Former French official Maurice Papon, convicted last year of organizing the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, has apparently fled the country rather than go to jail.

French authorities today prepared international arrest warrants for Papon, 89, who is supposed to appear in a Bordeaux courtroom Thursday to hear a ruling on his appeal for clemency. He was to surrender to authorities this evening, but Papon's lawyers said today that he left his home near Paris with his wife a little more than a week ago. They would not disclose his whereabouts but issued a statement in which Papon said he was going into "exile."

Papon faces a 10-year prison sentence for complicity in crimes against humanity.

Despite his conviction, Papon's self-proclaimed exile to an unidentified country is legal until the court convenes Thursday. If he does not appear, he will be a wanted man.

Papon was an official in the Vichy-based, pro-Nazi government that controlled much of France after its defeat by Germany in 1940, and he later served as Paris police chief and France's budget minister. His six-month trial, which ended in April 1998, reopened a painful chapter in French history, when the Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis.

Papon, who has maintained he is innocent, declared in an open letter to a French regional newspaper, Sud-Ouest, that he would not "beg for my liberty." In a statement issued through his lawyers, Papon said he had chosen "the only honorable response" to what he claims is a politically motivated judicial process--"exile, as painful as it might be for a man in his 90th year." He compared his exile to that of former president Charles de Gaulle, who led the fight for Free France from London during part of the war years.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said the government would "do what it takes" to ensure that Papon is caught and serves his sentence. He said the comparison to de Gaulle was out of place in the present circumstances of "cowardice and flight" and showed indifference to the victims of Nazi occupation.

Papon's lawyers protested their client's obligation to spend the night in jail on the eve of the hearing while still a free man. He was released from brief confinement at the outset of his trial in late 1997 for health reasons, and the government did not restrict his movements after his conviction.

The civil parties to the Papon case, representing the survivors of some 1,500 French Jews who were boarded onto freight cars from Bordeaux between 1942 and 1944 and sent to Nazi death camps, were outraged by Papon's flight.

Gerard Boulanger, who represented some of the victims' families, said Papon was showing a characteristic "technocratic contempt" for justice. He suggested that Papon would turn up in London to "play cards with [Augusto] Pinochet," the former Chilean leader who is facing extradition from Britain to Spain on charges of crimes against humanity.

Serge Klarsfeld, France's best known Nazi hunter, said that Papon's flight from justice was no surprise and that he had warned the French government of its likelihood.

Therese Stopnicki, whose sisters were shipped to Auschwitz under Papon's orders, told the Associated Press: "During the war, French authorities showed absolutely no sign of laxity or incompetence when it came to arresting French children. But now, it seems, they have let him get away."

Papon was the second-ranking official in the city of Bordeaux under the puppet wartime government of France and issued successive orders to round up French Jews for deportation. He claimed in his trial that he had been unaware of their destination and had helped to save other French Jews in Bordeaux as a secret member of the French Resistance.

CAPTION: Maurice Papon was convicted in 1998 of deporting 1,500 French Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.