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French students discover hard truths at Papon war crimes trial

November 15, 1997

BORDEAUX, France (AP) _ Maurice Papon is not too old to face justice and France must confront its history _ both the good and bad _ said French high school students attending Papon’s trial for crimes against humanity.

``Even if Papon is old, it has to be shown what he did,″ said Arnaud Audry, 14, clutching pen and notebook. ``It’s part of our history. It shouldn’t be lied about.″

Throughout hours of testimony, their attention was keen and their verdict was harsh: the high school kids wanted the truth, a version of French history warts and all.

Audry was one of scores of students from several French high schools who attended the Papon trial this week. A special section of the court has been set aside for students who can watch the proceedings live.

Papon, 87, a former Cabinet minister and wartime official in the Bordeaux region, is the highest former French official to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

He is accused of organizing the arrest and deportation of 1,690 Jews _ including 233 children _ who later died at Auschwitz.

France deported about 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, to Nazi death camps during World War II. Only about 2,500 survived.

The trial itself is about one man’s actions _ but somehow it has become more than that. Over the past few weeks, the history of France during the 1940-1944 Nazi occupation has been in the dock and the picture has not been pretty.

After France fell in June 1940, many French bureaucrats went to work for the new collaborationist Vichy government, named for the resort town where the French government moved after the country surrendered to the Nazis.

Other officials, led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, resisted and founded the Free French Forces, which were based in London and claimed to represent the true France.

Prominent historians have testified, often portraying the Vichy regime in very different ways. For some, Vichy was forced to carry out Nazi orders. For others, the anti-Jewish laws were the work of French officials themselves.

Marie-Claude Stevenson, a history teacher at the Jules Ferry high school in Langon, a small town 30 miles southeast of Bordeaux, held classes on Vichy outside the regular history curriculum before bringing her class to the courtroom.

She said she wanted her students to understand how the past influences the present _ and how there is never a definitive version of history.

She also pressed her students to think about some important moral questions: What is collaboration? What is civil disobedience?

``I would like them to understand how one can have a duty to disobey,″ said Stevenson.

History is an important subject in French high schools, and one of the most politicized.

For many French leaders _ past and present _ the teaching of history is considered an important tool in forming good citizens. French history textbooks have often reflected the views of who was in power.

While the teaching of World War II has evolved dramatically since the war’s end, it wasn’t until the 1980s that textbooks paid much attention to the occupation, France’s anti-Semitic laws and the ultimate fate of the Jews.

The issue Thursday, the day Stevenson’s students came to court, was Papon’s relationship with the Nazi police and his claims that he helped save Jews.

The students were clearly excited by the chance to be in court. Most had notebooks and pens, and discussed the case in whispers as the session dragged on into the evening.

``It’s a privilege to be here,″ said Audry.

``It’s important to know the truth,″ said Jessie Breidenstein, 14. ``Things shouldn’t be simplified.″

Although the trial was scheduled to end in December, it is likely to spill over into the new year. Still, some students have already reached their verdict.

``Jews were killed because of him, so he has to stand trial,″ said Gaelle Muairon. ``And he should be sentenced to life in prison.″

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