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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 22:28 GMT
Obituary: Maurice Papon
French Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon was a cunning political operator, moving up the ladder under both the Germans and post-war government until his war crimes caught up with him.

Maurice Papon during his trial in 1999 for Nazi-era crimes against humanity
Papon maintained he was the victim of media pillory

As head of the south-western Gironde region of France during the Nazi occupation, he in effect sent hundreds of Jews to their deaths by ordering their deportation to concentration camps.

But he covered his tracks skilfully, becoming involved with the French Resistance, and avoided the post-war purge of collaborators.

He was even decorated by General Charles de Gaulle and became a cabinet minister more than 30 years after the war before his past was revealed and he was finally put on trial in 1997.

Papon was born in the Paris region in 1910, the son of a solicitor-turned-industrialist.

He studied law, sociology and psychology at university and at the age of 20 entered public service.

Clever and ambitious, he rose through its ranks and in 1942, aged 31, he took over the powerful position of secretary-general of the Prefecture of the Gironde region, in the collaborationist Vichy government.

Collaborator turned informer

Armed with special responsibility for Jewish affairs, Papon had regular contact with Nazi Germany's SS corps, responsible for the mass ethnic cleansing of Jews.

At his trial, it was alleged that 1,560 men, women and children were sent to detention camps at Drancy outside Bordeaux on Papon's direct orders.

Most went on to concentration camps such as Auschwitz and all but a handful died.

By mid-1944, by which time it was clear that the war was turning against the Germans, Papon began to inform on the Nazis to the Resistance - actions for which he was later to be decorated with the treasured "Carte d'Ancien Combattant de la Resistance".

After the war, Papon moved to Paris as Prefet de Police under General de Gaulle, a post he held until 1968.

He then moved into politics, going on to serve as Budget Minister to President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s.

But in 1981, the past came back to haunt him.

Hundreds of documents were found by accident in the recesses of Bordeaux town hall, among them the deportation orders signed by Papon.

Legal quagmire

The papers were published by the satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaine.

Legal proceedings began and Papon was forced to leave public life because of the scandal.

The first charges filed in 1983 were dropped because of legal technicalities in 1987.

Fresh charges laid in 1988 accusing Papon of crimes against humanity were changed to complicity in crimes against humanity in 1995.

Papon lodged a number of appeals to stop legal proceedings against him, but he finally stood trial in October 1997.

Some French lawyers and human rights activists suggested that the government had dragged its heels in pushing the prosecution because of its reluctance to expose French complicity in the Holocaust.

Delays continued to arise during the trial, with Papon often absent through ill-health.

His defence played heavily on possible mistaken identity and the difficulty of interpreting 50-year-old facts in the light of current knowledge.

Papon told the court that he kept his job to try to help the Resistance and conduct an underground struggle to help Jews.

He also claimed he did not know what was happening to the Jews he put on the trains, but it was judged that he was guilty of complicity in war crimes.

In a BBC interview recorded in 1997, Papon denied any sense of guilt.

"I have the feeling of being some sort of scapegoat for a former regime, and of being - as has been said - judged as a symbol of all its sins, rather than as a man who has nothing to blame himself for," he said.

Shattered myth

His six-month trial was the longest in French history and stirred uncomfortable memories for many in France.

Other collaborationist officials had been put on trial, but only pro-Nazi militia leader Paul Touvier was ever brought to court charged with crimes against humanity.

At the time of his trial, correspondents pointed out that Papon's case shattered the myth clung to by many French that there was mass national resistance under the occupation.

He had undoubtedly been protected for a long time by President Francois Mitterrand who, as a former Vichy official himself, had his own reasons for not raking up the past.

Papon was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1998.

Maintaining that he was the victim of "an unprecedented media pillorying made up of lies, insults and infamy", Papon briefly fled to Switzerland during his appeal period

Imprisoned in France, he served only three on grounds of his sentence on grounds of ill-health and his release in 2002 outraged anti-Nazi campaigners.

However, a bid by his lawyers to get his conviction overturned was thrown out by an appeals court in 2004.

Papon's part in the Nazi holocaust


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