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Rewriting Vichy after fifty years.

INTERPRETING the past is a task often reserved for professional historians. Major national anniversaries, however, allow the past to reappear in the present, unbalance accepted interpretations of the past, and put public opinion towards these interpretations on ice, often to the dismay of officialdom. Such is the case in 1992, as France attempts to come to terms with crimes committed under the Vichy government, and in particular with the wave of xenophobia, ensuing in round-ups and deportations of Jews fifty years ago in 1942.

The grounds for the present controversy were laid in April this year when the case of Paul Touvier, head of the Vichy militia in Lyon, was dismissed for apparent lack of evidence, much to the stupefaction of the French intellectual community. Other important Vichy officials, notably Rene Bousquet (Minister of Police) and Jean Leguay (co-organiser of the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up in 1942) have benefited from similar judicial laxity.

The latest event to trigger an explosion of opinions, regarding the present-day official moral stance to be taken towards the Vichy regime, occurred on 14th July, when President Mitterrand gave his ritual televised interview to the nation. Mitterrand denied as invalid the duty of the present French government to recognise officially the antisemitic persecutions carried out under Pitain, despite the fact that no Jews in France have yet been compensated for the events of 1942. |The Republic has always offered a helping hand to avoid segregations, especially racial segregations. Therefore, let us not ask the Republic for an explanation! In 1940, however, there was a French State, the regime of Vichy, which was not the Republic. So, naturally, I admit that we must ask for an explanation from the French State, and how could I not admit this?.. . This matter is still present in people's memories, but as far as the law is concerned, I can say that the Republic has done what it had to do'.

One cannot underestimate the importance of republican continuity for France's political stability, as the President's evocation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens of 1789 confirms, but the uncompromising dissociation of the |Republic' from the |French State' of Vichy, as if the latter were a mere interlude without relation to preceding and successive governments, is, according to French historians, an act of expedient rhetoric overlooking historical truth. Mitterrand's declaration not only repudiates the fact that the republican government autonomously elected the new Vichy government in 1940, but also that legislation concerning business administration and economic planning established under Petain continued unchecked after 1944 in the IVth Republic, and is still effective today. The Vichy government also |collaborated' zealously with racial and political exclusion laws well before receiving instructions from Germany. Arthur Koestler's autobiographical novel, Scum of the Earth (1941), for example, gives an eyewitness account of the first round-ups of political |indesirables' in France, as early as October 1940. Extensive documentation of autonomous action in France, prior to collaboration with the National Socialists, can be seen at an exhibition currently open at the Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation (CDJC) in Paris.

The desire to remove unpalatable periods of history, suggested in Mitterrand's speech, also serves to undervalue the memory of surviving victims and their families. It is for this reason that a number of these people and historians recently made an appeal to the French government for the official recognition of, and possible compensation for, Vichy crimes. As a consequence, the |Vel' d'Hiv' Committee '42' was set up to pursue this cause. They name themselves after the famous cycle velodrome, the Velodrome d'Hiver (destroyed in 1959) in Paris where, on 16th and 17th July 1942, 12,884 Jews, including 4,051 children, were rounded up and subsequently deported to internment camps at Drancy, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, then to Auschwitz. An operation which was then cheerfully coined |Operation Vent Printanier' (Operation Spring Breeze), characteristically twisting the truth. The indignation of the Vel' d'Hiv' Committee |42 was fuelled for a second time when President Mitterrand performed another brief symbolic gesture at the wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up.

Public opinion towards this event is, however, divided, even in Jewish circles. Jean Kahn, president of the Jewish Institutes of France, defends the purely symbolic nature of Mitterrand's gestures of sympathy as sufficient. Also Claude Lanzmann, author of the film Shoah, rejects the appeal of the Vel' d'Hiv' Committee '42 for the Republic's recognition of moral responsibility towards the acts of the |French State' as a |falsification of history'. A confession of direct accountability of the Republic for Vichy crimes would, indeed, undermine the role of the Resistance and the numerous retributive trials and executions of French collaborators undertaken in the aftermath of the Second World War. To interpret Vichy on the basis of present-day judicial laxity as displayed towards Touvier and Leguay alone would, of course, paint as partial and condemning a picture of France's responsibility towards its past, as the picture propounded by de Gaulle in 1944, prevalent until 1971 at the start of the Touvier affair, was partial in its unquestioning disregard of any collaboration with Nazi Germany whatsoever.

Mitterrand's speech in July echoes de Gaulle's position in 1944 by dismissing the shadow of Vichy as an illegitimate historical digression, as |nul and void'. In turn, both Kahn and Lanzmann agree with the President's refusal to recognise Vichy crimes officially on the grounds that, according to the President, |the Resistance, the de Gaulle government and the IVth Republic were founded on the rejection of the French State'. Mitterrand, like de Gaulle, denies any moral connection between past and present, therefore, because the present |post-liberation' society identifies itself in opposition to the Vichy predecessor, much as the former German Democratic Republic termed itself an |anti-fascist state' in order to obliterate distasteful remnants of the former society.

