updated 2/17/2007 4:04:50 PM ET 2007-02-17T21:04:50

Maurice Papon, a former Cabinet minister who became a symbol of France's collaboration with the Nazis for his role in deporting Jews during World War II, has died. He was 96.

Papon, who was admitted to a clinic east of Paris last week for surgery on his pacemaker, died in his sleep on Saturday afternoon, his lawyer, Francis Vuillemin, said.

"Maurice Papon fought till the end," Vuillemin told LCI television. "He died a free man."

Papon, who had been an official in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, was the highest-ranking Frenchman convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity.

The April 2, 1998, guilty verdict was the culmination of a marathon trial — France's longest — that throttled the nation backward in time, offering a sometimes painful look at one of the darkest periods in modern French history.

However, Papon — who never expressed remorse and at one point fled France to avoid jail — lived out his final years a free man, released from Paris' dour La Sante prison on Sept. 18, 2002, because of failing health.

Papon had served but three years of a 10-year sentence for ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children, from the Bordeaux area to Nazi death camps.

The appeals court that ordered the early release cited a new law for aged prisoners that had benefited a rare few.

Papon had suffered from cardiac problems that led to interruptions in his six-month trial. He had a pacemaker implanted in January 2000 and had earlier undergone triple bypass heart surgery. He was hospitalized while in prison, in 2001 and 2002.

Shocking release
Still, the nation was stunned when Papon walked unaided from La Sante prison, exiting via the main door in a show of defiance so often seen during his trial.

Famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, in an interview at the time, said the decision to free Papon showed that "part of the French establishment does not admit that a man like Papon can die in prison."

Klarsfeld had fought to bring Papon to trial. His son, Arno, also a lawyer, represented families of deportees at the trial.

Papon had been a civil servant par excellence. During the war, he held the No. 2 post in Bordeaux's Gironde region in southwest France from 1942-44. Trial documents showed Papon, responsible for Bordeaux's Jewish Affairs department, was greatly appreciated by the Germans for his "efficiency and reliability."

After the war, Papon enjoyed a brilliant political career, easily slipping into the machinery of the postwar state. He rose to become Paris police chief under then-President Charles de Gaulle in 1958, holding the post until 1967.

Elected to Parliament in 1968, he served as a lawmaker for 10 years before being named budget minister in 1978 under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. He kept the post until 1981.

It took 16 years to bring the case against Papon to court, and his trial was seen as a watershed.

The guilty verdict stood like a seal on the collective conscience — a final act of atonement for a nation that took years to come to terms with its collaboration with the Nazi occupiers.

While found guilty of complicity, Papon was absolved of guilt in the deaths of the Jewish deportees, most of whom perished at Auschwitz. The jury had essentially accepted the defense argument that Papon was not aware of the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews.

No regrets, Papon said
Despite his advanced age, Papon remained defiant, relentlessly proclaiming his innocence. Papon had argued that he was simply carrying out orders of his superior. He called his trial "political" and, on his final day on the stand, said he was a victim of "the saddest chapter in French legal history."

In a February 2001 letter to then-Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu, Papon said he had neither "regrets nor remorse for a crime I did not commit and for which I am in no way an accomplice."

The letter — signed "before dying in prison" — was Papon's personal contribution to a pitched debate over whether he should be set free on humanitarian grounds because of his advanced age.

The European Court of Human Rights took up the case only to turn down Papon's request. President Jacques Chirac had three times refused to pardon Papon.

Throughout his imprisonment, Papon's children and lawyers had worked the legal circuit to keep him from spending his final years behind bars, an effort that paid off.

But first, Papon himself made an ultimate attempt to defy destiny — fleeing to Switzerland after the guilty verdict. In a controversial decision, the Bordeaux court had allowed Papon to remain free until his appeals process was completed.

He was apprehended a week later. Papon had said that exile was the only way to maintain his honor. However, then-Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called Papon's flight a "final sign of indifference, contempt and provocation with regard to all victims of the Holocaust."

Born Sept. 3, 1910, in Gretz-Armainvilliers, where he returned after leaving prison, Papon was the son of a notary public. He attended Paris' prestigious Louis-le-Grand high school and graduated from the Sorbonne University with a degree in law and economics.

He entered the French administration in 1936 and served the leftist Popular Front government of Leon Blum.

After the French capitulated to the Germans in 1940, Papon served Marshal Philippe Petain, a World War I hero who headed the Vichy government in World War II, a puppet regime of the Nazis named after the spa-town where it was based.

Papon was promoted five times during the war, becoming police supervisor in the Gironde from 1942-44.

After the war, he became Cabinet director of Gaston Gusin, named by de Gaulle to administer Bordeaux when the Germans pulled out in August 1944.

He later headed Algerian affairs in the Interior Ministry and went on to head prefectures in Constantine, in eastern Algeria — then part of France — and in Corsica.

Papon would have slipped quietly into retirement after President Giscard's defeat in 1981 were it not for the perseverance of Bordeaux historian Michel Slitinsky, who narrowly escaped a Papon-ordered roundup.

Slitinsky, whose father perished in Auschwitz, stumbled on documents revealing Papon's role and gave them to a newspaper for publication. Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter, then fought to bring Papon to trial.

Because of Papon's impeccable credentials, and efforts at the highest levels to shield him, the case dragged through France's complex legal system.

In 1994, President Francois Mitterrand admitted in a television interview that he had intervened to stall the case.

Refused to back down
Following his conviction, Papon was stripped of his prestigious Legion of Honor award. He nevertheless wore the Legion of Honor decoration, and was photographed wearing it, in a 2004 interview with newsmagazine Le Point. He was later fined for donning the decoration.

Another shadow from France's past haunted Papon even after his conviction with the publication of a book charging that he had been behind the drowning of perhaps several hundred Algerians in Paris.

Algeria was fighting a brutal independence war with France at the time. During an Oct. 17, 1961, demonstration, Algerians were beaten, shot and thrown into the Seine River. The incident was evoked at Papon's trial, but he blamed infighting among Algerians.

However, an Interior Ministry study concluded that French authorities hid the scope of the crackdown and said Papon issued a memo saying flagrant offenders "should be shot on sight."

Papon filed a defamation suit in 1999 against the book's author, Jean-Luc Einaudi, but a court dismissed it.

Papon is survived by his three children. His wife died in March 1998 during his trial.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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