From Auschwitz to Algeria

Maurice Papon, second from left. France, November 1967.

The French bourgeoisie piously intones that the Papon trial should serve as a “history lesson” to a new generation. Perhaps, but not in the way they want. His case vividly illustrates the brutal oppression meted out by both Vichy France and the (Fifth) Republic, and how they are directly connected rather than counterposed.

Papon was one of a whole layer of Nazi and collaborator officials whose services were taken over and used by the “democratic” imperialists in the anti-Soviet Cold War. In France, they played key roles in colonial and anti-Communist repression under the Fourth and Fifth Republics, under governments of the reactionary right and the reformist left.

The Papons of yesterday are politically reflected not only in the fascist National Front (FN) of Le Pen and the “respectable” right-wingers whose hold on office depends on FN votes, but also in the parliamentary left.

The Socialists (PS) led the war against Algerian independence in the ’50s and their standard bearer for a quarter century, the late French President Francois Mitterrand, was a former Vichy official.

The Communist Party (PCF) voted for the wars against Vietnamese and Algerian independence and regularly supported and even spearheaded anti-immigrant repression in France – recall the bulldozer attack by the PCF mayor of Vitry against an immigrant workers hostel in 1980.

The PS tries to use outrage over the Papon affair and over recent electoral successes by the FN to build support for the popular front government of the “plural left”.

Yet the brutal cop attacks on immigrants unleashed by Papon in the 1940s and 1960s are today repeated in a racist police state of siege in the heavily immigrant working-class suburbs around France’s major cities.  Interior MinisterJean-Pierre Chevènement deports thousands of undocumented immigrants, while the Jospin government passes the anti-immigrant Chevènement Law to get rid of all the Papons and their ilk will take nothing less than socialist revolution.

“A French Career”

Maurice Papon attended the elite Louis le Grand secondary school in Paris, joined the Radical-Socialist Youth and began his steady rise in the bureaucratic ranks under the Popular Front government of 1936-38, working in the office of the prime minister.

The Radicals were the main bourgeois party of the time, whose presence in the Popular Front served as a guarantee that the workers would be chained to capitalism. Under Stalin’s orders, the PCF initiated this class-collaborationist coalition, which was then codified by the Stalinized Communist International in 1935.

While the Popular Front strangled the Spanish Revolution, its counterpart in France contained the revolutionary upsurge shown in the militant general strike following the 1936 elections. Once the wave of working-class militancy had passed and the masses’ revolutionary energy was spent, Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum was replaced by the Radical Edouard Daladier who in late 1938 put an end to the parliamentary “left” coalition and allied with the right.

In September 1939, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the parliament (including scores of Socialist deputies) voted full powers to the head of the French Army, Marshal Petain. By heading off revolution, the Popular Front paved the way for counterrevolution.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, they occupied the northern half of the country, leaving the southern half under the administration of Petain, who set up his quisling regime in the resort city of Vichy. Papon worked in the interior ministry and then was promoted to deputy to the prefect of the department of the Gironde, centred on the Atlantic port of Bordeaux.

In serving as an official of the Vichy dictatorship, Papon followed the same route as thousands of other government officials. (During this period, future Socialist President Mitterrand was in charge of veterans affairs for the Petain regime, writing intelligence reports on the Resistance.)

In Bordeaux, Papon was assigned the task of organizing the rounding up and shipping Jews to concentration camps. Shortly after taking up his functions in June 1942, he signed an order: “I instruct the commander of the gendarmerie to carry out the arrest of these Jews and to transfer them to the camp at Morignac, leaving it to me, once they have been rounded up in the camp, to order their departure for the Drancy camp” (Le Monde, 1 October 1997).

As a consummate bureaucratic opportunist, Papon closely watched which way the winds of war were blowing. After the German defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, he turned down a promotion that would have put him in an exposed position. Just prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Papon adroitly took up contact with the Resistance.

When the Vichy regime crumbled, Papon organised the handing over of power in Bordeaux…to himself. Thanks to the intervention of former high school friends working in the offices of General Charles de Gaulle, Papon became prefect of Bordeaux.

