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The trial of Maurice Papon in Bordeaux: barrister Jean-Marc Varaut backs down

On April 2, 1998, after the longest trial in all of French history, Maurice Papon, aged 87, was found guilty of complicity in “crimes against humanity”, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, as well as ten years’ privation of his civic, civil, and family rights; he was stripped of all his decorations, particularly that of the Legion of Honour. In addition, on April 3 he was ordered to pay FFr 4.6 million (about £460,000/US$ 766,000) to the plaintiffs. He has filed an appeal to the Cour de Cassation (the superior court of appeal), the result of which will probably be known within a year’s time; meanwhile he is free on bail. His wife died a few days before the verdict. He is in bad health.

Secretary General of the Gironde département police services (at the “county seat” Bordeaux) from 1942 to 1944, he had been charged, in 1997, with complicity in the wartime arrests of Jews and in their subsequent internment at the custodial camp at Mérignac, outside Bordeaux. Some of these Jews were later transferred to the camp at Drancy, in the Paris region, and some of these latter were deported from France, notably to Auschwitz.

M. Papon showed great courage during this trial, which lasted six months, but he did not dare to adopt a revisionist defence which might have consisted in saying: “I cannot have been an accomplice to a crime (the extermination of the Jews) about which I had no knowledge, for the simple reason that that crime did not happen.”

His main lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, opted for a strategy which may be summed up as follows: “My client served, in spite of himself, an abject regime, that of Vichy, but he kept his hands clean.” Varaut is known for having recently written a book in which he praises the Nuremberg tribunal. He maintains relations with a number of political personalities, and among his clients there figure several persons implicated in political and financial cases. He also stays on excellent terms with fellow members of the bar who happen to be Jewish and, throughout the trial, preferred to be seen, on the one hand, to keep his distance from his own client and, on the other hand, to converse in a friendly manner with the plaintiffs’ counsel.

On April 5 I wrote a letter about the Papon trial and the behaviour of Varaut. I addressed it to Martin Peltier, managing editor of National Hebdo, a French weekly that supports the movement of Jean-Marie Le Pen. I myself am apolitical. I thank Mr Peltier for having published my letter under the title “Histoire: la reculade de Bordeaux” (History: Backing down in Bordeaux) in the April 9-15 issue (page 15) of his paper.

Below is the text of that letter, preceded by a presentation of it by M. Peltier.


During his recent “crimes against humanity” trial at the assizes of Bordeaux, Maurice Papon, and more so his counsel, waived the use of an important argument for his defence: to wit, that the Union générale des Israélites de France (UGIF), which was under the authority of the government in Vichy, had taken part in the internment and the sending away of Jews during the Second World War, and even in the big rounding-up at the Paris cycling arena on July 16, 1942. This shows quite plainly that what has since been called the “Final Solution” was then unknown, and gives an idea of the complexity of the French government’s policy towards the Jews, of their status during the German occupation, and of the responsibilities of the civil service. The text below expounds the opinion that by criminalising “Vichy” (for tactical purposes?) barrister Jean-Marc Varaut made his client’s conviction inevitable.



Dear Sir,

The sentence passed on Maurice Papon ought not to surprise you. For six months his chief counsel, Jean-Marc Varaut, had expressed the abhorrence in which he held the “criminal” wartime government in Vichy, while at the same time describing his client, a high-ranking official of that “criminal” regime, as a perfectly innocent man. “If this were the trial of ‘Vichy’,” he stated repeatedly, “then I would be among the plaintiffs”, and this as he was defending a former high official of “Vichy”! What juror, or any other person of common sense, could accept such a contradiction?

If the report in the April 2 edition of Le Monde is to be believed, the following are the terms used by this barrister, in his pleadings of March 31 alone, on the subject of “Vichy’s” policy towards the Jews of Bordeaux: “repulsion”, “shame”, “dishonour”, “horror”, “disgust”, “amazement”, “in-comprehension”. After such an onslaught as that, how could anyone expect to fight his way back? How could one get the jury to accept that a high-ranking official had been able to work for such a regime for several years without sullying himself? With hell painted in colours like those, who could be persuaded that an angel had lived there?

The judges and jurors drew the conclusion that M. Papon must have sullied himself.

Distant and courteous relations

The judges and jurors had certainly noted the efforts that J.-M. Varaut made in order physically to keep his distance from M. Papon, while showing a remarkable warmheartedness towards most of the plaintiffs’ counsel. This was noticeable on the televised reports, and was picked up on by the newspapers. A Le Monde reporter put it in these words: “Jean-Marc Varaut likes to be seen to keep his distance from his client” (November 16-17, 1997); from his own standpoint, a Figaro reporter noted: “The barrister maintains distant and courteous relations with his client”, before adding that Mr Varaut’s “consensual temperament” had allowed him “to share chambers for nine years with Mr Roland Dumas”, the one-time Socialist foreign minister (March 30,  1998).

The press also taught us that Mr Varaut dreaded the prospect of his client’s closing statement (Le Monde, March 10). And for good reason! In that brief speech, M. Papon was clear, courageous, and frank; he told the three-judge panel and the nine members of the jury that the only possible outcomes were life imprisonment, on the one hand, and acquittal, on the other.

But how could he, in those few minutes, convince the jurors? The harm had been done.

During an entire six-month trial, and particularly in his summing up, J.-M. Varaut prudently avoided resorting to a good part of the solid and efficient argumentation which he had announced two years previously in a Le Monde article entitled “L’affaire Papon n’est pas ce que l’on dit” (The Papon case is not what it is said to be) (February 29, 1996). At that time he wrote:

[M. Papon’s role] was analogous to that of the delegates of the Union générale des Israélites de France [UGIF] at Bordeaux who oversaw the convoys, and a good deal smaller than those of the [Jewish] head of the Drancy camp and his officers, French Jews who were in charge of the selection, registration, and composition of the trainloads of deportees headed towards the East, and who discriminated in favour of French Jews as against foreign ones!

