Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Liberation of Paris 65 Years On

by Kathryn Hadley

Paris liberated itself. The French people, the Parisian police, members of the resistance and the French army rose in unity and fought together for the liberation of their capital city, which was, and remains today, a symbol of France. Such is the view of many French people, the view taught in French schools and the view put forward by Nicolas Sarkozy in a speech at the Paris prefecture of police on Tuesday to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Paris.

In Sarkozy’s words, the liberation of Paris was a French victory. It was the victory of an entire people and the victory of a common national will (la victoire de la volonté nationale). The French people united under common national values, forged during the French Revolution, in the belief that, together, they were strong enough to change the course of France’s destiny. Moreover, this victory marked a new beginning, it was the dawn of a new era during which nations would come together to ensure that the mistakes of the past would never be made again. Lastly, Sarkozy compared the challenges faced by France under the yoke of German occupation to current challenges, in particular those caused by the financial crisis, and stressed the need for a rebirth and new economic order.

But did Paris really liberate itself? What about the 4th US infantry division which marched towards Paris alongside the French 2nd armoured division, the 2eme division blindée, led by General Leclerc? Would the liberation of Paris been at all possible without the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day?

Despite the heavy criticism met by this fervently patriotic version of French history, such a rewriting, or rewriting, of French history was understandable in the light of the traumatic French experience of the Second World War. The creation of a myth of a regenerated and new France was key in order to overcome the humiliation of the French defeat and four years of German occupation.

During the occupation, France and the French people had become to extent divided: some had resisted the German occupying forces; others had collaborated. The reality was, however, far more complex. The lines between collaboration and resistance were blurred and there was a predominance of ‘grey areas’, in which people both collaborated and resisted in an effort to pursue their daily lives and survive as best they could. Nevertheless, people had been forced to take sides and Jews in particular had been singled out with many being deported to concentration camps. France had been divided; but France was now united, once again, by the jubilation of victory and by the desire for a new start. The idea of rebirth was also important for de Gaulle in order to legitimise his leadership and to secure a place for France in the new world order, amongst the victorious nations at the end of the Second World War.

More interesting is that fact that, 65 years on, President Sarkozy is advocating the same myth of the liberation and history of the postwar period.

Paris correspondent for The Times, Charles Bremner, notably commented on Sarkozy’s speech.
The full version of Sarkozy's speech is available on the website of the Elysée Palace.

For further information on France during the Second World War, visit our French history page.

Here is also a selection of articles about France’s attitude to its history during the Second World War and in the postwar period
- The First War Baby to be Granted German Citizenship
- Is France still haunted by its past?
- French recognition of responsibility in deportation of Jews
- International colloquium sheds new light on denunciation in France during the Second World War


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Daniela said...

Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.

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