Maurice Papon (born September 3, 1910) was an official of the French Vichy government, which collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II. After the war ended, he hid his role in the Vichy government and went on to have a successful career in politics until the emergence of details about his past led to his trial and conviction for crimes against humanity in 1997-1998.
During World War II, Papon served as a senior police official in the Vichy regime involved in the deportation of Jews; he was the number two official in the Bordeaux region and supervisor of its Service for Jewish Questions. After the war, he managed to hide his wartime activities, and went on to enjoy a civil service career as the chief of Paris police, and later as budget minister under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s.
Papon was chief of the police on October 17, 1961 when, after a peaceful march organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front, a large number of Algerian civilians were killed in Paris by French police. The exact number of the dead remains unknown but most historians agree on 200 deaths.
Little by little evidence of his reponsibilty in the Holocaust emerged, and throughout the 1980s he fought a string of legal battles. After 17 years of bitter legal wrangling, in 1997 he was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity.
The trial was the longest in French history. It had different meanings for different French people; for some, it was considered to be the last chance to confront their collaborationist history in a court room. By his arrogance, his contempt, his refusal to express regrets or remorse during and since its lawsuit, Papon drew contempt from many.
Papon was accused of ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews, including children and the elderly, between 1942 and 1944. Most of these people were sent to Auschwitz. One of the main issues of the trial was to determine to what extent an individual should be held responsible in a chain of responsibility. Papon's lawyers argued that he was merely a mid-level official, not the person making decisions about who to deport; his lawyers even argued that he in fact did the most good he could given the circumstances, ensuring that those deported were treated well while in his custody. However, the prosecution argued that the defense of following orders was not sufficient, and that Papon bore at least some of the responsibility for the deportations. However, they did recommended that he only be given a 20-year prison term, whereas life imprisonment is usually the norm for such crimes.
Papon was convicted in 1998 and given a 10-year prison term, which was criticized by some for being relatively short. His lawyers filed an appeal, but Papon fled to Switzerland; his appeal was summarily denied due to a French law that required appellants to spend the night before the hearing in jail. Switzerland sent him back to France to serve his prison sentence, he was sent to La Santé jail on October 22, 1999. President Jacques Chirac also stripped him of all his decorations.
He applied for release on the grounds of poor health in March 2000, but Chirac denied the petition. He continued to fight legal battles while in prison, however, taking his denied appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, where he argued the French court's denial his appeal on a technicality (rather than on the merits of the case) constituted a violation of his right to appeal his conviction. The Court agreed in July 2002, admonishing the French appeals court and awarding Papon FF429,192 (approx. €65,400) in legal costs, but no damages.
However, Papon's lawyers had meanwhile been pursuing a separate appeal in France, petitioning for his release under the terms of a March 2002 law that provided for the release of ill and elderly prisoners to receive outside medical care. As doctors affirmed Papon, by this time 92 years old, was essentially incapacitated, he became the second person released under the terms of the law, leaving jail on September 18, 2002, less than 3 years into his sentence.
In March 2004, another criminal investigation was opened against Papon at the request of the chancery of the Legion of Honor. He is accused of wearing this decoration (which he used to possess before being stripped of it after his conviction) illegally while being photographed for a press interview for Le Point.