Vichy skeletons stay firmly locked in the cupboard: France has still not come to terms with war-time collaboration, Julian Nundy reports from Vichy

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The Independent Online
A PLAQUE in the opera house recalls that, when the building served as the French parliament during the Nazi occupation, 80 members voted against giving Philippe Petain full powers to rule. The plaque, however, omits to mention the 569 who voted in favour on that fateful day - 10 July 1940.

It sums up much of France's attitude towards that painful period in the nation's history: resistance is glorified but the greater phenomenon of collaboration is swept under the carpet. This has been encouraged by politicians, particularly De Gaulle who sought to reassure his citizens by stressing the brave.

Today is the 41st anniversary of the death of Marshal Petain. It is an occasion when those nostalgic for his values of 'Work, Family, Country' lay wreaths on his grave or opposite his apartment in the old Hotel du Parc in Vichy. In Paris, a requiem Mass is being held in a church in the seventh arrondissement, another on the Ile d'Yeu where he died under house arrest.

This year, the anniversary falls as the debate about confronting the past has flared, with calls for President Francois Mitterrand to make some acknowledgement that the Vichy government was not some Good-Soldier-Svejk regime, desultorily obeying orders, but a dynamic participant in the deportation of Jews to their deaths.

This came to a head last Thursday when Mr Mitterrand, who has refused to make a new gesture acknowledging state responsibility, was jeered by young Zionists at a ceremony in Paris marking the 50th anniversary of the first big roundup of Jews in the capital.

Mr Mitterrand's basic argument is that the Vichy government of Petain and his prime minister, Pierre Laval, was an aberration and has no relation to the legitimate structures of the republic that replaced it. The Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld said, however, that the President promised him this week that the presidency would no longer send a wreath to Petain's grave on 11 November, a regular tribute to Petain's heroic role in the First World War.

The debate has taken a new turn because of the decision by three French judges in March that Paul Touvier, the main French assistant in war-time Lyons of the Nazi police chief, Klaus Barbie, should not be charged with crimes against humanity. While that decision, based largely on the premise that his actions were isolated incidents of cruelty and not based on any policy, is being appealed, it has caused a furore that shows no signs of dying down.

'There were these three judges giving a moral lesson to the whole of France,' says Jean Marboeuf, who is on location in Vichy directing the film Petain, due to be released next February. 'All French judges except one swore allegiance to the Marshal.' Mr Marboeuf says Petain was a man 'without much personality from a Catholic, anti-Semitic, military background'.

These words reflect a sentiment expressed frequently: that there is a segment of the French who are prejudiced and xenophobic, that this strain has always existed through the Dreyfus affair to this day. Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front is usually credited with wearing its modern mantle.

A new book about the National Front, The Threatened Republic, by two Le Monde journalists, Edwy Plenel and Alain Rollat, says the rise of the anti- immigration Front is the price paid for not confronting France's past. 'Gaullist and Communist memories fed each other to construct a legend: the refusal to confront a France that was above all collaborationist and Petainist,' they say.

In the streets of modern Vichy, Isabelle Pajot, a young student, leads groups of tourists on a walking tour of the sights of the 1940-44 Vichy government. The spa town was chosen as the capital of collaborationist France because its tourist structures meant it could easily accommodate the 120,000 civil servants and diplomats accompanying the government, while its brand- new telephone exchange gave it excellent communications.

On occasion, Miss Pajot says, she can identify those who are Petain sympathisers. 'They only want to hear certain answers,' she says. 'Recently, there were some neo-Nazis in the group. They gave the Nazi salute.'

For Mr Marboeuf, Mr Mitterrand's reluctance to speak out about Vichy stems from the fact that 'a statesman finds it hard to admit that the state is fallible. And this would put the judges, the police, the military and the civil service all in a bad light.'

(Photograph omitted)