VERSAILLES, France -- Almost 50 years after he ordered the execution of seven Jews while he was serving in a pro-Nazi militia, Paul Touvier yesterday became the first Frenchman to be found guilty of crimes against humanity during World War II.
Now a frail 79-year-old suffering from prostate cancer, Touvier was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Touvier never denied sending the seven Jews to their deaths on June 29, 1944, at Rillieux-la-Pape, near Lyon. But he said he did so to save 23 others. Given the last word before the jury withdrew, he said: "I have never forgotten the victims of Rillieux. I think of them every day, every evening."
The trial assumed special significance because it was the first time a French court had examined any aspect of French persecution of Jews when the country was under German occupation between 1940 and 1944.
Although 10,000 French citizens were executed or assassinated after the Liberation for aiding the Germans, it was only 30 years later that it became widely known that the Vichy government helped to round up 76,000 French and foreign Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps.
Touvier, the French militia's intelligence chief in Lyon from early 1943 to the summer of 1944, was arrested in 1989 after almost 45 years of hiding.
The seven Jews were executed in reprisal for the assassination of Philippe Henriot, the Vichy minister of information, by Resistance fighters. Touvier said that the Gestapo had demanded that 100 people be executed, that his militia chief reduced the number to 30, and that he was able to save all but seven.
But the state prosecutor was able to present extensive evidence showing not only that Touvier was anti-Semitic but also that he actively collaborated with the Gestapo in anti-Jewish actions.
He also dismissed Touvier's assertion that he saved 23 people. "Touvier and his militiamen gathered seven Jews and had them killed," he went on. "Why seven? Because he only had seven at hand."
The chief defense attorney, Jacques Tremolet de Villers, called yesterday for an acquittal. He argued that the events at Rillieux a half-century ago represented at most a war crime -- and that Touvier was pardoned for war crimes in 1971.
After quoting the view of three French presidents -- Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Francois Mitterrand -- that France's wartime past should be buried, the attorney argued that Touvier was now "a tired, sick old man" who had already paid the price of 50 years of ostracism.