After punishing thousands of people who collaborated with the German-backed Vichy regime in World War II, the French in the 1950s and 1960s sought to forget about the Vichy past. Although many people guilty of heinous crimes remained at large, the trials of Vichyite collaborators were routinely halted under pressure from powerful state officials with compromising pasts of their own. Prior to the 1990s, no French president had officially acknowledged the role played by the French state in the commission of crimes against humanity during the war. Rather, to foster a badly needed sense of national unity, most French parties, especially the Gaullists, cultivated the myth that nearly everyone had belonged to the French Resistance.
As time passed and the Fifth Republic acquired stability, France became more willing to reexamine critically the Vichy legacy. Path-breaking research beginning in the 1970s exploded the myth of near universal participation in the Resistance and proved beyond doubt the willingness of Vichy leaders to collaborate with Nazi Germany. The French soon began revisiting the Vichy years in a growing flow of books, documentaries, and films, most of which confirmed the new research. In 1995 President Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged the role of the French people and government in abetting crimes under German occupation. Two years later French Catholic bishops apologized for the church’s failure to resist the deportation and murder of Jews more vigorously, and the leaders of the French police union apologized for police participation in the roundup of Jews.
Also in 1997, the government initiated procedures to return artworks and other property stolen from French Jews during World War II by the Vichy authorities.
The most controversial aspect of this wrenching reassessment of the Vichy years was a new round of trials directed against collaborators who had yet to be tried and punished. Painful memories were already stirred in 1987 during the trial of Klaus Barbie, a notorious German Gestapo (secret state police) officer. Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity committed in Vichy France and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Other trials followed. In 1991, René Bousquet, an important French police official in the Vichy government, was indicted for crimes against humanity.
Bousquet had previously escaped trial with the help of powerful friends, but he was assassinated before the trial began. In 1994, Paul Touvier, a French member of the Vichy militia who worked under Barbie, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. Touvier had been sentenced to death for treason shortly after France’s liberation, but he had escaped his sentence with the help of influential allies, including conservatives within the Catholic Church. In 1998, Maurice Papon, an administrator in the Vichy regime and later a Gaullist minister, was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity and sentenced to ten years in prison. After escaping to Switzerland, Papon was extradited to France in 1999, where he served three years in prison and was released in 2002 on grounds of ill health. Papon’s trial was likely to be the last of its kind, leaving the French public divided over whether such trials had even begun to rectify the atrocities committed by the defendants. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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