Nazi Trial: The late show

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In deference to the advanced age of the accused, and many of the witnesses, the trial of Maurice Papon will sit in the afternoons only. It is expected to last for at least three months, with a cut-off date of 23 December.

Character witnesses for Papon, depending on the time available, may include the former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former Prime Minister, Raymond Barre.

A large section of the trial will be given over to establishing the political and moral climate of Vichy France. Evidence will be given by the most eminent historians of the period: the American Robert Paxton, the French writers Henry Rousso and Henri Amouroux and the Nobel peace prize-winner Elie Wiesel. Over 50,000 documents have been assembled.

There may also be many days of abstruse legal argument. Although the basic facts are not in dispute, the legal basis for trying Papon for "complicity in crimes against humanity" is far from clear. Arguments on this point disrupted the trials of the German torturer Klaus Barbie in the 1980s and the Vichy militia chief, Paul Touvier, in the 1970s. The prosecution must prove that Papon had "personal complicity" in genocide, not simply that he acted within a Vichy state apparatus in which the important decisions were outside his competence.

Prosecutors will seek to prove that Papon showed unnecessary zeal in his rounding up of Jews; the defence will bring evidence that he did intervene to help some escape the net. It appears, however, that these interventions began only in late 1943 or early 1944 when Papon was in touch with the resistance and preparing the alibi which allowed him to survive the liberation.