Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Is France still haunted by its past?

This file is in the public domain, because it is a photograph taken by en:Heinrich Hoffmann; these photographs were seized by the United States government, and are public domain owing to their status as seized Nazi property.<br />

by Kathryn Hadley

Both the French and the British media reported positively on the ruling of the French council of state, last Monday, which recognised the responsibility of the French Vichy state in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation. The French newspaper Le Figaro notably quoted Serge Klarsfeld, the president of the association Fils et filles des déportés juifs de France and the vice-president of the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah, who claimed that he was satisfied with the ruling and deemed that compensation was sufficient.

‘La France montre maintenant qu'elle est à l'avant-garde des pays qui assument
leur passé, ce n'était pas le cas jusque dans les années 90’.

Klarsfeld went so far as to state that France was in the vanguard in terms of acknowledging and having come to terms with some of the more shameful aspects of its past.

Such positive reactions to the ruling were, however, not unanimous. Have the victims of the deportations and their families really been granted adequate compensation? Is the ruling not instead evidence of an attempt by the Conseil d’Etat to distance itself from this shameful episode of French history?

Shortly after last Monday’s ruling, an article was published on guardian.co.uk, in which the author accused the council of state of historical revisionism and argued that compensation was far from sufficient. The author, Stephanie Hare, is currently researching the career of Maurice Papon, the French civil servant, who was secretary general for police of the Prefecture of Bordeaux during the Second World War and accused, in 1998, of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of 1,560 Jews. According to Hare, the statement released by the council of state is:

‘full of historical revisionism, minimising its language and making a pitiful
attempt to claim that compensation has been delivered’

After the liberation, the Gaullist consensus on the Vichy government was that it was some sort of a ‘blip’, a ‘parenthesis’, and marked a break with French republican history. By its very name, the Vichy Regime, or the ‘French State’, was not part of the continuity of French republican history; it was an interlude between the Third Republic (1870-1940) and the Fourth Republic, founded in 1946. The argument that the Vichy government was illegal and illegitimate was both convenient and necessary in order to justify the legitimacy of the Gaullist regime. The French republic had been kept alive by de Gaulle and his followers in London and the French empire. Recognition of the legitimacy of the Vichy government implied an assumption of collective responsibility for policies of deportation and collaboration, but also recognition of the enduring impact of the regime in postwar France. After the liberation, the focus of the Gaullist government was thus on postwar reconstruction, regeneration and dynamism.

According to Hare, the council of state’s ruling falls straight into this revisionist interpretation of the occupation by claiming that the

‘persecutions [of Jews], in total rupture with the values and principles […] as
consecrated by the declaration of the Rights of Man and by republican values,
provoked exceptional damages and an extreme gravity’.

However, revisionist interpretations are now out of date. In the second half of the twentieth century, historiography moved beyond the Gaullist myth of French heroism and resistance during the occupation to highlight the continuities between the Third Republic and the Vichy regime, in particular with regard to discrimination and internment. Hare notably quotes the French historian Gerard Noiriel and Robert Paxton, author of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, who remained one of the main authorities on the Vichy regime for a considerable time. The latest research now points towards more mitigated views of the occupation, which represented neither a total break with French republicanism, nor merely continuity. The period should instead be viewed in shades of grey, in which the lines between collaboration and resistance were often blurred and difficult to define.

Hare’s second criticism of the ruling is that it does not offer adequate compensation – indeed the council of state ruled that the government’s measures for compensation were sufficient. The statement defines the actions of the Vichy regime as ‘fautes’, mistakes or errors. From Hare’s point of view, however, the state’s participation in the deportations should be defined as a ‘crime’, partly because the term ‘fautes’ is not in line with French law, in which the Vichy’s treatment of Jews is defined as a crime against humanity. In 1998, Maurice Papon was thus convicted of crimes against humanity and referring to the Jewish persecution as ‘fautes’ is, in Hare’s view, an attempt to claim that France’s Jewish victims have been compensated enough. Her study of the Papon trial revealed, however, that, in the end, he was only found guilty of the illegal arrest of 37 people and the arbitrary detainment of 53 others – ‘compensation, in the form of official recognition, for the suffering of 90 people, or 0.12% of the 75,721 Jews deported from France’.

Nevertheless, the issue of how much compensation should, and can in practice, be offered remains. To how many generations should the government issue compensation? Which, and how, ‘victim’ groups of French history should be given compensation? Almost in contradiction with her argument, Hare herself highlights a considerable obstacle to issuing compensation to all the victims of Vichy policies: one of the reasons why such a small proportion of Papon’s victims were granted compensation is because lawyers were simply unable to locate the relatives of the other victims. It appears, however, that if Jewish victims and their relatives were that unhappy with the compensation that they had, or had not, received, would they not have taken advantage of Papon’s trial, which was given considerable coverage in the media, to put themselves forward and ensure that they were found and heard?

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