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France’s Papon Trial Wrapping Up

March 31, 1998

BORDEAUX, France (AP) _ Six months. Dozens of lawyers with as many different strategies. More than 100 witnesses. The longest trial in French history is finally wrapping up.

Since it began, the case against war crimes suspect Maurice Papon _ dubbed the ``endless trial″ by French media _ has gone from seemingly clear-cut to decidedly muddled and inconclusive.

``People expected black and white, and instead they’ve gotten shades of gray,″ said Robert Paxton, an American historian and scholar of the Vichy period. ``That makes people uncomfortable.″

Papon, 87, is charged with crimes against humanity, which he allegedly committed as deputy prefect in Bordeaux. He is accused of ordering the arrest and deportations of 1,690 Jews, almost all of whom later died at Auschwitz.

Discomfort with how the trial, which ends this week, has unfolded is reflected in recent surveys indicating that many in France haven’t learned anything new about a painful chapter of French history _ the Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

What’s more, many said the trial hasn’t clarified the main issues: What exactly were Papon’s duties as a senior regional official, and was he guilty of complicity in war crimes.

Possible problems include the trial’s length and number of witnesses, including historians who discussed eras and issues that sometimes seemed irrelevant. Only a handful of witnesses testified directly on the events in Bordeaux during World War II.

The physical evidence _ portrayed by prosecutors early on as overwhelming _ seemed murkier and more open to interpretation as the trial progressed. Papon’s signature appears on only a few documents.

Two dozen civil party lawyers, representing victims and their families, also could not agree on strategies or what penalty to seek.

In the end, though, the most complex issues concerned the nature of the defendant and his role in the Vichy regime.

Papon, unlike past war crimes defendants, is a refined and highly educated member of the French elite who rose to become a Cabinet minister long after the war.

Much was made at the trial of whether Papon knew about the Nazis’ systematic extermination of the Jews. Papon claims he didn’t, but admitted knowing that deportees would meet a ``cruel fate.″

Papon’s chief lawyer sought Tuesday to absolve his client of the most emotionally charged accusation, saying Papon played no role in hunting down Jewish children in foster homes. Jean-Marc Varaut also said Papon did his best to protect those targeted for deportation by the Germans.

Varaut said his client was ``poignantly sorry″ he failed to do more to protect 15 children who ended up in the Aug. 26, 1942, convoy to the Drancy transit camp outside Paris _ the last stop before Auschwitz.

After Varaut’s summation, Papon is expected to address the court. The case will then go to a jury of three magistrates and nine civilians. A verdict is expected by Thursday.

The jury must decide whether Papon zealously aided the Nazis or merely relayed orders from his late superior, Maurice Sabatier, much as a secretary would sign a document on behalf of a boss.

The French media, once convinced of an easy guilty verdict, are now changing their tune. ``Must Papon be acquitted?″ Le Point magazine asked on its most recent cover.

Even if convicted, Papon wouldn’t go to jail for a long time, if ever. He would remain at liberty through any appeals process, which could take a year. So, whether he leaves Bordeaux with an acquittal or with a sentence up to life in prison, he will leave Bordeaux essentially a free man.

American author Adam Nossiter, who is writing a book on Vichy France, describes the Papon trial as ``a lesson in human nature.″ Papon’s trial, he says, is as valuable to understanding the century’s darkest moment as the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.

Papon ``is the best of what this century has to offer,″ Nossiter says, noting the defendant’s intelligence, breeding and ambition. ``And yet he played a role in its worst crime.

But French historian Denis Pechanski says the trial could be damaging, because an acquittal _ based on what he sees as the complicated, murky nature of the case _ might look like an acquittal for the Vichy regime.

``This,″ he says, ``would cost history and memory dearly.″

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