Can Frenchman be Nazi collaborator . . . and a hero?
During World War II, a French functionary in Bordeaux named Maurice Papon signed documents ordering the deportation of Jewish children. At the same time, during his off hours, Mr. Papon was battling the Nazis as a member of the resistance.
Did Mr. Papon commit ''crimes against humanity?''
A French court must now judge that question, following the indictment last week of the septuagenarian Papon.
The case has created an uproar here because Papon was top budget director for former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing between 1978 and 1981. His plight is extremely embarrassing for the conservative opposition as March's crucial local elections approach.
Even more significant, though, is that Papon's indictment has reopened what remains one of the most sensitive issues in France: the extent to which Frenchmen collaborated with the Nazis.
Until recently, the issue was largely ignored. After the war, an image of a gallant, heroic France standing up to Nazism was built up. Textbooks, for example, totally ignored the deportation of thousands of Jews, the Vichy regime's anti-Jewish legislation, and simply what the vast majority of common Frenchmen who were not members of the resistance did during the war.
This changed dramatically in 1970 when Marcel Ophuls released his epic documentary movie, ''The Sorrow and the Pity,'' chronicling the wide extent of overt and silent collaboration during the war.
At that time, though, France wasn't ready for the movie. Originally made for French television, the government refused to show it.
''Television must not rend the national conscience,'' the Gaullist communications minister, Jean-Jacques de Bresson, said. ''The French are not ready for information in the Anglo-Saxon style. Myths are important in the life of a people and certain myths must not be destroyed.''
But recently, France has begun to destroy these myths. A searing indictment of Vichy's Jewish policy by the American Robert Paxton and the Canadian Michael Marrus was published in 1981, and received wide attention.
That year, too, ''The Sorrow and the Pity'' was finally shown on French television. A few months later, in a widely publicized ceremony, France marked the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the deportation of its Jewish citizens.
Papon's case brings France once again face to face with perhaps the most painful period in its past. It also raises the terrible dilemma facing ordinary men such as this bureaucrat.
In his position as secretary general for the southwest region of Gironde, he was ordered to send Jewish children to Paris where they were being rounded up to be transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Papon signed the documents ordering the deportation, according to the prosecution.
In all, 1,690 members of Bordeaux's 16,000 member Jewish community were deported. Only a few of those sent off survived.
Papon defends himself by saying he was using his position to help the resistance. He said he could never have given up his post ''which was the battlefield on which I fought.
''I did my duty at the peril of my liberty and my life,'' he said.
But Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who represents the six Jewish families seeking to have charges brought against Papon, disagrees.
''The Germans weren't so thorough in these matters,'' he explained. ''It would have been easy, without any risk, to have ignored the orders.''
The allegations against Papon were first made public by the weekly Le Canard Enchaine on the eve of the May 1981 elections.
Papon then charged that they had been brought as part of a campaign to discredit his boss, President Giscard d'Estaing. He asked a commission of former French resistance fighters to investigate them.
In December 1981, the commission agreed that Papon had ''taken courageous initiatives against'' the Germans. But it reprimanded him for not resigning instead of carrying out the deportation orders.