At the trial, J.-M. Varaut did not really open these two cans of worms: neither that of the UGIF and the “Brown Jews”, nor that of Drancy and the running of that camp by Jews (Robert Blum used to sign his notes, including those relating to the preparation of deportation convoys, “Lieutenant Colonel Blum, Commandant of Drancy Camp”). Varaut avoided reminding the court that the UGIF had taken part in the preparations for the big round-up at the Paris cycling arena, the Vél’ d’hiv’, in July 1942. In his keenness to blacken “Vichy”, he greatly minimised certain interventions on the part of the French State, namely those concerning the deportation of the Jews and the settling, in their favour, of various conflicts with the German authorities: for example, when, in the wake of several attacks on German soldiers, the Jewish community had been fined one billion francs (about £150 million, or US$250 million, in today’s money), Marshal Pétain and Xavier Vallat (Commissioner General for Jewish Affairs) acted immediately in order to have that amount covered by the national banking syndicate, against a promise of repayment by the UGIF… over the next 99 years! Certain leading lights of the Chief Rabbinate and the Central Consistory of French Jews, as well as officials of other Jewish organisations, maintained excellent relations either with Marshal Pétain himself or with high-ranking Vichy officials. In the September-December 1996 edition of Le Monde juif (p. 97) Simon Schwarzfuchs wrote:

“Besides, it can be considered that the diverse [French Jewish] communities were not unhappy with the role played by their rabbis during the occupation; the very great majority [of the latter] had not thought fit to leave their posts for [exile in] Spain or Switzerland, nor even to go into hiding. Religious services were held regularly wherever the numbers and the availability of the faithful warranted it. In Paris most of the big synagogues stayed open throughout the period of hostilities.”

After the “liberation”, those Jews who ought to have been prosecuted under the laws dealing with collaboration with the enemy escaped the fate reserved to most others and had their names cleared by “intra-community tribunals”, made up exclusively of coreligionists.

“At that time, Léon Meiss [a senior judge of Jewish origin] had to […] take care of the moral side of the UGIF’s folding up. Intra-community tribunals were set up to hear the charges made against some of its leaders. In the end, they were all more or less rehabilitated. There was no purge within French Jewry (Ibid., p. 100).”

Varaut could have shown that his client was being tried for “crimes” infinitely less serious than those of the UGIF which, for its part, was not content with merely cooperating indirectly in the rounding-up and sending off of Jews to custodial or transit camps: indeed it went so far as to hand over Jewish children to the occupying forces for deportation (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, IV, p. 1538). It is often said that without the French police the Germans would not have been able to carry out their policy of relocation in the East of certain Jews; but what was true of the police was even more true of many French Jews, including the “Jewish Police” of Drancy, sometimes called the “Gestapolak”, a nickname designating the “MS’s” or members, male or female, of the “Internal Surveillance Service”, although it was composed mainly of French Jews (Maurice Rajfus, Drancy…, Manya, 1991, p. 198). Varaut could even have left off writing a whole section of his pleadings. It would have been enough for him to request a loan of certain Central Consistory documents from the Hauts-de-Seine département (in the Paris suburbs) archives, or to demand the discovery of the 1944-45 “intra-community tribunals'” archives; in them he would surely have found elements of use to his client’s defence, as well as ready arguments (in black and white) which he could have used in Bordeaux in 1997-98 by simply substituting within them the name of Papon for one high-ranking Jewish official or another. He might have rested his case with the questions:

“What sort of justice is it which allows a ‘crime’ to be absolved on the spot, and then to be punished half a century later? Is it not a case of the pot calling the kettle black?”

Varaut being hostile to revisionism, one could hardly expect him to use revisionist arguments; but why did he waive, in 1997-98, the use of an argumentation which he himself had put forth in 1996 and which the plaintiffs so dreaded hearing him use? I should be interested in knowing whether there was a precise reason for this “backing down”…

For Varaut did “back down”. One of the plaintiff’s counsel even mentioned it to him; the remark was reported in Le Monde of March 13:

“Then, [barrister Blet] poured scorn on the defence’s case, in advance: the interventions of the French authorities during the deportations? ‘That’s revisionism!’ Mr Varaut did not bat an eyelash. The Jewish participation in running the Drancy camp? ‘How revolting of you!’ And then, ‘Happily, you’ve backed down.’ Mr Varaut nodded.”

Indeed Varaut has all too often “backed down” and “nodded”.

According to the France-Info radio network, Papon is being charged FFr 6 million (£600,000/$1million) by his lawyers. As he has been ordered to pay another FFr 4.6 million (£ 460,000/US$ 766,000) in damages there may be doubts as to whether he will be able to meet that bill. Happily for Varaut, Papon’s insolvency would not cause the leading barrister much grief: among his clients are several rich representatives of the Jewish community, particularly Maurice Msellatti-Casanova and his son Charles, owner of the famous Champs-Elysées restaurant Fouquet’s (Libération, 2 December 1997).

Personally, despite our grave differences of opinion, I had passed on a good deal of information and documents to J.-M. Varaut, material – conventional, non-revisionist – fit to aid in the defence of his client (particularly, a brief article which I wrote last year entitled Maurice Papon and Yves Jouffa: A Double Standard?). If he did not use any of it, it was deliberately so, and for reasons unknown to me.

April 9, 1998


In French: “La reculade de Bordeaux” was first published in National-Hebdo, April 9-15, 1998, and again in Écrits révisionnistes, IV, 1999, p. 1857-1861.