Gaullism on trial as Papon awaits fate

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The Independent Online
CAN there be such a thing as a white-collar crime against humanity? The trial of the Vichy bureaucrat Maurice Papon, the longest and most morally complex trial in France for half a century, will end today.

After hearings sprawling intermittently over six months, after taking evidence from 133 witnesses and examining 50,000 pages of documents, the jury is expected to deliver its verdict by the end of the week, maybe as soon as tomorrow.

There is no doubt that Papon, 87, is guilty of something. It has been established that in 1942-44, as a senior official in the Gironde, he efficiently, and sometimes enthusiastically, helped to send 1,560 Jews from the Bordeaux area to an internment camp near Paris, and ultimately to Auschwitz. Only 30 of the deportees survived.

But is Papon, who had a glittering political career in post-war France, guilty as charged with "complicity in crimes against humanity"? The trial has established that on some occasions he showed great zeal in doing the paperwork to round up Jews. On other occasions, he helped "interesting Jews" to escape. Towards the end of the war, he provided assistance to the Resistance. However, it emerged that he had not helped either the Jews or the Resistance as much as he claimed.

Even the prosecution has not asked for a life sentence against Papon but instead for a 20-year jail term. Given his great age, this amounts to the same thing. It also amounts to an admission that his guilt was relative. Can there be such a thing as lesser crimes against humanity? The jury, composed of nine jurors and three judges, must wrestle with these philosophical-political questions, as much as with the facts.

Papon survived from left-leaning pre-war governments to thrive in the Nazi puppet Vichy regime of 1940-44. He survived the post-war purges to take posts of ever-increasing importance under Charles de Gaulle and Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He was budget minister when his role in deporting Jews was unmasked in 1981.

In this sense, the second undeclared defendant in the Papon trial, has been Gaullism as much as Vichyism. The Papon hearings are ending when many of the same issues are dangerously live in French politics. Vichy politicians and officials collaborated because they convinced themselves that this was the best way to rebuild French strength and pride.

Much the same arguments are deployed by those politicians of the traditional Right, including some low-ranking Gaullists, who have made deals with the Vichy-apologising National Front in recent days.

The likelihood is that the jury will feel constrained to convict Papon because to acquit him would be to acquit Vichy, to acquit the Holocaust, and to acquit the post-war policy of official amnesia. In any case, Papon will appeal and will almost certainly never go to jail. His wife of 60 years died last week.

The 50 civil parties to the trial, relatives of the Jews Papon helped to deport, said they had no objection to Papon going home to bury his wife. But they said that it should not be forgotten that they had never been able to bury their own relatives.