Over the past decades, France has made a remarkable turnaround away from its founding postwar myth of resistance to the Nazis to accept the truth that the French collaborationist government was responsibility.
On the facade of the nursery school at 5 Rue de Poissy in the centre of Paris hangs a black
marble plaque. Written in golden letters, it contains a stark message: “To the memory of the children — students of this school deported from 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish. They were victims of Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy Government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them.”
The plaque underlines a dramatic transformation in France’s memory of the Holocaust. Gone is the Gaullist postwar myth of France united in resistance against occupying Nazis and their Vichy collaborators. Gone is the falsehood that those who helped Germans soldiers deport Jews were not French. French police, not German soldiers, arrested the Jewish schoolchildren and put them on the trains to Auschwitz. Says Gabrielle Rochmann, the director of the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah, “There are so many projects on the Shoah now; there’s even programs about it on TV every week.”
This wave of commemoration comes at a delicate moment, in a country struggling to cope with migration, the role of Islam and recent anti-Semitic attacks. In 2018, young French Arabs stabbed to death Mireille Knoll, the 85-year-old Holocaust survivor in her Paris apartment. Fearful French Jews are moving out of Arab neighborhoods in the Paris suburbs.
Unlike in the 1940s, however, the French government is doing much to protect its Jewish population, the largest in Europe. Mass demonstrations for tolerance followed Knoll’s murder. According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of the French hold a favorable view of Jews.
An accurate view of France’s wartime history began to take shape in the 1980s. Activists Serge and Beate Klarsfeld hunted down those involved in the Holocaust in France, including Vichy officials who had been rehabilitated and were making their way back into government were brought to trial one by one. One by one, they showed how Vichy Police Chief René Bousquet and fellow collaborators, Jean Leguay, Maurice Papon and Paul Touvier were involved in Holocaust. The Klarsfelds detailed, name by name, the children deported by Vichy to Auschwitz. Despite sensational trials and increasing public pressure, the government stuck by the Gaullist myth that the Fifth Republic was distinct from Vichy. Francois Mitterrand, president from 1981 to 1995, had served Vichy. While president, he continued to meet with Bousquet in the Elysee Palace.
Official change first came in 1995 when President Jacques Chirac, the first postwar French
president without any involvement in the war, acknowledged that it was French police, not
German soldiers, who raided schools and sent the children on their way to death. Two months after taking office, Chirac acknowledged: "Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state."
Successive governments have gone further. President Francois Hollande in 2012 said the
roundups were a “crime committed in France, by France.”
In July, 2017, Emmanuel Macron spoke at a ceremony at the Vel d’Hiv Holocaust memorial
monument exactly 75 years after French police officers rounded up 13,152 Jews there for
deportation. He named individual collaborators who helped the Nazis kill Jews, including
Bousquet, the police chief who was indicted for planning the Vel d’Hiv roundups.
For the first time, Macron detailed the post war cover-up, explaining how “ministers, civil
servants, police officers, economy officials, unions, teachers” from the Vichy government were incorporated into the post-World War II government that replaced it. “It is very convenient to view Vichy as a monstrosity, born of nothing and returned to nothing,” Macron said, emphasizing the continuity between governments. “But it is false. We cannot base any pride on a lie.”
Over the past few decades, France has made remarkable progress, both in bringing Holocaust memory into the national consciousness and in facing the rising challenges to the newfound acceptance of French guilt. Almost every schoolchild in France knows the events of the Holocaust, and the vast majority of the population have at least some understanding of the tragedy. Unlike many other countries in the world, France seems to recognize the need for continued vigilance to make sure that convenient narratives don’t displace true ones.
The Holocaust in France
In the years before the Nazi invasion of France, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees
poured into the country, attracted by French liberalism. The interwar population of 150,000
Jews in Metropolitan France swelled to about 340,000 by 1940, as other countries, especially the United States and United Kingdom, refused to take in refugees.
The German army conquered France in June 1940, bringing down the democratic Third
Republic and dividing France into occupied and non-occupied zones. Eighty-four-year-old
Maréchal Philippe Pétain set up his capital at Vichy to rule the non-occupied zone.
On his own, Pétain imposed anti-Semitic legislation, banning Jews from the professions, show business, teaching, the civil service and journalism. It confiscated Jewish property. More than 40,000 refugee Jews were held in concentration camps under French control. Beginning in the winter 1940-1941 French Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps.
During 1941 and 1942, French police carried out mass arrests in Paris. Under the direction of René Bousquet, Secretary General of the Vichy police, French police arrested 13,000 Jews in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942, interning them in the Vélodrome d'Hiver sports arena. The French Railways then took them to death camps in the East.
A significant percentage of these victims were foreign or stateless Jews, sacrificed by the Vichy government in a vain attempt to spare France's indigenous Jewish. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the calculated strategy of the Vichy administration to collaborate with German deportation efforts in order to gain more independence for unoccupied France had failed.”
Deportations of Jews from France in the summer and fall of 1942 spurred significant protest within the Catholic Church and from the public. Escape lines to Switzerland and Spain had been set up, and thousands of families risked death to shelter Jews. Since the war, Israel has given medals to 2,000 French people, including several priests, in recognition of this, and of the fact that about 250,000 Jews survived in France.
In November 1942, German troops occupied Vichy's formerly “free zone.” Italian forces had occupied the southeastern corner of France in 1940. Thousands of Jews sought and received protection in the Italian zone until its occupation by German forces with Italy's surrender in September 1943.
German authorities reinstituted transports of Jews from France in January 1943 and continued the deportations until August 1944. In all, some 77,000 Jews living on French territory perished in concentration camps and killing centers—the overwhelming majority of them at Auschwitz—or died in detention on French soil. Thanks to the obstruction of French officials, the vast majority of Jews with French citizenship survived the Holocaust.
Where around 90% of Jewish populations in Eastern Europe died, and indeed were mostly
wiped out by 1942, about three quarters of French Jews who were French citizens survived.
French Jews in Algeria, some 400,000 strong, were spared many of the worst ravages of the
Holocaust first by their place in the unoccupied zone and then by the arrival of the Allies in
- 1945-1951: French citizens took the opportunity to settle scores from the occupation.
Once the provisional government asserts its control over the countryside, it puts prominent collaborators on trial.
- 1945: Property restitution begins.
- 1948: Restitution payments begin. In this first wave of reparations, which was primarily
consisted of monetary payments for stolen property, as well as the creation of the deportee pension system.
- 1953: Pardons issued for vast majority of convicted collaborators.
- 1956: The Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr is unveiled.
- 1987: Klaus Barbie convicted of crimes against humanity. This was the beginning of the
second wave of French war crimes trials, driven by Nazi hunters such as Serge and
Beate Klarsfeld, as well as by increased popular opposition to the gaullist narrative.
- 1991: Rene Bousquet indicted for crimes against humanity
- 1995: Jacques Chirac acknowledges French participation in Nazi roundups
- 1998: Maurice Papon convicted of crimes against humanity
- 1999: France joins the IHRA
- 2005: France opens the Memorial de la Shoah, building around the original memorial to
the unknown Jewish Martyr
- 2012: François Hollande recognizes the collaboration of the French state, and opens an
expansion of the Memorial de la Shoah in Drancy
- 2017: Emmanuel Macron notes the continuity between Vichy and Free French
Since 2014-5, and the dramatic attacks against Jewish communities, the government has
intensified efforts to counter anti-Semitic rhetoric, improve and ensure the relevance of
Holocaust memory. President Macron has also gone above and beyond past presidents with his rhetoric and aggressive deconstruction of the Gaullist myth. Not only did he name
collaborators who had overseen the roundup of Jews, but he also highlighted the officials who served under Vichy and continued to serve under the Free French government. The France which collaborated with the Nazis, he implied, was one and the same with the France which followed it, and any attempts to differentiate between the two is...[an attempt] to absolve one’s conscience.”
The government has made wide-ranging efforts to counteract the rising levels of Holocaust
fatigue in schools and online hate speech. In schools, teachers have begun implementing a
variety of programs which help increase interest in the Holocaust. These include more school trips to concentration camp sites, retailoring curricula and programs at memorials to increase their relevance to students, and increased emphasis on tolerance.
The government has pursued hate speech and Holocaust denial cases with a furious passion, prosecuting cases wherever and whenever they appear and has made as extensive efforts as possible to shut down Holocaust revisionists. A Paris court fined far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen EUR30,000 for his comments about the Holocaust being “a detail” of history. The Ministry of Culture banned Dieudonne’s shows and a French court convicted him of him hate speech, advocating terrorism, and slander. “The trials have been kind of a pedagogical process for French society” says Rochman of the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah.
Far from declaring victory, the government is redoubling its efforts. In the recent months, it has given new powers to Dilcrah, an organization run by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe that coordinates efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. The Memorial de la Shoah has signed an agreement with Dilcrah to provide punishment alternatives to those convicted of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism. It will run seminars consisting of workshops “about the construction and historical consequences of racism, anti-Semitism and genocide” and designed to raise awareness of the harms of even revisionist and anti-Semitic language. Judges can send people convicted of hate crimes to a two-day “citizenship course” at the national Holocaust memorial. Police are being training to respond better to victims.
