France's Jews give mixed response to late admission of guilt

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To leaders of the French Jewish community, who have sought a similar statement for years, the church's apology was welcome, even courageous.

Henri Hadjenburg, president of the Council of Jewish Institutions, said that such an admission of responsibility was valuable, even after half a century. "If the seriousness of the error is not admitted, everything becomes possible," he said. "The same circumstances might arise today and no one would do anything about it."

The response of ordinary people in the old Jewish quarter of Paris was more wary, even cynical. "Apologies are fine," said one passer-by. "But during the war, the Church, like 99 per cent of French people was anti- Semitic, apart from a few exceptions which confirm the rule. If they are apologising now it's because public opinion has changed. They are going with the flow. You might have hoped they would lead."

Was the bulk of France anti-Semitic during the war? It is true that the vast majority of government officials went along with the laws and proclamations removing the civil rights of Jews. It is true that very few church men, or civilians, protested openly about the round-up and deportation of 76,000 Jews in 1942-44. The arrests, in the first year, were carried out almost exclusively by French police on the orders of French officials. The Vichy authorities managed, at first, to win exemption for Jews of French nationality but even this was lifted later.

None the less, many thousands of French people did risk their lives to hide Jews and to help them to escape. The 80,000 Jews who died - including those who died of cold and hunger in French-run detention camps in France - represented about one quarter of the pre-war community of French Jews and exiled Jews. This figure is horrific enough.

But the persecution was not carried out as thoroughly in France as in other countries, where it was directly administered by the German occupiers. Partly this was because the Vichy authorities became markedly less efficient in arresting Jews in 1943-44, when Germany started to lose the war. By 1944, the SS was forced to take over because it was disappointed with the flow of Jews to Poland. For whatever reason _ luck, help from their neighbours, administrative foot-dragging - about 175,000 Jews remained in France throughout the war.

The country's Jewish community has grown enormously in the last 50 years, swollen by emigration from eastern Europe and former French colonies in North Africa.

There are now 600,000 Jews in France, almost double the population of 1939, making the French community the largest in Western Europe and one of the largest in the world.

Although anti-Semitism certainly persists Jews are present and successful in almost all areas of French society.

Several members of the present government are of Jewish origin, including the economy minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.