Paris, 1942: La vie en rose

A new exhibition of colourful images depicting everyday life under Nazi occupation in the French capital has been attacked as a historical whitewash. John Lichfield reports

It is a beautiful sunny day on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The golden dome of Les Invalides glitters in the distance. A smartly dressed woman in a straw hat waits to cross the road.

The picture might have been taken yesterday, except for two or three things. There are the fashions and the absence of cars. And, oh yes, there is the off-duty member of the occupying Nazi hordes, who is also, patiently, waiting his turn to cross.

This is, in fact, the summer of 1942, near the mid-point of the Nazi occupation of the French capital. It is among 270 photographs – part of the only collection of colour images of its kind – taken in wartime Paris by a collaborationist French photographer. The images, mostly never seen in public before, are on show at the Paris city hall history library until 1 July.

The photographs portray, for the most part, a remarkably familiar city, calm, chic, content and pleasure and fashion-loving. The exhibition has stirred discontent and unease in Paris, precisely because it shows Parisians being Parisians, and getting on with life, under the Nazi heel. They sit at sunny café terraces on the Champs Elysées. They self-consciously wear their newly fashionable dark glasses with white rims. They fish in the river Seine. They go shopping.

The city hall took the unusual step this week of issuing a historical health-warning with each ticket to the exhibition. The leaflet points out that the photographer, André Zucca, worked during the war for the pro-Nazi magazine Signal. The leaflet states that his work "chooses to show nothing, or little, of the reality of Occupation and its terrible consequences".

There are two pictures of Jews with the yellow stars French law decreed they had to wear in public. There is an eerie photograph of the beautiful sweep of the colonnade of the Rue de Rivoli, looking just as it does today except for the proud jumble of red, white and black swastika flags.

But on the whole, the exhibition makes Paris under Nazi occupation seem like a pleasant enough sort of place. There are few cars. Nazi propaganda posters, swastikas and strutting officers in German uniform occasionally intrude. Otherwise, people chat gaily at terrace cafés; children roller-skate and watch puppet shows; lovers sit beside the Seine.

The assistant mayor of Paris for cultural affairs, Christopher Girard, said yesterday that he found the exhibition "embarrassing, ambiguous ... and badly explained", and this was why the town hall had printed leaflets at the last moment, explaining that the Zucca photographs – although an important historical record – give a deliberately distorted image of Paris under the Nazi occupation.

Is the exhibition so misleading? Is it so shocking that most Parisians, with relatively few Jews and few active members of the Resistance, simply kept on being Parisians between June 1940 and August 1944? The notion that the French capital suffered terribly under the Nazi yoke was first fostered by General Charles de Gaulle on 25 August 1944, the day the city was liberated by French and American tanks. In an impromptu speech in front of the city hall, with German and collaborationist snipers still active on the rooftops, he paid tribute to "Paris outragée! Paris brisée! Paris martyrisée!" (Paris ravished! Paris smashed! Paris martyrised!) In truth, as the historian Jean-Pierre Azéema points out in the book which goes with the exhibition, Paris was deliberately treated with kid gloves by the Nazi propaganda machine.

In 1940, Adolf Hitler had intended to flatten the city but he changed his mind. His propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, ordered as early as July of that year that the conquered French capital should be encouraged to be "animated and gay" so that life under the Nazis would appear attractive to Americans and other neutrals.

The philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, in an essay in 1945, took issue with his fellow Parisians who were already portraying the Nazi occupation as a prolonged misery. "Let's get rid of the simplistic images," he wrote. "No, of course, the Germans weren't running up and down the streets all the time with guns in their hands ..." The most troubling thing for most wartime Parisians, Sartre said, was a sense of "bad conscience" that they were not doing more to resist the occupiers.

There is also a telling passage in the exhibition book, written by its curator, the documentary film-maker, Jean Baronnet. Recalling his own experiences as a boy in wartime Paris, M. Baronnet remembers seeing the leader of the collaborationist, Vichy regime, Marshal Philippe Pétain, driving through Paris in an open-topped Renault. "I noticed how pink his face was and how white was his moustache. At the windows and on the pavements, people applauded and shouted "Vive le Maréchal".

That was in May 1944, a month before D-Day, and three months before Paris was liberated to scenes of immense joy. All too French or all too Parisian? No, all too human. General de Gaulle fomented the myth after the war that all French people were either collaborators or résistants. In truth, of course, 90 per cent were neither.

Zucca was able to get hold of German Agfa colour film, and take pictures freely in the streets, because he was a collaborator. He was not necessarily a Nazi sympathiser. He is described by his family as a right-wing libertarian. He had been a globe-trotting photographer for Paris Match before the war.

After the liberation, an attempt was made to prosecute him but the charges were dropped. He sank into anonymity as a camera shop owner in the provinces.

His colour negatives, faded and scratched over the years, have been wonderfully restored and cleaned for the exhibition. They have been converted into digital form, at 5,000 by 3,300 pixels, using a technique developed (irony of sorts) by a German company. The colours have been sharpened and adjusted to what is believed to be close to their original values. Zucca seems to have taken the pictures for his own interest and amusement. They were not commissioned, or published, by his Nazi employers.

The leaflet handed out by the city hall suggests that Zucca, as a collaborator, deliberately set out to ignore the harsher side of wartime life in Paris. It is more likely that he just photographed what he saw.

French myths, and "bad conscience", about the war die hard. Hence the edginess about an exhibition which suggests that ordinary Parisians led relatively ordinary lives under Nazi rule.

If anything, the exhibition should be praised for portraying an awkward, but important, historical truth. There is a kind of courage in even the most banal and contented photographs in the exhibition. The determination of Parisians to be themselves, to get on with their lives, was, itself, a kind of resistance to Nazism.

The exhibition is open every day except Mondays, from 11am to 7pm, at the Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, 22 Rue Mahler in the 4th arrondissement (Metro - Saint Paul)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'