Robert Fisk: My reservations about the French

Pétain sent his country's Jews to Auschwitz with an enthusiasm that surprised the Nazis
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The Independent Online

I still possess a 1930s photograph of a cosy old Beirut street, its Ottoman houses draped with flowers, an ageing Citroën just visible at the end of the cobbled roadway, trees shading the narrow pavements on each side. "Rue Pétain," it says on the caption. My old poilu - Dad - he of the third battle of the Somme - would teach me Pétain's pledge at Verdun. "Ils ne passeront pas." They shall not pass.

But of course, Pétain's patriotism in 1916 - his refusal to permit the Kaiser's army to advance beyond the Meuse - became France's shame in 1940. When it reached Beirut in 1941, the Anglo-Australian invasion force which drove Vichy France from Lebanon stripped Pétain's name from the wall of that Ottoman street and Bill Fisk thereafter spoke of him with ambiguity. Bill, like most Englishmen and women - and many, though by no means all, Frenchmen and women - could not forgive the man who collaborated with Hitler's Germany.

I'm reticent about the French for three reasons. Firstly, because some years ago, driven by a sense of outrage and dark curiosity, I attended a mass for the dead in central Paris. It was celebrated by an American priest and was held for - well, yes, Marshal Philippe Pétain. With a dear friend and colleague, I sat in the nave and watched more than 100 mostly elderly middle-class ladies and gentlemen - faces set and grave, sinister and secretive amid the darkness of the church - come to remember the leader of Vichy France who replaced Liberty, Equality and Fraternity with Work, Family and Homeland, and sent his country's Jews, along with thousands of foreign Jewish refugees, to Auschwitz with an enthusiasm that surprised even the Nazis.

Secondly, because I have just finished reading Irène Némirovsky's brilliant - no, let me speak frankly - transformative account of the Fall of France, Suite Française, a novel which was intended by its young Jewish author to be her modern-day version of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Suite Française is one of those rare books that you can put down at night and wake up dreaming about, desperate to discover if the revolting Monsieur Corbin reaches his bank in Tours after the flight from Paris, whether the courageous Michaud couple will survive the Nazi onslaught, or if the beautiful Cécile - her unfaithful, unloved husband a French prisoner-of-war - will succumb to the educated, sometimes childlike, sometimes desperately loving German officer billeted in her home.

Némirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a prominent banker, a refugee from the Russian Revolution, then a refugee from Paris in 1940 whose earlier novels were wildly successful but who could no longer be published under Nazi decrees. She fled Paris with her Jewish husband Michel Epstein to the village of Issy l'Evêque in the German-occupied zone, both marked out for extermination, but all the while writing in tiny, spider-like handwriting in small notebooks her epic of betrayal and heroism and the steady, sad slippage into collaboration which all occupied people must suffer. Her bank account is blocked. "You must know that if this money must be held in a blocked bank account," she pleads with her French publisher, "it would be of no use to me whatsoever."

Suite Française was to be composed of five books. Némirovsky completed only two - Storm in June (the 1940 flight from Paris) and Dolce, the first year of occupation in a small French village. Incredibly, the German soldiers living there are treated with a sensitivity bordering on gentleness, although with great cynicism. "Since the Germans (in the village) mistrusted their tendency to be tactless," Némirovsky writes, "they were particularly careful of what they said to the locals; they were therefore accused of being hypocrites."

There is a wonderful scene in which Lucille and her would-be German lover are viewed through the eyes of a little girl: "The German and the lady were talking quietly. He had turned white as a sheet too. Now and again, she could hear him holding back his loud voice, as if he wanted to shout or cry but didn't dare ... She vaguely thought he might be talking about his wife and the lady's husband. She heard him say several times: 'If you were happy...'"

After Hitler's invasion of Russia, the German unit in Némirovsky's village leaves for the Eastern front. "The men began singing, a grave, slow song that drifted away into the night. Soon the road was empty. All that remained of the German regiment was a little cloud of dust." This is Borodino-like in its magnificence, Tolstoyan indeed.

But Némirovsky did not complete her epic; three books are still unwritten although we have her notes for them. (Their titles were to be Captivity, Battles, Peace.) She was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in the atrocious Birkenau infirmary on 17 August 1942. Believing her still alive, her brave husband Michel appealed to her publishers for help, to the Red Cross, to the German ambassador to Paris, to Pétain himself. The direct result of his letter to the old man was his own arrest and dispatch to Auschwitz. He was sent straight to the gas chamber.

In all, 100,000 Jews were sent from France to the death camps, 20,000 through the transit camp at Drancy outside Paris, almost 2,000 of them children. Four hundred of these children were handed over by the French authorities. All this was recalled at the 14th Jewish Film Festival in Vienna this week when Thomas Draschen introduced his film Children's Memories. But imagine Mr Draschen's rage - and here is my third reason for reticence about the French - when he discovered that the French embassy in Vienna, which hosted the film's premiere, deleted the following sentence from its programme: "11,400 Jewish children from France were handed over to the Nazis by the French authorities and murdered at Auschwitz."

Why, in God's name, was this act of censorship permitted? President Jacques Chirac recognised in 1995 that the French state was responsible for the deportation of the Jews, but somehow the Quai d'Orsay seems to have missed out on this. Certainly the staff of the French Institute in Vienna didn't get the message. Should they be sent a complimentary copy of Némirovsky's agonisingly tragic novel? Or just an invitation to the next mass for the late Marshal Philippe Pétain of France?