Former Cabinet Minister Maurice Papon declared his innocence Wednesday of crimes against humanity in Nazi-occupied Vichy France, insisting he had always tried to act in the best interests of France.

Papon, 87, is the most senior official of the Vichy regime ever to stand trial for war crimes. He is charged with ordering the arrests and deportations of 1,690 Jews from Bordeaux during World War II; all but a handful died at Auschwitz.He addressed the jury Wednesday in the closing statements of his six-month trial, speaking for more than a half-hour in a clear, angry voice. Afterward, the panel of three judges and nine civilians filed out of the courtroom to begin deliberating.

"What should one have done?" Papon cried out at one point.

And at another: "Sometimes I ask myself, `Why me?' "

He said the prosecution had distorted the truth and "cast aside the law to obey higher orders."

"This is what is called a political trial," he said.

Closing his remarks, he warned the jury the world was watching.