Paul Kix, an American journalist with a fine narrative gift, begins his book about a hero of the French Resistance with a prologue centred on Bordeaux in 1998. Maurice Papon, after a distinguished career in which he had been prefect of the Paris police and a Gaullist minister, had been on trial since the previous year for crimes against humanity. It was alleged that, as general secretary of the Gironde prefecture under the Vichy government, he had signed documents authorising the deportation of Jews to Germany. Now Robert de la Rochefoucauld, Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and bearer of the Medal of the Resistance, volunteered evidence in Papon’s defence. In the Gironde in 1944, he reported, he had come across a band of Jewish Resistance fighters. They were free men because they had been warned by a friend in the prefecture of an impending round-up. That friend, he told the court, was Maurice Papon.
Kix is right to begin with this story. The years 1940–44 form a complicated and dark part of France’s past. The Vichy regime collaborated with Germany, but not all who served in it did so: some also worked with the Resistance. The Resistance itself was divided. Some fought