Vichy survivor denies sending Jews to death

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A court hearing opened in Bordeaux yesterday on a nationally sensitive issue, the fate of Maurice Papon, the last representative of the Vichy regime still under investigation in France. Mr Papon, 85, was the administrative head of the Gironde region in south-west France between 1942 and 1944 and head of the department of Jewish affairs. He is accused of knowingly sending almost 1,700 Jews to their death at Auschwitz.

The hearing, which is being held behind closed doors, has to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to put Mr Papon on trial for war crimes. It is expected to last three days. The case is regarded in France as a touchstone of official attitudes to Vichy.

The investigation into Mr Papon began 15 years ago and its protracted nature aroused suspicions that it was being deliberately stalled by the late president Francois Mitterrand.

Mr Mitterrand's own links with the Vichy regime as a young politician were revealed five years ago, and he faced repeated criticism during his 14-year presidency for his seeming reluctance to pursue French war criminals.

One of Jacques Chirac's first acts as president was to signal a harsher attitude to Vichy. Giving a speech on the anniversary last year of the 1942 Vel'd'Hiv round-up of Jews in Paris, he aroused controversy by acknowledging the responsibility of France and the French state for the wartime deportations of Jews.

This week's hearing, which began with a two-hour summary of the investigation, is being attended by 14 lawyers acting on behalf of the state prosecutor and Mr Papon's two defending lawyers. In an interview with Liberation yesterday, Mr Papon emphasised that he would appeal against any decision to put him on trial.

He denied responsibility for war crimes and said he was being made "the scapegoat in a political conspiracy". Of his role in the deportation convoys, he said he was proud of having had the German guards replaced by French guards and on one occasion managing to have the usual cattle trucks replaced by passenger carriages.

He rejected the charge that he knew he was sending the Jews to their death at Auschwitz, saying: "There was knowledge of Drancy [the French holding camp for deportees near Paris], but not of Auschwitz."