John Lichfield: France still can't confront its wartime self

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The Independent Online

A decade ago, when I was new to France, I met a frail, former wartime resistance leader in the Auvergne. What he said about the war shocked me, although it should probably not have done.

"We knew the people who were on our side, or we thought that we did. We also knew who the active collaborators were. They were our enemy and we respected them, even if we regarded them as traitors. The people who really scared us were all the rest, maybe nine people out of 10. At any given moment, you could never be certain which side they were on."

France is in one of its periodic flusters about the 1939-45 war. After 63 years, the subject of who did what under the Nazi occupation is still capable of throwing the country into a fit of anger, posturing and recrimination. One man is principally to blame for France's apparent difficulty in looking its wartime self in the face: the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century, Charles de Gaulle.

By an act of supreme personal will and realpolitik, De Gaulle created in 1945 the myth of a martyrised, unbending France, betrayed by a minority of traitors. The truth, as he knew better than anyone, was much more opaque and much more human.

In the past few days, two attempts to face up to the complex, myth-defying realities of the occupation have stirred great controversy in the supposedly brash, new, forward-looking France of President Nicolas Sarkozy. A docudrama shown on French television this week revisited the sinuous and contradictory war record of the late President François Mitterrand. And a much-criticised exhibition in Paris has revealed to the general public a host of almost unknown, unique, colour photographs of the French capital under German rule between June 1940 and August 1944.

Mitterrand, as a book by Pierre Péan revealed, or recalled, while he was still in office in 1994, worked as a senior official in the collaborationist Vichy administration. He later became a daring and hunted leader of the anti-Nazi resistance. Until deep into his second term in the early 1990s, the Socialist president maintained personal friendships with former Vichy figures. They included the police chief, René Bousquet, who was responsible for the eager and officious arrest of thousands of French and "foreign" Jews.

The disputed photo exhibition at the Paris town hall history library shows more than 200 colour shots taken in the streets of the occupied capital by a collaborationist photographer, André Zucca. Far from showing Paris agonising under the Nazi heel, the images portray a remarkably familiar city: calm, chic and pleasure-loving, getting on with life as best as it can. The assistant mayor of Paris for cultural affairs, Christopher Girard, has been campaigning to have the exhibition – due to run until 1 July – cut short. The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has, to his credit, refused to do so.

He has agreed, however, that the allegedly "provocative" posters for the exhibition which had blanketed the capital should be removed. The offending poster showed nothing more shocking than well-dressed, contented-looking Parisians swarming around a Métro entrance. Among them, there walks a rather innocent-looking soldier in a German uniform.

M. Girard, the assistant mayor of Paris, says that the Zucca photographs, beautifully restored, are selective and misleading. Why no pictures of food queues? Why no pictures of round-ups of Jews? In truth, the exhibition shocks largely because it reveals an inconvenient, but very human, truth. Nine tenths of Parisians, including Edith Piaf, including Jean-Paul Sartre, spent the war being Parisians. Is this really so shameful? Would any other nation have acted differently?

The TV docudrama gave a balanced and rather sympathetic portrait of Mitterrand's wartime vacillations. His support for Marshal Philippe Pétain and Vichy was, after all, shared by most French people in 1940-2. Relatively few were courageous enough to join the Resistance in 1942-4 as he did. The programme was nonetheless attacked in advance by his widow, Danièle Mitterrand.

Much more disturbing was the discussion programme which followed. It included large extracts from an interview given by Mitterrand in 1994, just after the Vichy "revelations" in M. Péan's book. Why, the president was asked, did he maintain a friendship with Bousquet, the Vichy Jew-hunter, until the ex-police chief was finally arrested and then assassinated in 1993? Mitterrand shrugged. "He was a very interesting man," he said.

There was something chilling about that response. Mitterrand's mistaken or courageous choices as a young man confronted with difficult choices in a difficult time are not especially damning. What is startling is that, in 1994, the Socialist president should still have dismissed so lightly the importance of Vichy's contribution to the attempted genocide of Jews.

Mitterrand detested De Gaulle but, until the end of his life, he clung to the official Gaullist version of history. The war in France was a Franco-German and Franco-French affair in which the Holocaust – to use Jean-Marie Le Pen's odious word – was just a "detail". (M. Le Pen, who has already been fined for using this expression, used it again this week. He remains an unrepentant Vichy apologist.)

President Jacques Chirac – to his great credit – made a speech soon after he replaced Mitterrand in 1995 admitting the role of the French state in rounding up Jews. It took official France half a century to face its past. It should also be recalled, however, that thanks to the courage of thousands of French people, proportionally more Jews survived the war in France than in most other occupied countries.

President Sarkozy is the first post-war French president not to remember the war. His record on this issue is, as with many other issues, contradictory and puzzling. He has let it be known that he believes that Chirac's 1995 official apology was a mistake. He has sought to increase knowledge of the Holocaust among French children. At the same time, he has tried to revive a kind of Hollywoodised version of his political hero De Gaulle's selective wartime French history.

Why? And why all the fuss about the photo exhibition? My impression, as an outsider, is that the younger generations of French people have long since acknowledged the muddy truth about 1940-44. They, at least, are ready to move on.