Prague, 21 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than a half-century after his alleged crimes, a French court in the southeastern city of Bordeaux has for three weeks been trying an 87-year-old former civil servant and minister. Maurice Papon is charged with crimes against humanity for having ordered the World War II round-up and deportation of 1,560 Jews, most of whom later died in Nazi death camps.
He was prefect of the Bordeaux area during the Vichy-based government that cooperated with France's German occupiers until the country's liberation in 1944.
But the legal proceedings over Papon's behavior, expected to last three months, have already turned into another trial of far wider moral dimensions -- that of France's wartime collaborationist government itself and of the many who served or sympathized with it. The Bordeaux trial is also raising questions about General Charles de Gaulle, a national hero for his leadership of the Free French resistance from abroad, but now being criticized for having taken into his postwar government Papon and many other former collaborators.
And finally, because Papon was Paris police chief during the savage repression in the capital of a 1961 pro-Algerian independence march that reportedly killed some 200 Algerians, his trial has also reopened another sensitive question. That one has to do with France's often brutal conduct during the north African nation's struggle to rid itself of its century-old colonial power.
For decades, apart from some historians' work that got little public notice, both Vichy's collaboration and Paris' behavior during the eight-year-long Algerian war were taboo subjects in France. Facts about both periods were simply ignored or concealed in order, say defenders of their repression, to hold the country together in difficult times. But in recent years, in what one French sociologist calls a time of "extraordinary masochism in France," the country has been caught up in a collective effort to clear its bad conscience.
In recent weeks, the effort has taken the form of a series of formal apologies to the nation's current community of 650,000 Jews. France's Roman Catholic Church issued a moving apology for what it candidly admitted was its failure during the war to condemn Nazi and Vichy anti-Semitic policies and actions. Statements of contrition, for acts committed or actions not undertaken, have also been addressed to the community by the French medical and police associations.
And in recent days, all these tangled moral questions have suddenly become politicized -- always a danger in France, where public morality has a partisan political dimension greater than elsewhere. On one side are Gaullists like party leader Philippe Seguin, who two days ago told a television interviewer that "the Papon trial is serving as a pretext for two trials: that of General de Gaulle and Gaullism, and that of France." Today, in a signed article in the daily "Figaro," Seguin went even further. He accused French Socialists, who lead the nation's current Left government and are mostly on the other side, of trying to make political capital of the trial and reminded them there were more Socialists in the Vichy Government than at de Gaulle's resistance headquarters in London.
Until 1943, when he turned resistant, one of those Socialists serving Vichy was Francois Mitterrand, France's president for 14 years until 1995. Mitterrand insisted throughout his time in office that Vichy was an aberration, and not the French Republic's responsibility. Toward the end, he admitted that he had kept the French judiciary --constitutionally, far from totally independent of the executive-- from bringing to trial collaborators like Papon who might have committed crimes. That explains why Papon, whose case has been under investigation since 1981, is only now being tried.
Yesterday Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, while insisting that the Papon trial was of a man and not a system, repeated Mitterrand's thesis that republican France was not responsible for the actions of what both called "illegitimate" Vichy. Two years ago, however, France's current Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac, made a public apology to French Jews for Vichy's misdeeds, saying that the country had to acknowledge its responsibility. And complicating the political dimension even more, far from all Gaullists -- notably, Seguin -- agree with Chirac, as not all Socialists agree with Mitterrand and Jospin.
Analysts say that politicization of the Papon trial and of the dispute over Vichy is one price France is paying for waiting so long to grapple with the less glorious episodes in its recent history. Another may be that, even if convicted, Papon may never spend time in jail. The court has already ruled that, because of a weak heart, Papon does not have to remain in custody during the trial --an unusual decision in French criminal cases. The same ruling, if not overturned by a higher court, would apply to a Papon appeal, which could take years to adjudicate. So it's quite possible that France will never get to incarcerate the only Vichy official it has ever indicted for crimes against humanity.