This Friday, for the first time, 16 July will become a date of national commemoration. The decision represents an about-turn by President Francois Mitterrand and puts an end to a long period of national amnesia. But it has come only after a great deal of controversy and struggle.
On 16 July 1942, when Paris was occupied by the Germans, 4,500 French police began a large-scale operation to round up Jews living in five arrondissements of the city. Their names and addresses were in a giant dossier that had been compiled by the Prefecture of Police. They were arrested and driven off in scores of innocent-looking green- and-white municipal buses and deposited in an indoor sports centre, the Velodrome d'Hiver. Over two days 13,152 were arrested, of whom 5,919 were women and 4,115 were children. After some days of negotiations between the Paris police and the Germans, both in Paris and in Berlin (during which conditions in the Vel d'Hiv, as it was called, deteriorated severely), they were dispatched to transit camps.
At two camps, 150 kilometres from Paris, 2,000 mothers were forcibly separated from their children by French gendarmes. The children followed 10 days later. All suffered the same destiny: the gas chambers, mainly in Auschwitz. Perhaps 3 per cent survived.
This was the most dramatic and tragic action of French authorities against the Jews, especially those who were deemed to be of foreign origin. But it was not an isolated event. There were laws discriminating against the Jews in many ways, and there were other occasions when Jews were arrested and dispatched, by the French, to the German death camps.
When the Liberation came, however, very little mention was made of this. The legend was widely accepted that the French police had been forced to act under German orders. In any case the French public did not want to hear about victims. They wanted to hear about the heroes of the Resistance or the triumphs of Gaullism. The vast card index that had been the source of the police intelligence on which the Vel d'Hiv operation was based, together with 150 bags of documents relating to Jews in the Paris region, were destroyed in 1948 and 1949. The old Vel d'Hiv building was pulled down. Successive French governments hoped that they had heard the last of the affair, and it was not until 1986 that the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, unveiled a commemorative plaque on the site.
But two issues persisted. One was that of justice; the other was that of memory. In terms of justice it had been known for a long time that Rene Bousquet, the chief of police in Marshal Petain's collaborationist Vichy government from April 1942 to December 1943, was directly responsible for the Vel d'Hiv atrocities. A document had been produced before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in June 1946 by Edgar Faure, the assistant prosecutor representing France and a future prime minister. It revealed something of the enthusiastic collaboration between Bousquet and the Germans. But when Bousquet was tried in 1949, virtually no accusations were made against him. France's most important newspaper, Le Monde, devoted five lines to the French police's participation in genocide and simply reported Bousquet's denials.
From the late Seventies evidence accumulated showing the complicity of the French authorities in general, and of Bousquet in particular, in the persecution of Jews, but no government took action, and although from 1978 Bousquet was obliged to abandon his career as a businessman, banker and newspaper publisher, he nevertheless lived a comfortable and free life in Paris. He was, after the mock trial of 1949, never tried again.
The other issue was that of memory. Should French history be fragmented, commemorating only the Austerlitz days and the moments of triumph? Were the days of shame to be forgotten? Before the 50th anniversary of 16 July 1942 last year a number of organisations asked that the government should recognise the French state's responsibility for this terrible act. Mr Mitterrand refused. In his annual address to the nation on 14 July he said France was not responsible for the acts of the Vichy regime. Nevertheless, on 16 July he went to the site of the Vel d'Hiv (on the corner of the Rue Delaton and the Boulevard de Grenell) and laid a wreath. Thirty or so young people spoilt the ceremony with booing and whistling. Did this mean they had no regrets for what had happened 50 years earlier? Some said it showed how recalling the divisions of the past would create divisions in the present. But others said the boos and the whistling were directed at Mr Mitterrand himself, who was then very unpopular.
Pressure continued. It was suggested that Mr Mitterrand should make some gesture comparable to that of Willy Brandt falling to his knees at Auschwitz. But the French President stated that the situation was different. Brandt was acting on behalf of the German nation. What Vichy had done, he claimed, had not been done in the name of the French nation. Vichy had to be treated as a parenthesis in French history. When, in October 1992, a Socialist deputy proposed that 16 July should be a day of national commemoration, this was rejected.
On 11 November Mr Mitterrand continued the tradition of having an Armistice Day wreath laid on Petain's grave. But so great was the controversy that it was done at night, with maximum furtiveness. It was not possible, people said, for the President to have attended a ceremony on 16 July and also to honour the man who was the head of the French state at the time, the man who had authorised the persecution of Jews.
Allegations were made that Mr Mitterrand, who had for a time worked as an official in the Vichy government, was a friend of Bousquet, whose Toulouse-based newspaper had enthusiastically supported him in his electoral campaign against De Gaulle in 1956. More important, perhaps, it was becoming increasingly clear that young people wanted to know what had really happened in the dark years of defeat and occupation. Amnesia was no longer acceptable. The ghosts of the past had to be faced.
The result was the decree of 4 February and the recognition of 16 July as a national day. But French history never stops. On 8 June Bousquet was assassinated. A lunatic, desperate to appear on television, accomplished what French justice failed to do. And just before French historians prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Council of the Resistance, and the death at the hands of the Gestapo of Jean Moulin, the Resistance hero, a book appeared alleging that Moulin was a Soviet agent. Was Vichy really France? Was the Resistance movement controlled by Moscow? As De Gaulle said, France is overwhelmed by its history.
The writer is Emeritus Professor of French History at London University.
Bryan Appleyard is away.
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