Maurice Papon: no sorrow, no pity

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

French wartime collaborator Maurice Papon, responsible for the deportation of French Jews to Nazi extermination camps, became a post-war colonial governor, a French police chief and even France's Budget minister. Finally jailed in 1999 for crimes against humanity, a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in July has now given him hope of freedom. We sketch Papon's extraordinary career.

Maurice Papon has become for many in France the symbol of blind subservience to the dictates of state policy in the country's wartime collaborationist Vichy government.

When he was finally brought to justice in 1997, at the age of 88, his six-month trial was the longest in French history and established how, as a senior Vichy official in Bordeaux, Papon saw it as his bureaucratic duty to consign hundreds of French Jews to deportation, and later death in the extermination camps of Nazi Germany.

But he refused to give himself up to serve the sentence and fled across the border to Switzerland before being tracked down, arrested and finally incarcerated in a French jail.

Born in the Paris region in 1910, Papon became a junior official in the interior and then foreign ministries under France's pre-war centre-left governments.

After Germany's conquest of France, he became a proponent of Philippe Pétain's collaborationist "national revolution", securing a key administrative post in Bordeaux, in the German-occupied zone.

It was in this capacity that he ordered the deportation of Jews - 1,560, according to the charge sheet - to Drancy, near Paris, from where they were sent east to the death camps.

Though he was cleared of direct responsibility for their fate, Papon was found guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity. He expressed no remorse at his trial, which he denounced as political.

Already by June 1944 Papon had made advances to the underground resistance, which provided cover for him during the postwar purge of collaborators, and by October 1945 he was ensconced as prefect responsible for Algerian affairs in the interior ministry.

He made persistent efforts to cover up his past and finally obtained, in June 1958, official recognition as a "voluntary resistance fighter."

Less widely known was his later repression of Algerian aspirations for independence, first as administrator of the Constantine region of eastern Algeria, then as prefect of the Paris police under the Fifth Republic.

Papon's detractors hold him responsible for the savage assault by French police on thousands of Algerians who demonstrated peacefully on October 17, 1961 for an end to a curfew. Scores of Algerians are now known to have died, although a precise figure has never been established.

He served as prefect in Corsica and Algeria between 1947 and 1951, then under a series of socialist governments was posted to Paris, to Morocco, and finally to Constantine, which, because of the immense powers he wielded, acquired the nickname of "Paponie".

At a time when torture was already being widely practised against Algerian nationalists, Papon favoured the fullest possible exercise of special powers decreed in March 1956 by premier Guy Mollet.

The return of General Charles de Gaulle in 1958 did nothing to impede Papon's career, and he served as the prefect of Paris police until 1966, later entering parliament and in 1978, becoming budget minister under President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Papon's past caught up with him in 1981, when Michael Slitinsky, a Bordeaux Jew who had narrowly escaped deportation, sent details of Papon's role to the media.

He was charged with crimes against humanity in 1983. The legal proceedings then went into limbo, largely through the intervention of President François Mitterrand, himself a former Vichy official, but he finally went on trial in October 1997.

The trial re-focussed attention on France's ambiguous war-time past. Papon himself said he was being made a scapegoat to expiate a lingering sense of shame for collaborating with the German invader

But when the court found him guilty, it was in response to the over-riding principle that in crimes of this order, state functionaries cannot hide behind a defence of merely following instructions.

Papon began serving his prison sentence on October 22, 2000 after he was arrested in Switzerland where he had fled ahead of his appeal hearing. In November the same year he was stripped of the Legion of Honour.

Now 91 and in failing health, he won something of a Pyrrhic victory when in July the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in his favour that France violated his legal rights by refusing him leave to appeal against conviction. He also won costs and expenses.


August 2002

Copyright AFP

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