Bad Judgment at Bordeaux

The conviction in April of the former French treasury minister, Maurice Papon, for complicity in crimes against humanity has been welcomed across the world. But one French law professor has called the trial "a legal disaster", and its political ra

Issue: Summer 1998

The conviction in April of the former French treasury minister, Maurice Papon, for complicity in crimes against humanity has been welcomed across the world. That the former secretary-general of the Prefecture of Gironde (the department of which Bordeaux is the capital) was found guilty of helping to organize roundups of Jews, and of arranging train convoys to deport them, has been widely interpreted as a sign that France is finally "facing up to her past", and that worthy legal principles are being consolidated by which to establish individual responsibility for crimes committed by anonymous organizations like state bureaucracies.

The truth, however, is more complicated, and in many respects directly the opposite of this. One French law professor has called the trial "a legal disaster", and its political ramifications may prove disastrous as well.

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