Youth in France Confront Shame of Vichy Regime

War crimes trial brings up memories of Nazi collaboration. The outcome could affect how French deal with public issues.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A plaque on the high synagogue wall tells the story in flowing gold script that emphasizes the harsh message: Teenage girls were arrested here in 1944, shipped to Auschwitz, and exterminated. It ends by asking passersby to remember.

With Maurice Papon on trial this month, few in France could forget.

Mr. Papon is being tried in the southwestern city of Bordeaux for committing "crimes against humanity" during World War II. As a bureaucrat in the Vichy regime, which governed southern France and cooperated with the German occupation in the north, Papon sent 1,690 Jews to Germany where most perished in concentration camps.

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The extent of Vichy collaboration has been an endless source of controversy and shame many French would prefer, as former President Georges Pompidou once urged them, to "draw a veil over that time and forget it."

Now Papon's trial is forcing France to lift the veil on Vichy and its role in Nazi Germany's "final solution." The process is revealing as much about the France of 1944 as it is of France today, but its significance is even wider-reaching. Papon is being tried under a 1964 French law that incorporates international law on crimes against humanity. As such, the outcome of his trial could shape international justice from Bosnia to Zaire and beyond.

"If it's successful, it sends a strong message to bureaucrats around the world," says Leila Wexler Sadat, a chair of the International Law Association Committee who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. "Doing your job won't exonerate you from doing the dastardly duties of your state. One day, even if it takes 50 years, you might have to answer to the international community for your actions."

It has taken prosecutors 16 years to have Papon answer for his actions as supervisor of the Office of Jewish Affairs and local police in the Bordeaux area.

By the time his Vichy activities were uncovered in 1981, Papon was a Cabinet minister, the culmination of a long and illustrious career in government. Unlike many collaborators who were tried and executed after Germany's defeat, Papon survived by joining the Resistance when it became clear Germany would fall to the Allies, and then by trumpeting his new Resistance credentials after the war's end.

His government posts brought prestige and protection. In 1987, the first attempt to bring Papon to trial fizzled when a court declared a judicial error had been made. Later, former president Franois Mitterand, whose own wartime activities are hazy, admitted he'd stepped in to keep the "civil peace."

If French leaders encouraged self-induced national amnesia, those of the war generation were happy to comply. But their children are more willing to probe the past and the last few months have produced widespread soul-searching as France has scrutinized its national image as a country of resistance fighters.

Groups from the Roman Catholic Church to a physicians organization have apologized for not doing more to help Jews during the war and a recent poll conducted by the magazine L'Express showed almost 75 percent of French people today believe Papon's trial is justified.

"It's important for us to know [about Vichy]," says Michel Eymard, a composer who volunteers for an antiracism group. "If we don't know about the problems in our past, it's difficult to talk about problems now."

"Vichy wasn't aberrational in France," says Ms. Wexler. "It was a political tide that was there before and continues now with the rise of the [right-wing] National Front. There's been a continuous struggle with anti-Semitism and racism in France."

Several things separate Papon's case from other war-crimes trials, most notably the wealth of documented evidence against him, from photographs to the glowing recommendations of German supervisors, one of whom wrote in 1943 that Papon "works well with the Kommandantur [commander] and is quick and reliable."

But what makes this case so riveting for the French is a difference in legal interpretation. In 1994, former Vichy militia chief Paul Touvier was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison, where he recently died. But the court made it legally clear that Mr. Touvier, and not the Vichy regime, was on trial.

In Papon's trial, prosecutors are using a law that makes Vichy's role central to the case - and that's where its international significance lies as well. The French statute incorporates a law from the Nuremberg trials, held to judge German war crimes after World War II, that bars a state from attacking its own citizens with impunity.

Proof of state involvement is crucial, and prosecutors' success or failure will influence how thoroughly justice against state-sanctioned violence is meted out in future.

Ironically, Papon is using his service to the state as his defense. He argues that he was only obeying orders and didn't know the Jews he had shipped out in convoys were being sent to their deaths. In court Wednesday, Papon testified he spent the Nazi occupation fighting for Jews, causing a stir among spectators.

By war's end, France deported about 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, to concentration camps. About 2,500 survived and many of their descendants are in Bordeaux for the trial.

Even if found guilty, Papon is unlikely to serve time in prison. A French court has ordered him released for the duration of the trial for health reasons. Any appeals could take more than a year.

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