by Douglas Johnson, The Hamilton Spectator, November 10, 1997
The haunted courtroom is there to stay. Whatever happens to the man in the dock, the ghosts are not ready to disappear. In Bordeaux, Maurice Papon, an official of the Vichy government during the years 1942 to 1944, is charged with crimes against humanity.
He has already absented himself from the court on grounds of ill health. It is rumoured his health is such that he might be removed permanently, or his trial might continue its labourious progress into January of next year.
But whatever happens to him, and to the allegation that he sent hundreds of Jews to the death camps in response to Vichy orders and German policies, the ghosts are there. And they are too famous to be forgotten.
Naturally, there is Marshal Pétain, the man who was in command. With him are certain of his ministers, some enthusiastic collaborators with the Germans, and a representative of the Catholic Church.
They all believed there was a Jewish question in France that had to be settled one way or the other. Inevitably, there is the ghost of Captain Dreyfus, whose presence was invoked by Papon as the symbol of innocence when charged with a terrible offence but who always appears when the persecution of the Jews is being remembered.
And there are shadowy figures whom no one recognizes: historians who overlooked Vichy's rounding up of Jews when they wrote their books.
But the most unmistakable and unexpected presence is that of General Charles de Gaulle. Why has his ghost been summoned up? What has he to do with the trial of the former secretary-general of the Prefecture in Bordeaux?
The answer is twofold.
First, there are his actions. For him, France did not exist in Vichy. It existed in his person, in London, Algiers and in the resistance movement that had accepted him as its leader: Therefore, the liberation of France meant the installation in France of the provisional government he had established in Algiers.
But to do this he had to overcome two formidable obstacles. The Vichy regime did not count. It disappeared as Pétain took flight under German escort four days before General Leclerc's troops entered Paris, but there remained the United States and the Communists.
The Americans believed liberated France should be administered temporarily by an Allied Military Government until life returned to normal and domestic elections could be held.
Churchill agreed with this for a time and he expressed a fear that "de Gaulle and his gang" would be hoisting their flag with its Cross of Lorraine above every mairie in the land.
The Americans were ready, with their currency and personnel who had worked intensively on their French irregular verbs.
As for the Communists, they were organized, armed and strong. Many of their leaders thought this was the revolution they had been working for.
As the Russian revolution had emerged from the debris of the First World War, so the new French revolution would emerge from the conflicts of the second.
Therefore, it is claimed, de Gaulle's priority was to install a French state that would make the American plans pointless and that would resist the Communists.
Hence he took over Vichy, rather than establish the France that was emerging from the resistance.
And, to return to Papon, in Bordeaux there was a real danger of a Communist takeover. So, de Gaulle appointed Gaston Cusin as Commissaire de la République in the region of the Gironde and Cusin worked in harmony with Papon.
If today an attempt is being made a try a man for crimes against humanity that were committed 55 years ago it is because, for reasons of his own, de Gaulle had failed to take action against him in 1944 or 1945.
The second accusation that has arisen against de Gaulle concerns his role in creating two myths.
One was that the Vichy regime did not exist, that it was an illegal aberration that concerned a handful of men who were puppets controlled by the Germans.
The other was that France emerged victorious from the war. When the Germans finally surrendered, a French general was present (as one of the German generals bitterly remarked).
These myths have been harmful for France. Recognizing this, President Jacques Chirac announced in 1995 that the responsibility for Vichy lay with the French nation and that this applied to the sending of Jews to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. As for the suggestion that France won the war, here it is observers outside France who have propagated with relish the idea that the role of France in its own liberation was but small. British journalists can sometimes enjoy laughing at the French resistance.
Naturally, de Gaulle can be defended. It is curious to think that there are those who now criticize him for not having acted fiercely enough at the liberation.
At the time there were many who denounced the epuration, as it was called, as a mockery of justice.
The Vichy administration was carefully scrutinized. Nearly 4,000 men were condemned to death and 767 of these sentences were carried out. About 25,000 went to prison. All were charged with treason and co-operating with the enemy.
At the time, it was claimed Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister, should not have been shot. There were many protests about the execution of the writer Robert Brasillach, and claims that this was unjust are still being made. Yet we are told there were still more whom de Gaulle should have had executed.
It is a fact, however curious, that in 1945 there was no movement claiming a particular justice on behalf of the Jews.
The Jewish population who remained were able to resume their normal place within the French nation, relieved that the Vichy legislation against them no longer existed, as Vichy no longer existed.
There were few who understood the full extent of the Holocaust. There has never been the slightest suggestion that de Gaulle did not care about this population.
Raymond Aron, who was with de Gaulle in London and who had serious differences of opinion with him, clearly stated he never encountered any example of anti-Semitism in France.
The trial of Maurice Papon has led to even wider accusations against de Gaulle. Leaving the 1940s behind, our attention has been drawn to October 17, 1961. That evening, in Paris, the Algerian nationalists staged a massive, illegal demonstration.
It was repressed with extraordinary brutality by the police.
The prefer of police was Maurice Papon, who claimed three people had been killed, including one Frenchman.
But as bodies were to be seen floating down the Seine, soon the figure of 150 dead was being mentioned. Papon insisted on three.
The president of the republic, Charles de Gaulle, said nothing. He was engaged in a larger battle, that of finding a solution to the war in Algeria.
And so it continues. In France the past is always alive. Papon is a figure of that past.
The 87-year-old is not the man who signed the papers more than half a century ago but the ghost whom he has conjured up is very much alive and fighting - as Free France fought at Bir Hakeim, as the French resistance fought in the Vercors.
The legend remains.
But post-Papon, can de Gaulle still be the symbolic leader of a political party in France today?