France Doubles Down on Honoring the Memory of Vichy’s Victims
French President Francois Hollande’s speech on the seventieth anniversary of the infamous French round-ups of Jews doubled down on the French Republic’s recent efforts at the highest levels to come to grips with a shameful evocation of Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies.
The laudable trend started in 1995, when President Jacques Chirac finally accepted that “France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment and of human rights, the country of safe harbor and welcome, behaved irreparably” toward Jews on French soil during the War. Whereas before, only some historians, filmmakers, and novelists had faced the reality of Vichy wrongdoing head on, now the deflection of guilt on to the Germans alone and the myth of “universal French resistance” were forthrightly rebuffed by France at its highest levels.
President Nicolas Sarkozy did nothing to alter the gradual move to honest self-criticism. In a small gesture, for example, he awarded me the Legion of Honor in 2009 in recognition of my work “on behalf of human rights and the Jewish victims of the Vichy regime.” This marked quite a turnaround, since when I started my work as an historian of Vichy and then a litigator on behalf of its victims, France hardly displayed any enthusiasm for my efforts. I was most gratified to receive the honor, and am even more proud of it now that Hollande has spoken.
Nonetheless, for the past few years, there have been voices of revisionism in France, and not only from some expected extreme right sources. It is very difficult, as everyone everywhere should recognize, to sustain sincere self-criticism regarding shameful national episodes. Some of the same historians and moral voices that had educated a reluctant France to accept responsibility for the anti-Semitic policies that led to the arrest and deportation of more than 75,000 Jews from French soil have recently declared that it might be time to “turn the page” and again emphasize the origins of genocide within Nazi Germany itself.
As outstanding a moral leader as Serge Klarsfeld and his son Arno Klarsfeld — whom I interviewed a dozen years or so ago and who helped at the time, like his father, to correct the ensconced myths about World War II France and the Jews — have more recently vigorously defended the French National Railroad (SNCF) against efforts to hold it accountable for transporting Jews to the camps (see the January 25, 2011, editions of the New York Times and Le Figaro.) Their campaign to cushion the SNCF, which has extended to Arno’s appearance in a French court on its behalf, and to Serge’s labeling as “relentless” Americans seeking accountability, has surprised many. The seeming 180-degree shift within such outstanding figures probably signals their desire to slow the laudable trend towards full revelation of, and a measure of justice for, French complicity on all levels in the Shoah.
The slippery slope to forthrightness, and the even more treacherous path to reparation, may well have been on the newly elected French President’s mind when he went beyond his predecessors to offer a magnificent promise that France will never forget and that he, individually, will make sure that no French school child will lack knowledge of his country’s most shameful years. “We must fight against all forms of historical falsification,” declared Hollande on the day that marked the seventieth anniversary of the arrest of Jewish men, women, and children in the capital of the enlightenment itself by French police working alone (“not one German soldier, not one, was mobilized for this operation”). The eternal fight, he declared, would be “not only against negationists, but also against all those tempted by relativism.”
For me, the ribbon that I proudly wear now seems brighter still because the country that gave me the honor has come full circle by both demanding historical truth and countering the very human urge to retreat from it when all kinds of secondary factors and arguments remain available to underming reality. Hollande’s words merit reflection in our own country, too, where some shocking post–September 11 policies are adopted and accepted without much protest. I refer here to policies connected to torture, interrogation techniques, Guantánamo, prolonged detention, and targeted killings, and I have written elsewhere about the connection I see between some US post-9/11 policies and France’s wartime ability to compromise its own finest traditions. (See my piece on “Loose Professionalism” in Sanford Levinson’s Torture: A Collection.)
Hollande also referenced the ongoing work of the French Commission on the Indemnisation of Victims of the Shoah, an agency I have been charged with overseeing in the specific mode of restitution for Vichy-era banking theft. In that agency, supported by successive governments, individual victims or their heirs can make claims and receive some measure of justice.
There is no statute of limitations in these areas. There is no avoiding the lessons of history or the responsibility to figure out the “hows” and especially the “whys” of departures from a nation’s finest traditions.
The new French president has made clear that some issues must be addressed with intractability and not compromised. If heeded, this lesson from our old ally in human rights will radiate even beyond the nation and the specific historical period it addressed.