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)