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Papon v. France

Court Judicial Assembly, Council of State, France
Case number 238689
Decision title Decision
Decision date 12 April 2002
  • Maurice Papon
  • France
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords crimes against humanity, deportation, extermination, persecution
Other countries involved
  • Germany
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Maurice Papon was a civil servant in Occupied France during World War II holding the position of Secretary-General of the Gironde prefecture.

The Assize Court of Gironde – a criminal trial court hearing cases of defendants accused with the most serious crimes – convicted Papon of complicity in crimes against humanity, sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment and ordered him to pay a sum in excess of 700 000 Euros in damages to the victims admitted as civil parties to the criminal proceedings. Papon brought his case before the Conseil d’Etat­ – France’s highest administrative court – on the grounds that French law provides that, where the State is also at fault in the events that lead to the civil servant’s conviction, then the State shall pay a portion of the damages to which the civil servant was sentenced.

In the present case, the Conseil d’Etat found that a personal fault attached to Papon himself for actively assisting in the arrest, internment and eventual deportation of Jewish individuals in Gironde from 1942 until 1944 but that the French administration was also at fault, independent of Papon’s actions, by adopting measures that would facilitate the deportation. Consequently, the Conseil d’Etat ordered the State to pay half of the damages.

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Procedural history

On 2 April 1998, the Assize Court of Gironde convicted Maurice Papon of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment and stripped him of his civil, civic and family rights.

On 3 April 1998, the Assize Court of Gironde calculated that Papon was also required to pay a sum of 719 559 Euros in damages and legal fees to the civil parties to the criminal proceedings.

On 25 September 1998, Papon filed a motion before the Administrative Tribunal of Paris with a view to securing payment by the French State of the damages pronounced against him by the Assize Court of Gironde.

On 3 October 2001, the President of the Administrative Tribunal of Paris transmitted Papon’s request to the Council of State.

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Related developments

On 25 July 2002, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for undue process as the State denied Papon the opportunity to challenge his conviction by the Assize Court of Gironde in 1998.

On 18 September 2002, the Court of Appeal of Paris orders Papon to be released on health grounds. See Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 'Ailing Maurice Papon Requests Freedom', 3 September 2002; and RTE, 'France Releases Nazi Collaborator Papon', 18 September 2002.

On 11 June 2004, the French Court of Cassation confirmed the sentence pronounced by the Assize Court of Gironde, making it irreversible. See also Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 'Maurice Papon Refused Fresh Appeal', 2 May 2004.

Maurice Papon died on 17 February 2007. See The New York Times, 'Maurice Papon, Convicted Vichy Official, 96, Dies', 18 February 2007.

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Legally relevant facts

From June 1942 until August 1944, Papon was the Secretary General of the Gironde préfecture in occupied France. During this time, Papon actively cotnributed to the implementation of Nazi policy against the Jewish population by arresting and interning 76 Jewish persons, amongst them children. After gathering them at a camp in Mérignac, most were transported in four convoys in the months of July, August and October 1942 and January 1944 to Drancy, before being deported to the cocnentration camp at Auschwitz where they were exterminated. 

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Core legal questions

Article 11 of the Law of 13 July 1983 provides that:

"Where a civil servant is prosecuted by a third part for having committed a fault in performing his function and the question of attribution was not raised, the State must, to the extent that the fault is independent of the exercise of the civil servant’s functions and cannot be attributed to the latter, cover the costs of the indemnities pronounced against the civil servant in the course of the proceedings."

In the interpretation of this article the questions arise:

  • Can Papon’s arrest and internment of Jewish persons, in carrying out Nazi policy, be regarded as a personal fault independent of his functions as a civil servant?
  • In the affirmative, is it equally possible to identify a fault committed by the French administration?
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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Article 11 of Law nº 83-634.

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Court's holding and analysis

Although Papon maintains that he acted on the orders of his superiors or under the duress of the occupying German forces, it results from the investigation conducted by the Assize court that Papon accepted, in the first place, that the Jewish question in the Gironde prefecture be placed under his direct authority and, in the second place, he acted on his own initiative ahead of the instructions of his superiors in order to put into place with maximum efficiency the necessary framework for identifying, arresting and interning Jewish persons. Finally, Papon personally undertook to maximise the scale of deportation undertaken in the course of the four convoys, in particular by ensuring that children in foster care were not excluded from deportation. Such behaviour cannot be explained by reference to pressure upon Papon by the German authorities. On the contrary, with regard to the exceptional gravity of the facts and their consequences, such behaviour is inexcusable and constitutes by itself a personal fault independent of the functions of a civil servant.

Whilst the deportation of Jewish persons originally arrested and interned in Gironde was organised at the behest of the occupying German forces, the establishment of an internment camp in Mérignac, the power of the prefect to intern Jewish persons at the afore-mentioned camp, the existence of a service dedicated to the Jewish question within the Gironde prefecture charged with establishing and maintaining a file of persons of Jewish race or faith, the order given to police forces to lend their support to operations designed to arrest and detain persons identified in the file, the order given to administrators to assist in the organisation of convoys to Drancy are all acts attributable to the French administration which permitted and facilitated, independent of Papon’s actions, deportation.

This fault of the French administration engages the responsibility of the State. Therefore, application of Article 11 of the Law of 13 July 1983 provides that the State must pay half of the damages to which Papon was sentenced by the Assize Court in recognition of their fault in the matter.

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Related cases

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Additional materials