The Not Great Escape

French civil servant Maurice Papon is hardly one of the "great men of history." But that is how the former Vichy government official, convicted April 2, 1998, of complicity in Nazi war crimes, referred to himself in a letter to the Bordeaux daily newspaper, Sud-Ouest. Papon had appealed his conviction; the day the letter was published--last Wednesday --he was scheduled to appear in court for a ruling on the appeal. Instead of showing up, he announced in the letter that he would go into exile rather than serve his jail time.

In fact, Papon had made his getaway 10 days earlier. On Oct. 11, he casually left his house in Gretz-Armainvilliers. He took his granddaughter with him, perhaps to confuse the police guards assigned to keep an eye on him. Amazingly, no one followed them. Papon fled to Switzerland, covering his tracks by introducing himself as "Robert de la Roche-Foucauld." According to official reports, the French police didn't discover that Papon was in Switzerland until Oct. 15--though rumors had been swirling that Papon was on the run since the day he left his home.

Why didn't the French police begin searching for Papon immediately? Because they had to wait for the court to uphold his conviction on the 21st. Once the verdict was issued, the French police called Interpol, an international police network. A little before midnight on the same day, the man accused of sending 1,600 Jews to their deaths in concentration camps was found and arrested in a hotel room in Gstaad. Papon is back in French custody and has begun his 10-year prison sentence in Fresne.

The reaction to Papon's escape from France was blistering. "It is incomprehensible that [Papon] could have escaped when his intentions were so well known," says former prime minister Alain Juppe. French police say they were just following instructions from the Justice Ministry; Justice officials claim that the police were supposed only to guard Papon's house, not keep track of his movements. "He was a free man," said a spokeswoman for Jean-Pierre Chevenement, minister of the Interior. "Anything that hindered his movements would have been illegal."

It's not the first time Papon has received an extraordinary--and some say legally questionable--amount of consideration. Papon's case is the longest court battle in modern French history. After 18 years of litigation, when he first stood trial in the fall of 1997, Papon spent only three days in custody, one in jail and two in a hospital. He claimed health problems and was subsequently released. The Bordeaux court said it was a preventive measure to ensure that Papon would survive the trial. Justice officials now admit it was an unusual move to let him go free. Serge Klarsfeld, the head of the Association of the Sons and Daughters of Deported Jews of France, repeatedly warned the government that Papon would run. His warnings were ignored.

The Papon saga isn't over. His lawyers say their client didn't get a fair trial. They plan to go to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg to argue their case. But most observers say it won't work. "The court in Strasbourg has absolutely no jurisdiction over France in this case," says one Interior Ministry official. And this time, Papon won't be able to claim health exemptions--the prison in Fresne is equipped with a hospital.