On the eve of "Holocaust Day" ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the French government announced that it was setting up an inquiry into the origins of hundreds of artworks now in museums and believed to have been stolen from French Jews by the collaborationist Vichy regime.
The works, now exhibited or stored in the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, and other museums, include paintings by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and sculptures by Rodin.
The Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, announced at the weekend that he is setting up a committee of inquiry into the origins, and the legal status, of billions of francs worth of property pillaged from French Jews during the war. Much of this property, including real estate and businesses, as well as works of art, was never returned.
It was already known, or suspected, that some of the art ended up in museums owned by the French state or large cities. But the sheer size and quality of the collection, once owned by wealthy French-Jewish families, was exposed by an internal government inquiry, completed two years ago.
The results of the investigation, by the Cour des Comptes - the French audit office - was made public for the first time by the newspaper Le Monde yesterday.
The investigators are sharply critical of both the French state and individual museum curators, for making feeble attempts to identify the true owners, or their heirs, and for failing to state clearly the origins of the works. Only the Musee d'Orsay was prepared to admit that it possessed masterpieces such as Gauguins and Monets which belonged to Jewish families, deported or stripped of their property, by the pro-Nazi Vichy government. Others failed to respond to the auditors' questions or claimed the works they possessed were of minor value.
Evidence has also emerged in recent months that several French cities, including Paris, still own large numbers of apartments and other real estate stolen by the Vichy regime as part of a systematic effort to obliterate Jewish influence and culture in France.
The new committee of investigation set up by Mr Juppe follows years of pressure by the French Jewish community. Speaking to the main umbrella body for Jewish organisations at the weekend, the Prime Minister said that such an investigation was "not just a moral gesture but a national duty". For half a century after the end of the war, the part of the Vichy authorities in the identification and deportation of French Jews was an officially forbidden subject. To his great credit, President Jacques Chirac abruptly changed all that in July 1995, when he formally admitted the responsibility of the French state.
The Chirac-Juppe government has also vigorously pursued legal charges against Maurice Papon, a budget minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s, accused of organising the arrest of Jews while he was the Vichy police chief in Bordeaux. His trial is due to begin in May.
There were 300,000 Jews living in France in 1940. All were stripped of their property when Marshal Petain seized power with Germany's help. Over 70,000 were deported to concentration camps in Germany and Eastern Europe, mostly never to return. After the war, 61,000 works of art pillaged from Jews and other Nazi victims were gathered at Compiegne and 45,000 were successfully re-claimed. Most of the rest were sold off but 1,955 of the better works of art were given to museums.
The Cour des Comptes accuses the French authorities of that time of failing adequately to publicise the existence of this treasure trove and failing to draw up a proper inventory.
t Zurich - Switzerland's ambassador to the United States resigned yesterday after a document he wrote calling for "waging war" against Jewish groups and other vocal critics was leaked to the press, triggering uproar, Reuter reports.
The SonntagsZeitung said that the document came from a confidential strategy paper which the ambassador, Carlo Jagmetti, had sent to Berne last and month and which dealt with the dispute over dormant accounts in Swiss banks of Second World War Holocaust victims.
"This is a war that Switzerland must wage and win on the foreign and domestic front," said the document."You cannot trust most of the adversaries," it added. SonntagsZeitung said that the "adversaries" to whom Mr Jagmetti referred were Jewish groups and the US senator Alfonse D'Amato, who have accused the Swiss of profiting cynically from the war and who are seeking compensation for Holocaust victims.Reuse content