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Maurice Papon, 96; French official convicted for Vichy role

February 18, 2007|From Times Wire Services

Maurice Papon, a former Cabinet minister in France who was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity for his role in deporting Jews during World War II and became a symbol of French collaboration with the Nazis, has died. He was 96.

Papon, who underwent heart surgery at a clinic east of Paris last week, died in his sleep Saturday, said his lawyer, Francis Vuillemin.

Papon was one of the the highest-ranking Frenchmen to be convicted for a role in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

The guilty verdict April 2, 1998, was the culmination of a trial that offered a painful look at one of the darkest periods in modern French history.

However, Papon -- who at one point fled to Switzerland to avoid prison -- lived his final years a free man, released from Paris' La Sante prison Sept. 18, 2002, because of failing health.

In a February 2001 letter to the justice minister, he said he had neither "regrets nor remorse for a crime I did not commit and for which I am in no way an accomplice."

Papon served three years of a 10-year sentence for ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children, from the Bordeaux area to Nazi death camps.

Although found guilty of complicity, Papon was absolved of guilt in the deaths of the deportees, most of whom perished at Auschwitz. The jury accepted the defense argument that he was not aware of the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews.

His wife, Paulette, died of cancer a week before the verdict was handed down.

Papon held the No. 2 post in Bordeaux's Gironde region in southwest France from 1942 to 1944. Trial documents showed that Papon, responsible for Bordeaux's Jewish Affairs department, was greatly appreciated by the Germans for his "efficiency and reliability."

After the war, he had a brilliant political career, easily slipping into the machinery of the postwar state. He was prefect in Corsica and Algeria, then Paris police chief under President Charles de Gaulle in 1958, holding the post until 1967.

As Algeria's battle for independence spilled into France, Papon's tenure as police chief was marked by Arab demonstrations in October 1961 during which beatings carried out by police under his orders resulted in dozens of Algerians' bodies being fished out of the River Seine.

Papon was named budget minister in 1978 under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and kept the post until 1981.

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