In the light of recent events in Eastern Europe, where previously unknown truths about the past are revealed, for example, in Stasi or KGB files, memories of past atrocities are surfacing, memories of the sort Mitterrand understandably intends to keep unofficial in France. Official recognition of Vichy crimes would be tantamount to over-riding the judiciary, for which Mitterrand reserves complete autonomy. |My function forbids me to express myself as freely as if I were in your place regarding certain decisions of this kind, because I must see to it that governmental powers are stable, and that the judiciary remains independent'. Stability, or |civil peace', as formulated by Georges Kiejman, Undersecretary of State Justice, is uppermost in the minds of representatives of the Republic.

One may ask, however, how long will the present civil peace persist? Mitterrand's silence at the wreath-laying ceremony on 16th July at the site of the Vilodrome d'Hiver, following his defiant speech of the 14th, was an act of diplomacy which only partially placated his public, as certain protesters, from the right-wing Zionist movement |Betar' and the anti-National Front group |Appel des 250 contre le Front national' had to be removed by the police.

At the heart of the debate which erupted in July over the Vel' d'Hiv' affair, which has continued throughout 1992 as successive incidents of 1942 were commemorated and mourned, lies France's legal system. The judiciary benefits from extensive autonomy, and has suffered dwindling credibility in recent years. The application of the clause of |imprescriptibility' (introduced into French law in 1964) to crimes against humanity, for example, effectively deems such criminals liable to prosecution as long as they are still alive, and explains in part why the German Klaus Barbie was convicted at such a late date in 1987. This clause does not, however, excuse the courts from apparently playing for time before sentencing similar French leaders also charged with crimes against humanity. The case of Touvier was opened in 1981, and dismissed on lack of evidence in 1992. The case of Leguay was opened in 1979 and drawn out inconclusively until Leguay's timely death in 1989. The case of Bousquet, opened in April 1991, also for his role in the Vel' d'Hiv' round-up, continues to date. Even less plausible to French historians is the fact that no French leader at Vichy has yet been found guilty of crimes against humanity -- perhaps, some say, because France has the unique task of putting itself on trial, unlike Germany, where crimes against humanity were first tried by the Allied military tribunal set up at Nuremberg in 1945.

It is unlikely that France will witness its own Nuremberg at this late date, or a |historians' debate' of the sort waged in West Germany in 1986, but Germany could certainly serve as a model for interpreting France's role in the Second World War. Tentative official political intervention in the legacy of Vichy, as demanded by the Vel' d'Hiv' Committee '42, would go beyond symbolic gesture and, perhaps, accelerate as yet unresolved legal cases, obtain compensation for Jewish victims, and acknowledge the pertinence of the past, today, and in the future.

Particularly significant for the present debate in France is the new attention accorded to the antisemitic laws of the French State. This explains in part the sensitivity of the Republic today towards this issue, and its reluctance to take sides in the interpretation of the past, for fear of jeopardising, civil peace. Indeed, the topic of racial persecution, now surfacing for the first time publicly on a major scale (see special edition of l'Express, 9th July), has naturally unearthed memories, and illustrated the vulnerability of the past to fluctuating historical interpretations, proposed retrospectively to edify ideological standpoints in the present.

Today's controversy, however, which aims in part to establish historical truth, in part to settle moral standpoints towards Vichy history, is falling victim to the very forms of commemoration commonly performed, Mitterrand's televised declaration, followed by the indignation of the Vel' d'Hiv' Committee '42, then the ceremony at the site of the Winter Velodrome itself, were public media events all bound to open wounds. Exhibitions currently open in Paris and at the sites of internment camps at Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, on the other hand, provide no source for spectacle. Likewise, round-ups in the unoccupied zone throughout August and September 1942 are providing no monumental occasion for commemoration or provoking speeches in 1992. The historical subject matter opened for investigation on the anniversary of the major round-up of 26th August, therefore, has been the policy of the French State and its architects, Petain and Laval. This policy was applied differently according to circumstances, and necessarily requires a pluralistic interpretation of events, as recent research by Serge Klarsfeld and Henri Rousso shows that deportations carried out under Petain were less acts of gratuitous antisemitism than a means of securing good relations with the National Socialists, and thus buying sovereignty for the unoccupied zone. Racial laws which, in 1940, had decreed Jews as a disruptive element in the nation state, were no longer applied as such in 1942, but exploited in order to barter with Germany for freedom from increased military intervention. According to Klarsfeld and Rousso, such diplomatic bargaining did lead to the deportation of thirty-three thousand (mostly foreign) Jews between July and September 1942, but also significantly contributed to the protection of the remaining three quarters of French Jews. On 2nd September, for example, Laval, under pressure from church authorities, refused to comply with Nazi demands for further mass deportations. In return, Himmler recognised the benefits of an internally stable Vichy government for continuing collaboration, and complied.

It is an irony of history that Petain, hero of the armistice of 1918, should also have instigated the Franco-German armistice of 1940 leading to collaboration. An irony too that, after all the speech-making and exhibiting in France this summer, President Mitterrand will commemorate Remembrance Day by not laying the traditional wreath at Petain's tomb, for the first time since 1987. Perhaps such non-action is a first step towards an official rewriting of the history of Vichy.

[Peter Carrier is a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Studies at the University of Paris.]
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Title Annotation:analyzing Vichy government's crimes against the Jews in France in 1942
Author:Carrier, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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