Maurice Papon has just died at the age of ninety-six, but his name will always stand for France’s moral collapse in 1940, and that country’s inability—or reluctance—to redress matters afterwards. In his capacity as a ranking Vichy official, the documentation proves, he signed the deportation orders to Auschwitz for 1,690 Jews, 223 of whom were children, organizing sixteen trains for them, the last in June 1944 when German defeat was certain. It was also his idea to send the bill for the expense of the requisite cattle-trucks to the Jewish representative council, thus obliging the victims to pay for their journey to be murdered. One of his German superiors described him as a sincere collaborator, “co-operating correctly with the Feldkommandatur.”
Collaboration with Nazism was the political choice taken by Marshal Pétain after the fall of France; it was pre-war appeasement in the new context of military defeat. Pétain and his Vichy regime imagined that they were sparing France the sort of horrors inflicted on Poland, but in reality they were facilitating them. In the absence of enough German personnel trained in mass murder, the Nazi authorities had to rely on the French to do their work. The turning point was the accord signed in May 1942 between General Karl Oberg of the SS, and René Bousquet, general secretary of the French police. That accord placed the French gendarmerie at the service of the Nazi machinery of murder. One among many who could now obey orders zealously was Papon, and another was Jean Leguay, Bousquet’s representative.
At the end of the war, Bousquet was condemned to five years of “national indignity,” a somewhat unspecific term, then immediately granted reprieve and decorated for “resistance,” in this case an even less specific term. Bousquet then enjoyed a spectacular career as an industrialist, protected by President Mitterand for no very evident reason except that he too had a compromising Vichy past. Leguay also had a successful business career. Papon fared best of all. General de Gaulle, no less, protected him, appointing him prefect of police in Paris. In that capacity, he supervised a crack-down on Algerians with thousands of arrests, and the massacre of perhaps a hundred of them, their corpses simply thrown into the Seine. Papon showed himself as adept at murdering Muslims as Jews. Under President Giscard d’Estaing, he entered the cabinet as budget minister.
Researching in the archives, Michel Slitinsky came across his own death warrant with Papon’s signature on it. Slitinsky’s father had been killed in Auschwitz, while he himself only just managed to escape arrest. In 1986, more than twenty years after the event, he brought Papon to justice. At his trial, Papon denounced the proceedings as “fake,” claimed to have helped the resistance, and dismissed the evidence as lies, speaking of “plots,” the usual fascist code for supposed Jewish world domination. Sentenced to ten years in prison for crimes against humanity, he fled defiantly to Switzerland, but was sent back and imprisoned. After he had served three years, the Chirac government had him released. The protection of such people by so many French presidents speaks volumes.
Like Papon, Leguay was indicted for crimes against humanity (though he died before going to prison). When I was writing my book Paris in the Third Reich, in which I describe his role in deporting Jews, he used to seek me out in order to plead that he had not really done anything wrong, and in any case had no choice, and would I please understand his predicament. Like Papon again, but in his more oily way, he showed no trace of remorse. Nor did Bousquet, who became more and more arrogant with the passing of time even though he too was facing a trial for crimes against humanity. One day, someone named Christian Didier—always labelled as “unbalanced”—turned up at his house and shot him dead.
The wish to hide complicity in mass murder may be humanly understandable, but it has rotted France’s national conscience and self-respect. Unwillingness to acknowledge complicity in Nazi crime explains the lack of conscience—the sheer bad faith—of the French stance in so many post-war issues.