Laurent Joffrin welcomes the trial of Maurice Papon. But he also reminds those too young to emember that the Gaullists had good reason not to dig too deep into the pit of wartime compromisesby Laurent Joffrin / November 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
6th October 1997
One simply had to judge Maurice Papon. The defence argues that, 50 years on, he is no longer the same man. But the argument does not hold. The sight of those yellowing photographs of Jewish children with terrified faces, being taken away by two French gendarmes, is enough to make one support the trial. It is Papon’s signature, after all, which figures at the bottom of the wretched order to deport them. How could he not be called on to explain himself? Papon, the zealous high functionary, has never-according to Jean Daniel-revealed the slightest degree of contrition or regret, never shown the slightest sign of a troubled conscience. There can be no forgiveness without repentance.
The trial is necessary mainly because it can play the role of a lesson in civics for an entire people. If it is carried out fairly, it will leave us with useful lessons for our collective conscience. One lesson concerns the behaviour of the French state during those dark years. The record is terrible: there were hundreds, thousands of Papons at all levels of government and administration. The r?sistants numbered 1 per cent of the active population, or less. And those who obstructed the deportation of Jews might have been one in a thousand, at the most. There is much for us to meditate on. It should be clear, once and for all, that there is no legitimacy whatsoever in obeying an inhuman order. Human rights override all directives and all laws. One can, of course, argue that it is easy enough to decree this principle 50 years on, far from the risks that one had to live with in those pitiless days. But before asking oneself if one would have had the courage back then to do one’s duty, one must be sure that one has defined what exactly this duty was.
Another lesson is this: the state outstripped the demands placed upon it by the Germans not just because of the reflex of obedience but because of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in those years. Denunciation of Jews was a perfectly respectable practice before the war. Not everyone subscribed to it, of course: after all the Republic was still that of the Dreyfus affair-but it did tolerate the poison within. The result was that when the country collapsed, the fate of the Jews was, for most people, of no particular concern. There was hardly any reaction at all, nothing more than some marginal protests, within the relevant professional circles to the enactment of policies concerning the status of Jews. It is still shocking to realise this, no matter how numerous the historical studies and accounts. We must, again and again, scan the depths of French anti-Semitism; its heirs do, after all, gather 15 per cent of the French vote.
But for the lesson to be really effective, we must make sure that the “duty to remember” is properly attended to. Memory is of no use if it alters history. Vichy is still secondary to Nazism on the scale of responsibility. There were some “Vichy-r?sistants” (Couve de Murville, Juin…). Papon claims to have been one of them. This claim is the matter at issue in his trial.
Today’s generation, which owes its freedom to yesterday’s deliverance, should also remember that at the time of the liberation, the victorious Gaullists had good reasons not to dig too deep into the pit of wartime compromises, and to go no further than those purges which they did carry out. They needed a state; men like Papon were the only ones able to make the transition back to a normal sovereign country.
And we must, finally, look into the future: those who wanted the Papon trial to take place feel passionate about the issues involved. By demanding of him, retrospectively, that he revolt, rebel against inhuman orders, refuse to follow the course of things, one also demands such a stance of those in positions of power today. We know that massacres still happen in Bosnia and elsewhere, nearby or far away. The memory we invoke again and again should not be merely rhetorical, it should be useful too.