French lawyer accuses ministry of blocking war crimes trial

PARIS — A lawyer representing 26 relatives of Jews deported from France during World War II has accused the French Justice Ministry of trying to prevent the trial of Maurice Papon, the last remaining French citizen indicted for crimes against humanity.

Papon, 84, who was an official with wartime France's collaborationist Vichy regime, stands accused of sending nearly 1,700 Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Lawyer Gerard Boulanger said that Justice Minister Jacques Toubon was using legal technicalities in an attempt to have the charges against Papon thrown out.

"For 14 years, I've been fighting to bring him to justice. But no French government, whether on the right or the left, has had the desire to let this trial happen," said Boulanger, who is handling the case pro bono.

He said upper-echelon French government members have worked to nullify evidence in the case on obscure technical grounds.

During World War II, Papon was a high-ranking member of the French administration in charge of the Bordeaux area in southwestern France.

He is accused of signing orders to arrest and deport 1,690 Jews — 223 of them children — between 1942 and 1944.

Most of the deportees never returned from the Nazi death camps.

Papon has denied the charges against him, saying he used his position in the Resistance to save Jews. Papon reportedly joined the Resistance movement near the end of 1943.

After the liberation, he went on to an illustrious postwar career, serving as Paris' police chief between 1958 and 1967, then as budget minister in the French Cabinet during the 1970s.

Jewish groups, lawyers and former Resistance members have long felt that successive French governments were obstructing the judicial process, hoping that Papon would die before the advent of an embarrassing trial that would recall a period most French people would rather forget.

"Betting on the biological clock has been an element since the beginning of the Papon affair," Boulanger said. "It is very difficult to bring a senior civil servant to trial. We have to be very vigilant because they are trying to trip us up."

His statements came on the 14th anniversary of the first lawsuit filed against Papon for crimes against humanity.

The charges have been brought against Papon several times since then. The last time was May 1990.