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)

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone