France Confronts the Holocaust

On 8 November 2001, a New York judge threw out a legal suit filed in New York against the S.N.C.F., France’s state-owned railway company. Filed in September 2000 by Holocaust survivors, the legal suit sought compensation for the company’s role in transporting 76,000 French Jews to German labor and extermination camps under Vichy, the collaborationist government that ruled France during German occupation from 1940 to 1944. It was only the latest of a number of cases filed in US courts against French companies that profited from the plight of Jews during World War II. In December 1998, a court in Brooklyn New York opened a class action suit against seven major French banks (Banque Paribas, Credit Lyonnais, Societe Generale, Credit Commercial de France, Credit Agricole Indosuez, Natexis and Banque Nationale de Paris) as well as two American banks, JP Morgan and Chase Manhattan, for not opening their financial records on the war period to Jewish complainants. The case followed a similar suit filed in US courts against Swiss banks holding Holocaust-era assets.

In March 1997, the government of Alain Juppé responded to these growing concerns by creating a special task force, the Mattéoli Commission, to investigate allegations against French companies. Despite its apparent success, the Mattéoli Commission has come under criticism in the United States from the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups. In September 1999, two members of the Matteoli Commission, Claire Andrieu and Ady Steg (President of Alliance Israélite de France) testified before the US Congress’ Committee on Banking and Finance in hearings about the location of Holocaust-era Jewish assets.

The questioning was acrimonious, with witnesses, experts, and members of the congressional commission in effect accusing the French Jewish leadership of “collaborating” too closely with the French Government. As part of an out-of-court settlement, the French banks worked with the Mattéoli Commission to establish a $50 million fund to compensate victims of French banks under the Vichy regime. The agreement was signed in Washington D.C. in February 2001.

Remembering the Holocaust

Such accusations echo a long-standing American concern that the French have not come to terms with their role in the Holocaust. This criticism took root in the 1970s, when the American historian Robert Paxton showed in his 1972 book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, that France’s wartime Government enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy in its collaboration with the German occupation. Under the leadership of Marshall Pétain, the Vichy government initiated a rightist “National Revolution” that pursued France’s own antisemitic policies. Negotiating with the German occupying forces, the French Government aided in the rounding up of Jews to be delivered to Nazi death camps. At the time of Paxton’s book, France’s antisemitic past had received little study or acknowledgement. Today, however, this situation has changed. Vichy is neither taboo nor forgotten in today’s France; it is indeed an item of permanent news.

France over the past two decades has undertaken a heated public and political debate on the history of French antisemitism, the Vichy regime, and French collaboration in the Holocaust. The debate on French anti-Semitism was fueled arguably in 1990, when the ancient Jewish cemetary in Capentras, Provence, was desecrated by a group of five neo-Nazi youths. The recently buried body of Felix Germon was exhumed and impaled on a beach umbrella. Public response to the event was massive. A demonstration against antisemitism held in Paris brought out an estimated one million protestors–an enormous number for a country with only 60 million inhabitants.

The ensuing debate has focused in part on the issue of public access to historical documents on the Holocaust. On November 1991 Serge Klarsfeld, a French Nazi hunter and President of the organization “Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deportees of France,” claimed to have found the so-called “Jewish file” in the basement of the Veterans Ministry. This file, compiled by the Paris Police following the census of October 1940, was supposed to identify all Jews living in France. A commission of historians later found that the real file had actually been destroyed in 1948. But the case raised a question around public access to government documents on the Vichy regime.

The debate became heated in 1994, when the book Archives Interdite (“Closed Archives”) by Sonia Combes accused the French government archival service of restricting public access to historical documents about Vichy and other difficult periods of French history.

She proposed that a combination of insufficient funding and a specific effort to avoid scandal had combined to limit access to wartime archives. The debate on access to archives soon spread to the Algerian War, in which the French security services and army used torture on prisoners. Following a heated public discussion and the commissioning of several government reports, access to Vichy-period archives were eventually eased. A new law improving access to France’s historic archives has been drafted, but not yet passed.

