Maurice Papon was born in northern France on September 3, 1910. He studied law, psychology and sociology at university.
After entering public service, the ambitious and intelligent twenty year old Papon was quickly promoted. In 1942 he took over the position of General-Secretary of the Prefecture of the Gironde region in southwestern France, under the Vichy government.
During WWII Papon served as a senior police officer in the Vichy regime; he was the number two official in the Bordeaux region and supervisor of its 'Service for Jewish Questions'. With authority over Jewish affairs, Maurice Papon collaborated with Nazi Germany's Schutzstaffel (SS) Corps, responsible for the extermination of Jews. He deported approximately 1,560 Jewish men, women and children. The majority were sent directly to detention camps at Drancy, outside Bordeaux, and then to Auschwitz or similar concentration camps.
By mid-1944 it was clear that the war was turning against the Germans. Papon began to inform on the Nazis to the Resistance—actions for which he was later decorated with the "Carte d'Ancien Combattant de la Resistance".
After the war he managed to hide his wartime activities, and went on to enjoy a civil service career as the chief of the Paris police, under General de Gaulle, until 1967. During this period, the French Legion of Honour was bestowed on him by general and president, Charles de Gaulle.
He was appointed Budget Minister under Minister Raymond Barre and President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, from 1978 to 1981.
During the Paris massacre of 1961, Papon was chief of the Paris police, when, on October 17, 1961, after a peaceful march organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front, a large number of Algerian civilians were killed by French police.
The exact number of dead remains unknown. The Journalist Einaudi asserted that as many as 200 Algeriens had been killed. A French government commission in 1998 claim only 48 people died. The historian Jean-Paul Brunet found satisfactory evidence for the murder of 31 Algerians, while suggesting that a number of up to 50 actual victims was credible.
Little by little, evidence of his reponsibility in the Holocaust emerged, and throughout the 1980s he fought a string of legal battles. Charges began in 1983, but in 1987 they were dropped because of legal technicalities. New charges laid in 1988 accused Papon of crimes against humanity. However in 1997, after Papon's defence, and 14 years of bitter legal wrangling, he was charged with crimes against humanity.
The trial was the longest in French history. By his arrogance, his contempt, his refusal to express regrets or remorse during and since the lawsuit, Maurice Papon drew contempt from many.
Papon was accused of ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews, including children and the elderly, between 1942 and 1944. The prosecution argued that the defense of following orders was not sufficient, and that Papon bore at least some of the responsibility for the deportations. However, they did recommend that he only be given a 20-year prison term, as opposed to the sentence of life imprisonment, which is usual for such crimes.
Papon was convicted in 1998 and given a 10-year prison term. Papon was also stripped of all his decorations; under French law, people convicted of severe crimes cannot be members of the Legion of Honor.
Papon's lawyers had meanwhile been pursuing a separate appeal in France, petitioning for his release under the terms of a March 2002 law that provided for the release of ill and elderly prisoners to receive outside medical care. As doctors affirmed, Papon, by this time 92 years old, was essentially incapacitated, he became the second person released under the terms of the law, leaving jail on September 18, 2002, less than 3 years into his sentence.