FRANCE'S recent conviction of Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity marks the first time a Frenchman has been tried for participation in the ``war against the Jews.''
This small victory for human decency was not an easy one: It took 45 years to run Mr. Touvier to ground and five more to deliver him to trial. The country's reluctance to bring Touvier to justice illustrates its unwillingness to face the ugly reality of its Vichy government's cooperation with the Nazis.
Future prospects of bringing Vichy officials to trial for their participation in heinous war crimes are not great. Among those still alive, all are elderly, and many have enjoyed political and financial success that could prove embarrassing for post-war France. But the main reason is France's determination to bury its dishonorable past in the Gaullist fiction that she was a nation betrayed by Vichy collaborators.
It is heartening that a reexamination of France's role in racial murder should come in the centennial year of the infamous Dreyfus affair, an event that formed a foundation for Vichy-Nazi cooperation and the Touvier affair.
In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of spying for Germany and sentenced to life on Devil's Island. The French Army's case against him was a combination of lies, forgeries, and unabashed anti-Semitism - Captain Dreyfus was a Jew who aspired to a place in the French Army's high command. The trial's injustice was so transparent it cried out for reversal, and for the next 12 years, ``The Affair'' (as it quickly became known) was a matter of national and international controversy.
The most famous assault on the Dreyfus court martial travesty was Emile Zola's newspaper charge, ``J'accuse,'' in which he examined the Army's case, showing it to be a series of forgeries and fabrications. For his efforts, the French court convicted Mr. Zola of defaming the Army. But after the Zola article, the Army couldn't escape the cry for justice, though it took eight more years before Dreyfus was freed from jail.
The affair dominated French life. Just when it seemed as though the Army had silenced its last critic, it would flare up in the face of such events as Dreyfus's court-martial in 1894, his exoneration by the Court of Appeals, and the restoration of his Army commission in 1906.
It was a turbulent time, not least for Dreyfus, who spent five years imprisoned. For France, the trial pitted the Third Republic, representing democracy, progress, and enlightenment, against its enemies - the church, nationalists, royalists, and Bonapartists. With faith in the French Army and unaltered opposition to the modern, industrial world, Dreyfus' opponents were further united in their virulent anti-Semitism, which galvanized such disparate groups of French society as business executives, journalists, and parish priests.
Their anti-Dreyfus, anti-Semitic rallying cry, heard throughout France during the years of the affair, was ``Death to the Jews.'' The poet Charles Peguy painfully described the picture of ``grade school children, at four o'clock, walking home in small groups crying, `Death to the Jews.' '' One wonders what Mr. Peguy, who died on a World War I battlefield where Dreyfus and his son also fought side by side for France, would have thought of the Vichy government's shameful role in aiding the Nazis' murder of the Jews.
If the Dreyfus affair symbolized French injustice and intolerance 100 years ago, the Touvier affair today provides a similar mirror, reflecting a legacy of anti-Semitism that historical revisionists cannot hide. It was in June 1944 that Touvier, intelligence chief in Lyon's avowedly anti-Semitic Vichy militia, ordered the execution of seven innocent Jews.
After the war, Touvier was twice convicted for treason and a variety of criminal acts. Sentenced to death, he fled underground, aided by what has been called ``the cassock connection'' - priests and officials of the Catholic Church who went to extraordinary lengths to save him. When he was captured in May 1989, Touvier was hiding in a monastery in Nice, France.
Criticism of the church's role in protecting this convicted war criminal led Cardinal Decourtray, head of the French church, to open the archives for a full report. In 1992, that report detailed a network of church officials who had hidden Touvier. It was an ecclesiastical mafia, natural heirs of the anti-Dreyfus camp, hostile to democracy, fearful of threats to church authority, and anti-Semitic.
The report's description of the ``cassock connection'' conjures up voices from the past, such as the Bishop of Nancy's attacking Dreyfus supporters as Freemasons, intellectuals, Huguenots (i.e., Protestants), and Jews; further declaring that Dreyfus's Catholic supporters ``betrayed their faith.'' Fifty years later, Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyon (where Touvier was carrying out his own murderous brand of anti-Semitism) justified anti-Jewish laws with a personal note: ``No one recognizes more than I the evil the Jews have done to France.''
With such high-level anti-Semitic endorsement, little wonder Vichy France was so cooperative in rounding up and transporting Jews to their death. This mass murder fulfilled the 1894 prophecy of Edouard Drumont, France's most notorious anti-Semite, whose newspaper, La Libre Parole, led the attack on Dreyfus and the Jews: ``I feel that it is France's youth who will avenge us when they are older, and something tells me the punishment of the Jews will be frightening.'' In 1894, France sacrificed one Jew to anti-Semitic hysteria; 50 years later, she sacrificed 75,000 to anti-Semitism and racial purity.
Though President Mitterrand has insisted France need not apologize for the Vichy government's actions and that the Touvier affair had ``little meaning for France,'' his trial, conviction, and imprisonment may ease French consciences for another half century. But on this 100th anniversary of the Dreyfus affair, France (and many other countries) would be wise to reflect on the sad reality of its anti-Semitic past and remember the words of Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th-century North African sage: ``The past resembles the future more than one drop of water another.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.