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Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Maurice Papon: Haunted by the past
Maurice Papon in 1947
Papon avoided the post-war purge of collaborators
Maurice Papon deftly switched allegiances, moving up the political ladder under both the Nazis and post-war government until his war crimes caught up with him.

As head of the south-western Gironde region of France during the Nazi occupation, he signed effective death warrants for hundreds of Jews by ordering their deportation to concentration camps.

General Charles de Gaulle (l) and Maurice Papon
General de Gaulle honoured Papon, seen here beside the post-war leader
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.

Maurice 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 General-Secretary 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".

Maurice Papon during his trial
Papon was often absent from his trial because of health problems
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 had 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.

Survivors at Auschwitz
Papon said he did not know the fate of the Jews he deported
Some French lawyers and human rights activists suggested that the government 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 for complicity in war crimes.

Difficult reminder

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.

While some hoped that the jailing of Maurice Papon would allow France to accept its past and allow a healing process to begin, his early release may yet open old wounds.

See also:

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