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A career carved from genocide

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Half a century after the end of the war, France is about to try a senior official of the Vichy regime for crimes against humanity. Maurice Papon, a tall, patrician, stubborn man of 87, will be the first Vichy official to face such charges in court - and almost certainly the last.

The trial will convulse the country. It has already produced an extraordinary flora of books and television documentaries, probing the national bad conscience about the Vichy administration and, especially, its energetic persecution of French Jews.

As part of the mood of self-examination and repentance, the Catholic hierarchy will this Tuesday - years after the German and Polish churches - make a formal apology to the French Jewish community for Catholicism's moral and spiritual support for the Vichy regime.

The Papon story is a modern morality tale, applicable not just to France. It is a story of the banality of evil; of the blindness of bureaucratic careerism; and of the capacity for self-delusion and self-promotion of an able and - by his own account - highly moral man. But it is, above all, the story of an official conspiracy of amnesia, about what really happened in France from July 1940 to August 1944.

Maurice Papon was not a truly big wheel in Vichy. He was the secretary general - the chief administrative officer - to the Prefect of Police in the Bordeaux area. According to the evidence against him, he was an efficient, even enthusiastic, enforcer of the arrest and deportation of French Jews: not from anti-semitism, but from careerism.

The most extraordinary fact about Papon - which helps to explain why the trial in Bordeaux from 8 October will provoke such searing emotion - is that he became a big wheel after the war. After serving in Algeria and Corsica, he became the Paris police chief for nine years (where he ordered the suppression of an Algerian demonstration in 1961, in which 200 people died). He became a Gaullist MP; a commander of the Legion d'Honneur; head of a semi-state industry; and, finally, the budget minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

His past finally caught up with him in 1981. But it has still taken 16 years to bring him to trial, partly because the late President Francois Mitterrand, whose own role in the early years of Vichy remains questionable, resisted the tearing open of old wounds.

Like the leaders of Vichy, Papon believed that the best way to ensure an autonomous status for France, within the German Reich, was to prove the French could run France efficiently. It was only in late 1943 and 1944, when it seemed Germany might not have won after all, that a substantial number of Vichy officials - Mr Papon included - hedged their career prospects and started helping the Resistance.

The case against him includes a pompously-worded internal memo of 24 November 1942 in which - as a good administrator, rather than a believer in the Final Solution - he "seeks clarification" on which budget heading the transport of Jews should be charged to. (It is later agreed the money should be confiscated from accounts belonging to Jewish organisations.) In another memo, he suggests ways that the timetables for trains deporting Jews to Germany and Poland could be speeded up; in another he recommends security against possible runaways en route be improved.

Maurice Papon signed the transport warrants - in effect the death warrants - for 1,560 Jews. He does not deny this. He cannot: the documents exist. He says that this was an administrative formality and that he had no choice. He also claims to have intervened personally to rescue - in his own chilling phrase - "interesting Jews". There is some evidence that this, also, is true. Equally, there is evidence that he took officious steps to round up 31 Jewish children, separated from their parents and overlooked by the Germans. Papon says that he did this for "humanitarian reasons": to re-unite families.

All 31 children died in concentration camps, as did almost all the Jews ordered arrested by Papon. One who escaped was a 17-year-old Ukrainian refugee called Michel Slitinsky. He hid under the stairs when French police, on Papon's orders, arrested his father and sister at the family shop in Bordeaux in October 1942. His father died in Auschwitz. His sister, for reasons not yet explained, was one of the handful of Jews that Papon decided to help.

After the war, Michel Slitinsky pledged to uncover the truth about the French state-administered pogroms in the Bordeaux area. It was he, after 30 years, who turned up the carefully buried documents which incriminated Papon. Mr Slitinsky says the importance of the trial is precisely that "Papon was not an executioner. He was not a torturer. But with a fountain pen, you can do things that are even worse."

Maurice Papon's career also points to two, long-obscured truths about Vichy, brilliantly detailed in a new book - To Serve the French State - written by a young, Jewish, former French civil servant, Marc Olivier Baruch. Vichy was not some temporary usurpation or interregnum in the adminstrative tradition of the French state. Vichy - authoritatian, anti- democratic, racist - was the French state. It was administered, from the highest to the lowest levels, by those who had run France before the war, trained in the "Republican virtues" of humanitarian and impartial administration. Almost the only exceptions were the Jews and suspected leftist sympathisers who were banned from public office.

Secondly, although there was some witch-hunting in 1944, the great bulk of the officials who served Vichy carried on into Charles de Gaulle's provisional government of 1944-6. Many, like Papon, prospered into the Fourth and Fifth Republic. The continuity was a deliberate choice by General de Gaulle. He fostered the myth of a France in which everyone had, at least in their hearts, supported him. He wanted to set up a functioning post-Vichy state as quickly as possible, to neutralise the possibility of a Communist takeover and to avoid the paralysis - even the bloodletting - of a prolonged settling of accounts.

In strictly pragmatic terms, these were sensible choices: but they left the poison in the wound. They help to explain why, 53 years later, France is still struggling to come to terms with Vichy.