On October 22, 1999, Maurice Papon, an eighty-nine-year-old former high-ranking French civil servant, was locked up in the Paris suburban prison of Fresnes, of sinister memory to both sides in World War II. Papon had been condemned on April 2, 1998, to ten years of criminal detention for complicity in crimes against humanity. He was found guilty on two counts of having helped organize the arrest and the deportation of Jewish men, women, and children from Bordeaux, where he was a young functionary of the Vichy regime between 1942 and 1944. He was acquitted, however, of a third count: complicity in their murder at Auschwitz.
Everything about this trial aroused intense attention: the age of the accused and his prominence, Even the trial’s duration was remarkable: at just under six months, it was the longest criminal trial in French history.
Its end was greeted with relief and the sentence with broad (though far from universal) acquiescence, ranging from the exultant Libération through the erudite Le Monde to the conservative Le Figaro. A “graduated sentence” seemed appropriate for a case that had turned out to be more ambiguous than anticipated. But had it been worthwhile to bring such grave charges against an ill old man for acts done so long ago? (Papon was hospitalized twice during the trial for pneumonia, and took leave near the end to bury his wife of sixty-six years, who died on March 25, 1998.) Of all the many French officials who had assisted in some way with the deportation of Jews, Papon alone was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. Even two attorneys for the victims’ families admitted to feeling “queasiness” (malaise).
Papon rebounded into the headlines on October 11, 1999, when he disappeared shortly before his appeal was to be heard by the highest French appeals court, the Cour de Cassation. He was discovered ten days later in a modest hotel in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, under a name borrowed from a friendly Resistance veteran, Robert de La Rochefoucault. The Swiss government expelled him the next day to France, and he was immediately taken to Fresnes.
It was remarkable enough that Papon was tried at all. France and Germany are the only major World War II belligerents to have tried any of their own citizens for crimes against humanity for acts committed in that war. The often-expressed American view that the French won’t confront the dark side of their response to Nazi occupation has been false for thirty years. Ever since students began challenging their elders’ reticence in 1968, France has undergone binges of self-scrutiny, whose feverish and repetitive character led Henry Rousso to give his …