French Holocaust education is extensive. It is one the dozen or so countries to mandate
education about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is first taught as part of a history class in the first year of middle school, then again in the first year of secondary schooling, and once more in the last year of high school. Other classes, including German and philosophy classes, touch on the Holocaust from less direct perspectives, such as by discussing human rights. Schools aim to provide students with in-depth knowledge of the origins of the Holocaust, the social and political conditions and particular sparks that caused it, and the methods used.
French public schools work closely with the Memoriale de la Shoah and other oranisations such as the Camp des Milles, to tailor curriculum and develop new programming. Such programming includes visits to local memorials or even Auschwitz, documentaries and conversations with survivors. Not only do teachers have resources readily available to draw from, they can also tap into an extensive network of training materials, specialists, and experts. The Memoriale de la Shoah, as well as other memorials, also conduct training workshops.
Although there are reports of teachers having trouble teaching about the Holocaust, particularly when their students are of immigrant or Muslim background, a 2014 analysis supported by the UNESCO noted that such cases are likely to be overreported. Teachers are also adapting their teaching practices to prevent feelings of boredom and informational saturation, also known as Holocaust fatigue. These new practices include bringing parents along to visit concentration camps, and in some cases even organizing trips just for parents, to tasking students with collecting and recording the testimonies of survivors. Such programs often receive the support of the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah, DILCRAH, or both.
France is home to an extensive number of monuments and memorials dedicated to Holocaust victims thanks to its emphasis on preservation of and provision of access to sites. Many of the transit and concentration camps on French soil, such as Natzweiler-Struthof, Gurs, Les Milles, and Drancy, have memorial museums which not only preserve the original site of the camp, but also house artifacts and exhibitions. Local museums such as the Place of Memory in Chambon-sur-Lingon commemorate local efforts to save Jews or remember the Jews who were killed.
In 2012, the French government created a website to assist with finding memorials. Run by the Directorate of Memory, Heritage and Archives, it not only provides a tool to search for
museums, memorials, and other places of memory (Holocaust related and otherwise), it also compiles images and summaries of seminars, special commemorations, and exhibitions. The Directorate’s position as a part of the Ministry of Defense, and the official authority the Ministry exercised over memorial sites such as Drancy and Natzweiler-Struthof is a residual legacy of the Gaullist myth. Other national memorials include a plaque in the Pantheon honoring those who saved Jews, and a memorial wall at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris listing the names of those who were killed.
Extensive commemorations of Holocaust memory take place at various points throughout the year. Towns, local Jewish communities, and regional memorials, as well as national groups such as CRIF and the Memorial de la Shoah hold commemorations on relevant dates, such as April 29 in Marseille. The anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris on July 17 receives particular attention, as the President makes an annual speech. Most organizations and towns also hold commemoration ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27th.
France has strict laws against denying crimes against humanity and inciting racial animosity. The Gayssot Act, passed in 1990, makes it a crime to question either the existence or size of crimes against humanity. This legislation has been used to repeatedly prosecute and fine high-profile Holocaust deniers such as Robert Faurisson and Jean Marie le Pen. “The trials have been kind of a pedagogical process for French society.” says Gabrielle Rochman, noting that the attention that these trials drew provided a jumping off point for the Memorial de la Shoah’s teaching efforts.
France has pursued other options for preventing the spread of anti-Semitic and Holocaust
revisionist narratives. When Dieudonne, a comedian who’s been prosecuted nine times for hate speech and Holocaust denial, attempted to start a comedy tour, cities banned him from performing, a ban which has stood up to challenge in court. Ministers in the government have described these bans as battles for the Republic.
Before Jacques Chirac admitted French collaboration with Nazi efforts to round up French Jews, access was limited to archived information about Vichy, the operations of Vichy police, and other difficult parts of French history. Sona Combes wrote Archives Interdite (“Closed Archives”) in 1994, which essentially accused the French government of both underfunding it’s archival services and restricting access to any documents which could cause a scandal.
Since then, the French government has improved access, publishing a circular in 1997 affirming the duty of the government to maintain Holocaust memory. Most archives relating to the Holocaust and Vichy have either been digitized or are in the process of digitization. Many archives are either held or digitized by the Memorial de la Shoah, often in collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem.
Significant efforts are being made by the French government and by other institutions involved in the deportation of Jews to provide compensation. There is a compensation program for children of deported parents, compensation and restitution for looted property, and general pensions for those who were deported. SNCF, the national French railway operator, has also partnered with the United States in paying out nearly 60 million dollars to survivors and descendents of 76,000 Jews transported to concentration camps by SNCF.
