France confronts itself Papon trial: Finally facing up to what the nation did in World War II.

October 21, 1997

ONE OF THE MOST solemn memorials to the Holocaust lies in the heart of Paris. The visitor descends steep, narrow steps to a mausoleum-like chamber dedicated to the French citizens, mostly Jews, exported to Germany for extermination during World War II. That was the Deportation.

The comfortable assumption was that it was all the act of hated German occupiers. This is now challenged in the trial of Maurice Papon for organizing the deportation of 1,560 Jews for the subservient French government at Vichy. It is challenged by the apologies to France's Jews by the Roman Catholic Church for having failed to speak out against the Deportation, and notably by President Jacques Chirac's acknowledgment that the regime at Vichy had indeed been the French state.

When France surrendered in 1940, an obscure military man named Charles de Gaulle popped up in London to declare that the real France would fight on. This wasn't true, but it was thrilling and helpful. Belief made the myth progressively truer. De Gaulle's Free French allied with the Resistance inside the country, much of it Communist, and with Britain and the Soviet Union and later the United States. When Paris was liberated, de Gaulle's speedy assumption of power thwarted the Communists.

Vichy was humiliated, its figureheads condemned and small-time collaborators harassed. That orgy soon passed. Officials and politicians who had served at Vichy continued to serve the state. One, the more-or-less fascist Francois Mitterrand, revived the Socialist Party and became a powerful president.

So the trial of Maurice Papon for crimes a half-century old, not coincidentally accusing him of brutal slayings of Algerians in Paris while police chief there in 1961, disturbs French comfort. It is part of an array of attempts to get memory right, the most notable being South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It matters not what verdict or sentence is imposed on an 87-year-old man who escaped justice when it might have had effect. What matters is that France look honestly in the mirror of its past, forcing truth into light.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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