As a hero of the French Resistance movement, which fought German occupation forces during the Second World War, Maurice Papon had a head start in carving out a government career when the hostilities ended. In the postwar years, he served as chief government administrator in two regions of France and was Paris police chief from 1958 to 1966. In 1968, he was elected to the National Assembly and went
on to become budget minister under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing from 1978 to 1981. But concealed in Papon’s past was a troubling secret. Last month, lawyers representing the families of Jews who were deported during the Nazi era learned that Papon, now 78, had been secretly indicted for his part in rounding up 1,690 Jews in the Bordeaux region and sending them to their deaths in Nazi camps between 1942 and 1944. Despite that report, it was unclear when—if ever—Papon will face trial. Lawyer Gérard Boulanger, who helped develop the case, charged last week that Papon is being protected because of his connections in French government circles. Added Boulanger: “We must bring out the truth and we must make an example of Papon.”
According to Boulanger, the indictment was delivered in July. But under French law, legal officials are not obliged to make charges public until they bring the accused to trial. As a result, Boulanger and other lawyers representing the
families only learned of the indictment when they asked justice ministry officials in Paris about the case. Another of the lawyers involved, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, said that there was enough evidence against Papon for the trial to begin in six months. But Klarsfeld said that government officials might try to delay the case in the hope that Papon would die before going on trial.
So far, Papon has been remarkably successful in avoiding facing the charges. He was helped by the reputation he acquired for aiding the Resistance movement during the war years when he served as secretary general—the civilian official who was second in command—in the French region of the Gironde, which includes the city of Bordeaux, under German occupation at the time. Boulanger and others say that, during the same period, Papon signed documents ordering the deportation of 1,690 Jews. None of those allegedly deported by Papon survived the war.
The allegations first surá faced publicly in 1981 in the Paris-based satirical weekly g Le Canard Enchaîne. At the time, Papon rejected the allegations. But Papon asked a commission of former Resistance fighters to look into the charges. Later that year, the commission concluded that Papon should have resigned rather than carry out the German deportation orders.
Papon was finally charged in 1983—and again in 1984. But both times, his lawyers convinced an appeal court to quash the charges on technical grounds. Now, some critics of the French justice system have said that the administration of President François Mitterrand is concerned that trying Papon would awaken bitter memories of the war years, when thousands of French citizens quietly collaborated with the German authorities. Said Klarsfeld: “The decision to prosecute Papon depends ultimately on the government’s will to proceed and on public opinion.” Now it remains to be seen how strong that will is.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.