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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Confronts Its Past As Trial of Papon Begins

BORDEAUX, France -- France put its wartime past on trial Wednesday with the case of Maurice Papon, a former police official of the collaborationist Vichy regime who rose to postwar prominence.

To utter silence, Papon entered the courtroom remodeled to accommodate the crush of Holocaust victims, families, reporters and others for a trial examining how French officials helped send thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps.

"Papon, Maurice, 87 years old, retired," he responded to Judge Jean-Louis Castagnede, who formally opened the trial and called in the accused.

Dressed in a navy blue blazer and gray slacks, the former postwar Cabinet minister was seated behind bulletproof glass as part of tight security surrounding his trial.

His lawyer, Jean-Marc Varaut, then proceeded to plead for Papon to be freed during the trial, a move civil parties opposed. "It is Maurice Papon's right," Varaut told reporters earlier, alleging what he called "shameful prison conditions."

The trial, expected to last three months and to include testimony from 140 witnesses, would determine whether Papon was guilty of crimes against humanity for allegedly signing arrest orders that led to the deportation of 1,690 Jews.

The former police supervisor in the Bordeaux region is the highest-ranking Vichy official to stand trial in the persecution and deportation of Jews. After the war, Papon went on to become a budget minister under conservative President Valery Giscard d'Estaing during the 1970s.

Victims and their families staged morning gatherings to mark the trial's opening day.

At the site of a former transit camp for deportees in the suburb of Merignac, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld joined with Jewish groups. They read the names and ages of 132 Jewish infants and children deported allegedly on Papon's orders, and recited prayers for the dead.