Papon came from a well-to-do family whose politics were left of centre. Today they would be readers of The Independent or The Guardian. At university in Paris during the early Thirties, Papon did courses in psychology and sociology. He was a brilliant student, also left-wing and, helped by his parents' political connections, he quickly joined the office of a junior government minister. From 1935 onwards, he worked almost continually for the government, finally as a minister himself, until one day in May 1981 the French equivalent of Private Eye, Le Canard Enchaine, revealed his wartime activities.
On the outbreak of war, Papon joined the army, served briefly in the Middle East. After France's rapid defeat as a result of the German blitzkrieg, he found himself demobilised in October 1940. That was the month when Marshall Petain, head of the French government, after a meeting with Hitler, announced that "in order to maintain French unity ... I am embarking on the path of collaboration".
As a result, Hitler achieved a second brilliant coup. He was able to use the French civil service to govern France in Germany's interests while the impression was given that the French were in charge of their affairs. As a consequence, the occupation of France - whether directly in the north, or at one remove through Petain's administration headquartered at Vichy in the south - required relatively few Germans. Nazi orders were carried out by French civil servants, a valuable distancing as conditions of everyday life deteriorated. German forces could concentrate on defending the French coast.
Significantly, the Vichy regime called itself l'tat francais, "the French state", rather than la Republique francaise.
This was deformation professionnelle on a grand scale. The French state did the Nazis' bidding. In particular, it was prepared to eliminate Jews from French life. This policy was not against the grain. Many French people were anti-Semitic, though not as rabidly so as the Germans.
Papon made his way to Vichy, rejoined the interior ministry, the department he had left in 1939, and started work for his old boss, Maurice Sabatier. In 1942, Sabatier was appointed prefect of Aquitaine, based in Bordeaux, and took Papon as his deputy.
Among Papon's duties was directing le service de questions juives. Jews had to be identified, and in doubtful cases, family histories examined. They were forced to leave many types of job or profession. Their worldly goods were taken from them. Finally, starting with foreign Jews, they were rounded up, placed in a holding pen in nearby Merignac, then sent by train to Drancy in the outskirts of Paris (where last week the Catholic Church apologised for its silence during these events). From Drancy, Jews were dispatched to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Compared with the rest of France, the Bordeaux operation was one of the most efficient of its kind.
Papon directed the work and signed the orders. But one gets the impression that he did so with neither the satisfaction that an anti-Semite might have felt, nor the anguish that a rounded human being would have experienced. A Vichy document of the period described him as "a good negotiator. He acts correctly and courteously. But where matters are sensitive, he is usually very evasive and hides behind his chief, Sabatier. He co-operates correctly with the German High Command. He is quick and sure-footed."
Quick and sure-footed though Papon was, and continued to be as the Nazi forces were driven out of France and collaborators were summarily put to death, more than 10,000 of them, before the rule of law could be re- established, he could not know that during a round-up of Jewish families, a 17-year-old youth who had escaped, Michel Siltinsky, would one day denounce him. Thirty years later, this same Siltinsky managed to obtain a job in Bordeaux's archives sorting out files, still classified as secret, for the period of the Occupation. He found what he was looking for.
Unaware that a long fuse had been lit, Papon handled the war's closing stages with skill. In autumn 1943, after the German defeat in Stalingrad, he made friendly contact with a Jewish leader in the Resistance. In May 1944, he gave up his responsibility for the service des questions juives. Two days before the liberation of Bordeaux, he summoned local police chiefs and ordered then to co-operate with General de Gaulle's representatives.
Papon duly collected his reward; he was made a prefect in a neighbouring district. He continued to climb the ladder of the French state. In the 1950s, he was sent to Algeria to help subdue the rebellious colony; the work was brutal, but he did it well. As a result, De Gaulle appointed him head of the Paris police. He retired in 1967. The next year, he entered the National Assembly as a deputy. In 1978, during the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, he was appointed minister for the Budget.
Then, in 1981 the hunter of Jews during the 1940s and of Algerians in the 1950s became the hunted. Siltinsky had photocopied sufficient documents on which to base charges.
Papon was probably not an anti-Semite. His zeal, cruel as it was, was exerted on behalf of the institutions he served rather than for some warped political principle. Indeed deformation professionnelle can be found in any setting. But it is most common in the service of the state. In the UK, it has been a factor in recent miscarriages of justice. We, too, have had our Maurice Papons.Reuse content