The Legacy of Vichy

A series of high-profile trials also helped to raise public awareness of the French role in the Holocaust. Indeed the decade of the 1990s saw the first and perhaps last “crimes against humanity” trials for the persecution of Jews under Vichy. Klaus Barbie, former head of the Gestapo in Lyon, was put on trial in 1992. The prosecution showed that he was responsible for the arrest of Jewish children sheltered in a safe house in Izieux. All forty-four children were deported to Auschwitz. Paul Touvier, one of the leaders of the French Militia, was tried in Versailles in 1994 for organizing the killing of Jewish men in Rieux-la-Pape, near Lyon. Maurice Papon, the former Prefect of Bordeaux under Vichy, was tried in 1997-1998 for the deportation of 2,000 Jews.

While all of these cases were widely discussed, none received more attention than that of René Bousquet. Assasinated in 1993, before he could go to trial, Bousquet was accused of coordinating with the Gestapo to organize the largest round-up of Jews in Paris. In July 1942, 13,000 Jews were gathered at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ bicycle stadium in the 15th Arrondisement, from which they were shipped to French transit camps, and from there to Auschwitz. Part of the public’s attention focused on the French justice system. The French press had reported Bousquet’s role in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up as early as 1978, but it took twelve years for French courts to take up the case filed by French Jewish organizations.

The French debate over wartime collaboration and resistance was embodied in the scandal that arose around François Mitterrand, French President from 1981 to 1995. In a 1994 biography of Mitterrand, A French Youth, author Pierre Péan described the president’s support for Vichy and Marshall Pétain during the German occupation.

The book revealed that Mitterrand had been both a civil servant in the Vichy regime and a leader of the French Resistance. Indeed he had held both positions at the same time for several months in 1943. (By 1944 he had become the head of RNPG, a Resistance group that helped to organize the prisoners’ resistance networks.) As a politician, Mitterrand had always denied his participation in the Vichy regime. He was not insensitive to the Jewish suffering under Vichy. In 1993, he established a national day of commemoration for the persecution of Jews–it would be held on July 16, the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. But he did not harshly condemn Vichy. He ordered, for example, that flowers be placed on Marshall Pétain’s grave on Armistice Day, commemorating his service in World War I. His response to A French Youth embodied this ambivalence. On September 12, 1994, he gave a prime-time televised interview in which he tried to justify his past while also refusing to recognize his own personal responsibility.

A New Climate of Reconciliation

President Mitterrand was the last French politician to have actively served under Vichy, and with his death the public debate around Vichy has changed. President Jacques Chirac, elected in 1995, moved to recognize the responsibility of the French state for its treatment of Jews during the occupation. Prime Minister Jospin has similarly acknowledged the moral necessity of recognizing the role that the French state played. Together they have created a political environment that has made it easier for France to confront the challenges raised by the recent court cases.

The Mattéoli Commission embodies France’s new political and public openness to facing the legacy of Vichy. With support from Chirac and Jospin, the Commission is non-partisan. It began by convening members, including historians, leaders of the Jewish community, and representatives of the administration, who hired 120 researchers, all paid by the French state. They produced 12 different reports on the Jewish experience during Vichy. An important outcome of this work, following the Commission’s recommendations, has been the establishment of a Fondation de la Mémoire de la Shoah (Foundation for Remembrance), announced in April 2000. It is endowed with 2.4 billion francs ($342 million), the estimated total value of assets that have not yet been returned to their Jewish owners. It is now the largest charitable foundation in France. Part of the funds were contributed by French banks and insurance companies, part by the state-run Caisse des dépôts et consignations, and the rest by the government itself. The Foundation is headed by Simone Veil, a former Minister of Health, former president of the European Parliament, and an Auschwitz survivor. It has the goal of improving public knowledge of the persecution of Jews in France and raising the awareness on crimes against humanity.

Although some Americans remain skeptical of the role that the French state is playing in the reconciliation process, the majority of French Jews are satisfied with the work of the Mattéoli Commission. They feel that the French state has done a good job in letting historians conduct research with sufficient independence and time to arrive at a credible assessment of France’s Vichy past. Numerous of them followed this trend and started to investigate their family’s past: the Commission in charge of individual claims has received more than 7000 requests.