Restitution of buildings, land and Jewish properties is ongoing. Approximately EUR351 million worth of heirless property has not been returned. It is compensated for by the EUR394 million endowment of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah.
The process of returning art and other valuables is complex. Large quantities of art have been returned, but legal battles continue to be fought between those who purchased the art without knowledge of its origin) and the descendents of their original owners. The CIVS, or Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from the Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation, has conducted extensive research as it attempts to restore stolen property to its proper heirs.
The main concerns affecting French Holocaust memory are in civil society.
On the one hand is the resurgence of the far-right and the emergence of the alt-right, with a deep history of Holocaust revisionism. On the other is the wave of anti-Semitic sentiment,
primarily among France’s Muslim communities. And finally, there are students, generally leftist, who don’t fit into either category. For them, he Israel-Palestine conflict and opposition to Israel/Zionism are catalysts for anti-Semitism and later Holocaust revisionism.
Holocaust memory is fading. Some 10 percent of 18 to 34 year olds and 20 percent of non-
Christian (effectively meaning Muslim) respondents of the same age. report never having heard about the Holocaust. A similar percentage of the population believe that Jews use the Holocaust as a tool to extract unfair advantages. Some believe that increased attention to the story of Jewish suffering crowds out the memory of the suffering of other groups.
The rise in Holocaust revisionism itself breaks down largely along lines of class and race. It
tends to be popular among the demographic who feel discriminated against and among
immigrant communities, who object to the apparent preferential treatment of Jews. Among minority communities, Holocaust revisionism is a “way of opposing white, Western domination,” and of taking aim at the sacred cows of French society. These sentiments help explain the continued popularity of the comedian Dieudonne, whose opposition of Holocaust memory led to an effort to ban his performances across France.
French organizations have begun working with DILCRA to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism under DILCRA’s 2015-2017 action plan. Many of these groups promote Holocaust memory not just at home, but in Eastern Europe. The Memoriale de la Shoah also provides training services to teachers throughout at least the Baltics, sometimes in partnership with Yad Vashem. Other organizations, such as Yahad-In Unum, focus on studying and collecting testimony about the “Holocaust by bullets,” or the killings which took place in East Europe prior to the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
The far-right National Front is most associated with pushing revisionist narratives of the
Holocaust. Its former leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, is a convicted Holocaust denier. Despite his daughter Marine Le Pen taking over the party and disavowing her father’s comments, she too has minimized the role of the France in the roundup and deportation of French Jews.
Rumblings of anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism are not limited to the National Front. During the 2017 presidential election, the traditional right-wing Republicans tweeted an anti-Semitic caricature of Emmanuel Macron, claiming a connection between Communism and Jews.
The left is not immune either. Strong anti-Zionist sentiment, common in particular among the far-left, often devolves into anti-Semitic and Holocaust revisionist ideas. A notable example of this progression is Dieudonne, a formerly anti-racist comedian and current anti-Zionist Holocaust revisionist.
French mainstream media treats the Holocaust with respect and sensitivity, be it the news, art, or entertainment. Just as there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the Holocaust, there are a myriad of movies and other programs. “There are so many projects on the Shoah now; there’s even programs about it on TV every week.” Each of these stories approaches the Holocaust from a slightly different perspective, from the romantic and artistic perspective of movies like Transit to the made-for-children perspective of Otto: The Autobiography of a Teddy Bear. The Internet is another story. Websites, such as Alain Soral’s Egalite et Reconciliation page, are major vectors of Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism.
The Jewish Community in France is about half a million strong, the third largest in the world after the United States and Israel. The majority live in Paris, while 70,000 live in Marseilles and the rest live in various other communities across the country.
A rise in anti-Semitic incidents, from the nationally covered shooting in a kosher supermarket in Paris or the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse to the hundreds of small acts of violence, intimidation, or general anti-Semitic remarks, have left the Jewish community feeling unsafe.
Members of the Jewish community were particularly alarmed by murder of Mireille Knoll, an elderly Holocaust survivor. Not only was her death brutal, but the fact that the murder took place in her home and in the context of rising anti-Semitism has driven many Jews to either abandon visual indications of Jewishness, such as the kippah. French Jews perceive threats from across the political spectrum: on the right is traditional French anti-Semitism, newly resurgent with the Front National, and on the left is a refusal to condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism from Muslim immigrants.
This fear builds on a long history of anti-Semitism, expressed most famously in the Dreyfus
affair and in allegations of Rothschild influence.
-Author: Justin Jin