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French Supreme Court lifts last obstacle to Papon trial

PARIS, Jan. 26 (JTA) — France’s Supreme Court has ruled that a former Cabinet minister should stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity. An appeals court ruled in September that Maurice Papon, 86, should face trial for ordering the deportation of 1,690 Jews, 223 of them children, to Nazi death camps when he was secretary general of the Bordeaux region’s local government during Germany’s wartime occupation of France. Papon appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which last week quashed his attempts to avoid trial for his activities during France’s wartime Vichy regime. The trial date is scheduled to be announced next month. The trial, which is expected to take place in the fall, will give the French people an exhaustive examination of the Vichy government’s role during the Holocaust. CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, applauded the Jan. 23 Supreme Court ruling, which capped more than 15 years of efforts to bring Papon to trial. “For the first time, the workings of the administrative machine under [Vichy leader] Philippe Petain, which collaborated in sending Jewish men, women and children to the concentration camps, will be analyzed before a French court,” CRIF said in a statement. Legal proceedings against Papon, which were first undertaken in 1981, were delayed by successive French governments in the hope that Papon would die before a trial took place that would recall a period many French people would rather forget. Michel Slitinsky, a French Jew who first shed light on Papon’s wartime record, praised the “courageous magistrates” who ruled that Papon should be brought to justice. “It will have taken four years to rid ourselves of the German occupiers, and 15 to get to the bottom of his character,” Slitinsky said. In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Papon knew that “the arrest and deportation of Jews to the east would inevitably lead them to death,” adding that his office always “sought to ensure maximum efficiency in carrying out anti-Jewish measures.” The court also said Papon often displayed unwarranted zeal by providing Nazi authorities with details about French Jews before he was asked for the information. The charges against Papon include being an accomplice to kidnapping and murder, carrying out arbitrary arrests and perpetrating inhuman acts. Papon has denied the charges against him, saying that he used his position in the Resistance to save Jews. Papon reportedly joined the Resistance movement near the end of 1943. After the liberation, Papon went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as police chief of Paris between 1958 and 1967, then as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s. Minutes after the ruling was announced, Papon issued a statement denouncing the decision as “scandalous.” He also compared himself to Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was falsely convicted of spying for Germany in a controversial case that sparked a wave of anti-Semitism in France a century ago. Saying he “won’t let my throat be slit,” Papon also said in the statement that he was the victim of a political vendetta by Communists, the leftist lobby and “foreign institutions who want to implicate France in the genocide.” He will be the second and probably the last Frenchman ever to face trial for crimes against humanity. A lower-ranking collaborationist, Lyon militia chief Paul Touvier, was jailed for life in 1994. He died in prison in July at 81. Rene Bousquet, Vichy’s national police chief and Papon’s superior, was killed by a deranged gunman in 1993 on the eve of his war crimes trial.