Addressing anti-Semitism, part of France's forgotten history
President Francois Hollande visited the site of the largest deportation of Jews from Western Europe during the Holocaust, a sign that France is finally recognizing that collaboration as well as heroism is part of its wartime history.
French President Francois Hollande's decision to speak last week at a commemoration of the single worst deportation of Jews in Western Europe during World War II is an important step toward addressing European anti-Semitism.
On an early morning in July 1942, 13,000 Jews were awakened in their Parisian homes by French gendarmes, or soldiers. They were pushed into buses and trucks and taken to one of the most popular sporting stadiums in France. Located in the heart of working class Paris, the Vél d’Hiv was the cathedral for France’s most passionate sport – cycling.
The Jews were left in the stands of this revered velodrome to swelter in the summer heat. The glass roof had been painted dark blue as part of black-out procedures, and the windows were shut tight. A single tap provided water for the victims. Children were separated from their parents. The whole operation was carried out with scarcely a German uniform in sight.
This was French anti-Semitism organized as state action by French civil servants, police officials and other public functionaries. The Jews were later taken to German extermination camps on Polish soil. But the historic importance of Vél d’Hiv is that the horrible sequence of hatred was initiated by French citizens in the name of France.
And that is why it was obliterated from official French history for decades and why Hollande’s decision, early in his presidency, to speak about the duty to remember Vél d’Hiv is so important. A recent survey showed that 60 percent of 18 to 24 year olds in France have never heard of the Vél d’Hiv mass round-up of Jews.
Of all Western European countries, France remains the one where the gravest anti-Semitic incidents take place. It is also a country where the dominant intelligentsia prefer to find any word other than "anti-Semitism" to describe the Jew-hate that remains alive and active there. A key object of these anti-Semitism deniers is to devalue, downgrade and diminish the detention, deportation and deaths of French Jews.
Jean-Marie Le Pen – still the dominant figure of the xenophobic right in France – famously dismissed the Holocaust as a “detail.” The concept of Holocaust denial or 'negationisme,' as it is called in French, was first developed as both history and ideology by French intellectuals in the 1950s.
For Israel-haters, it is important to convert the Jews from victims of European anti-Semitism into occupiers and oppressors. For the anti-Israel lobby – which has a powerful presence in European and British politics, media and intellectual life – the less people know about the history of anti-Semitism, the better.
Unfortunately, the battle over the memory of Vél d’Hiv was largely won long ago. After 1945, French political leaders simply erased the event from the national political discourse.
Although the velodrome was owned by the man who organized the Tour de France, the Tour has refused to hold a memorial for the 70th anniversary – just as British political leaders refuse to pressure the Olympic Games organizers to commemorate the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics 40 years ago.
For General Charles de Gaulle – with his open contempt for Jews as “a cocky and domineering people” – it was vital to claim that he alone represented the authentic French state from his London exile after 1940. According to Gaullist history, the actions of the French government based in Vichy were illegitimate and the French Fourth and Fifth Republics that came into being in 1945 and 1958 had no responsibility for what was done by the French state between June 1940 and the Liberation four years later.
Successive French presidents maintained this convenient fiction. Instead of facing the truth that in every occupied nation, local police officers and town hall officials took part in stealing Jewish goods and property and helping Nazis deport Jews to death camps, the fate of the Jews after 1940 was blamed wholly on an external malign evil. Some Polish and Baltic politicians perpetuate this view today.
In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac, who refused all political contact with Le Pen's National Front party, became the first French president to visit Vél d’Hiv. He broke a taboo by declaring that the roundup of Jews had been conducted by fellow French citizens in the name of decrees handed down by the government of the day.
Now Hollande – whose government probably has more French Jews as senior ministers than any European government in history – has declared his and France’s solidarity with the victims of the Vél d’Hiv. His visit and the extensive media coverage it received in France is part of the continuing process of informing people about European history and the dangers of bigotry toward a racially or religiously defined minority.
Anti-Semitism deniers were silent in France last week. But they will be back.
Meanwhile, the Vél d’Hiv was knocked down after a fire in 1959. On the site now stand offices of the French Interior Ministry, whose officials organized the roundup of Jews 70 years ago.
Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham, and a former Europe Minister in the British government.