the law which barred Jews from all positions
of authority, and the decision to put them all under house arrest (both
passed in October 1940) were examples of an 'improvised policy' to win concessions
from Germany, not of anti-semitism. Any excesses on the part of Vichy could
be put down to an excess of zeal among those for whom 'the struggle against
Communist ideology' was 'primary'.
The court's decision was a victory for the revisionist right, but was condemned
by many conservative commentators and politicians because it was not seen
to be anti-German enough.
'The truth is', announced two judges critical of the outcome, 'that the
decision on Touvier undermines the social cohesion at the centre of which
is the judiciary' (Liberation, 24 April). Since the forties, the
often fragile 'social cohesion' of France and the slim authority of the
state has been partly based upon the accepted history of the war: that Vichy
was just an unfortunate 'parenthesis' (to quote De Gaulle) in a long, glorious
Republican tradition, and that France's ills were all down to the 'shame'
of its collaboration with the Nazis. That history is now in danger of coming
apart under the pressures of post-Cold war change.
No doubt the right would like to accelerate the revision of history, so
that its past of anti-semitism and fascism will no longer be so embarrassing.
At present, the official French history remains a source of stability as
a focus for anti-German sentiment. But as racism and chauvinism become increasingly
mainstream in modern French politics, so Vichy can be made to look more
and more 'normal'. Perhaps the judiciary's mistake in the Touvier case was
simply that it jumped too far, too fast.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992