The fact that Papon, Mitterrand and thousands of other Vichy functionaries could effortlessly pass from the pro-Nazi dictatorship of General Petain to the pro-Allied regime of General de Gaulle is a powerful statement of how fascism and bourgeois democracy are two variants of the capitalists’ class rule.

In fact, the Vichy bureaucracy was taken over wholesale into the Fourth Republic to counter the strength gained by the Communist Party in the Resistance. The same occurred with the government apparatus of fascist Italy, and with much of the state machinery of Nazi Germany (following “de-Nazification” retraining courses).

Despite the “anti-fascist” trappings adopted by the supposedly “democratic” Allies against the German-dominated Axis, World War II was a conflict between two rival imperialist camps, in this war. Papon was what happened in the colonies,  torturing Algerian FLN prisoners while serving as the prefect of the Constantinois department.

From rounding up 1,560 Jews under Petain, who were sent to concentration camps, to rounding up Algerians under De Gaulle, Papon has always spoken with the frankness of an “untouchable” official who is confident that he is “covered” by the machinery of the state. But the Algerian population of the French capital didn’t bow to this diktat.

In response to a call by the FLN for a show of strength, on the evening of 17 October 1961, Algerians began gathering on the outskirts of Paris. Altogether, some 30,000 men, women and children joined in this protest in defiance of the curfew. The march was banned by the government, and Papon made extensive preparations for another of his mass roundups.

The crowds marched peacefully until just before 10 PM, chanting “For an Algerian Algeria,” “FLN to power!” and “Free [FLN leader Ahmed] Ben Bella!” And then, suddenly, shots rang out and the police unleashed violent repression. Photos show men crouching with hands on their heads outside the Concorde metro station, buses stuffed with terrified Algerians being transported to holding pens, the Palais des Sports ringed with army trucks.

Some 11,538 people were arrested that night, according to the statistics of the prefecture. In the improvised jails, beatings continued for days. There are numerous reports of “suspects” killed by torture during “interrogation”.

In the street, the situation was even worse. As families entered metro stations in heavily North African working-class areas, they were driven through a gauntlet of police bringing down riot sticks on their heads.  Other cops used their gun butts. Even among those who survived, many suffered cracked skulls. Others had their heads smashed and crushed underfoot. Women were beaten bloody.

Some were strangled by cords tied to police truncheons. Some of the most brutal beatings were by Algerian “auxiliary police” recruited by Papon, similar to the hated Harkis in Algeria, mercenaries fighting on the side of the French army. Photos show several Algerians who had been shot to death, lying in pools of their blood on the pavement. But contrary to police claims of gunfire from “the FLN”, no cops received gunshot wounds. The repression was unleashed on a defenceless crowd.

The most dramatic fate was suffered by the dozens of pro-testers-many of them already badly injured, some with their hands tied-who were thrown into the Seine to drown. Beginning in early September, bodies of North Africans arrested by the police were later found floating in the river.

By the end of the month, cadavers were being fished out of the water at the rate of one a day. And then, on the night of 17 October, the police unleashed an orgy of violence. For years, Papon only admitted to three deaths. Newly opened government archives list more than 70 killed. But independent sources estimate that well over 200 (and possibly more than 300) Algerians were murdered by the cops. Papon was able to prevent an official inquiry into the massacre.

The October massacre occurred in the very heart of the capital of France, and yet for many years, there was a curtain of silence over this mass murder. The silence was enforced officially, and through unofficial self-censorship.  A Belgian TV team filmed accounts by witnesses, but it was expelled from France, and its report was suppressed by company executives under pressure from Paris.

In 1965, the left-wing Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka was kidnapped by gangsters in Paris and murdered. When evidence showed police involvement, the outcry eventually led to Papon’s resignation as police prefect. But this did not stop Papon’s career.

Following a decade in parliament, he was named budget minister in the right-wing government of Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Papon retired with the cross of the commander of the Legion of Honor.

Ed Note: Convicted of crimes against humanity in 1998 for his role in the Holocaust, Papon died in 2007 at the age of 96.

Adapted from The Internationalist, April-May 1998 edition. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.