Trial to dredge up Frances Nazi past

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

PARIS — After 16 years of delay, former government minister Maurice Papon will go before a jury next week to answer accusations that he sent Jews to death camps during World War II.

Papon, 87, is accused of crimes against humanity for ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, to Auschwitz when he was secretary general of the Bordeaux prefect's office, the second highest-ranking position in the region.

But his trial, which opens Oct. 8 in the southwest city of Bordeaux, will be more than an examination of one man's deeds. It will be a post-mortem on the conduct of a nation during the Nazi occupation of France.

Delving into the behavior of the French administration — police, judges, bureaucrats — during the occupation was a longstanding taboo in the postwar years, when General Charles de Gaulle, intent on strengthening a weakened nation, perpetuated the myth that France had been heroically united against the German occupiers.

Papon himself went on to hold senior positions in de Gaulle's administration, including that of Paris police chief from 1958 to 1967.

After de Gaulle died, Papon continued his successful career, serving as budget minister from 1978 to 1981.

Efforts to bring Papon to trial were launched in 1981 after a newspaper article detailed his wartime activities.

But they were repeatedly obstructed by senior French officials — in particular by late President François Mitterrand — who were determined to prevent a trial that would make France re-examine its collaboration with the Nazis and, ultimately, its participation in the Final Solution.

The trial of Papon — who will in all likelihood will be the last Frenchman to face trial for crimes against humanity — is seen as the nation's final opportunity to come to terms with a past it has long tried to forget.

According to a recent survey, most French people welcome that chance.

A poll for the Evenement du Jeudi weekly newsmagazine showed that 67 percent of those questioned thought the trial would be useful in understanding more about France's collaboration with the Nazis.

Among the survey's participants, 83 percent found it "shocking" that Papon was able to become Paris police chief after the war, while 68 percent believed Papon should have disobeyed the Vichy regime.

The charges against Papon include being an accomplice to kidnapping and murder, carrying out arbitrary arrests and perpetrating inhuman acts.

The trial will be held as a result of a January ruling by France's Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the high court said Papon knew that "the arrest and deportation of Jews to the east would inevitably lead them to death," adding that his office always "sought to ensure maximum efficiency in carrying out anti-Jewish measures."

The court also said Papon often displayed unwarranted zeal by providing Nazi authorities with details about French Jews before asked for the information.

Papon has denied the charges against him, saying he stayed in his prefect's office job to help the French Resistance, and used his position to save Jews. Papon reportedly joined the Resistance near the end of 1943.

Papon's lawyers plan to ask the court on the first day of the trial to allow their client, who is half deaf and has a heart condition, to stay free during the proceedings because of his age and state of health.

Under French law, a defendant must stay in prison throughout his trial.

His lawyers also say they plan to argue that their client was no guiltier than wartime Jewish officials who cooperated with the Nazis in the hope of saving as many Jews as possible.

Lawyer Jean-Marc Varaut maintains that Papon was "a low-level civil servant who saved those who could be saved," and that the trial "will be a sacrificial trial against a man being made into the scapegoat of France's bad conscience."

Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, said the defense was "trying to sow doubt, attack everyone, darken everyone, so that everyone appears guilty and Papon comes out seeming no guiltier than anyone else."

The trial, during which a long list of witnesses will appear, is expected to last two-and-a-half months.

Among several eminent figures the defense intends to call to the stand are Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Raymond Barre, who were president and prime minister, respectively, when Papon served in the Cabinet as budget minister.

"Being Paris police chief and Cabinet member, [Papen] knew a lot of people," said Arno Klarsfeld, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who include Holocaust survivors and relatives of Papon's alleged victims.

"They can all testify that he was a good man when he was minister of budget. Maybe he was good for the budget, but he wasn't good for the Jews of Bordeaux, and one is more important than the other."