But a memorial last night at the site of the tragedy was marred when the crowd jeered President Francois Mitterrand, who is under fire for not using the occasion to recognise officially that the Vichy government initiated measures against Jews and did not merely follow German orders.
Robert Badinter, the president of the Constitutional Council, a long-time friend of the President and a Jew, shook with anger as he rose to speak. 'You made me ashamed]' he shouted, repeating the phrase several times. 'The dead hear you]' He was loudly applauded.
The incident was the most striking demonstration of the controversy that always flares when France recalls its painful war-time history. The Vel d'Hiv was a French police operation carried out with initiative and efficiency, going beyond the demands of the occupying power.
Yesterday morning, demonstrators gathered outside the Paris home of Rene Bousquet, the chief of police under Vichy, who organised the raids on the homes of the Jews. They were all non-French, many refugees from Nazism. Mr Bousquet, 82, has been charged with crimes against humanity but is at liberty awaiting trial. The demonstrators tried to fix a plaque to his building, announcing that he lives there.
Although the Germans wanted the arrests to begin, it was Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister, who offered children under 16. Of 41,951 Jews deported from France in 1942 alone, only 811 survived until the end of the war.
A month ago, a letter signed by French intellectuals called on Mr Mitterrand to 'recognise officially that the French Vichy state is responsible for persecution and crimes against Jews'. On Tuesday, in his annual Bastille Day television interview, Mr Mitterrand said that a clear distinction had to be made between Vichy and the post-war state. 'In 1940, there was a French state, this was the Vichy regime, it was not the Republic,' he said.
The President's response, however, served only to keep the controversy simmering. 'We knew the State was dumb, now we discover it is deaf,' was the reaction from the Vel d'Hiv 42 Committee, which launched the appeal. 'Neither the laying of a wreath, nor the sentencing of individuals can replace a political gesture committing the whole nation.'
The most bitter reaction came from the Jewish historian and lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, who, with his German wife Beate, hunted down Klaus Barbie in Bolivia. He said Mr Mitterrand was 'faithful to himself. He was in Vichy before he was in the Resistance. For him, Vichy was just a parenthesis'. Mr Mitterrand was a civil servant for Vichy, as were a number of Frenchmen who also joined the Resistance.Reuse content