"We are gathered here today to remember the horror of a crime, express the sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy and recall the dark hours of collaboration, our history, and therefore the responsibility of France."
These were the opening words of French President Francois Hollande's speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv roundup - the arrest by French police in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942, of over 13,000 Jews, who were first held in the Winter Velodrome and then sent to Auschwitz.
To those unacquainted with France's post-World War II history, the presidential acknowledgment of the state's responsibility for the deportation of Jews under the Vichy regime may not come across as breaking news, given the fact that Germany itself has been steeped in repentance for decades. But officially recognizing that Vichy, under Nazi occupation, was, for all intents and purposes, the sole entity representing the French Republic and that therefore the state itself was responsible for delivering some 76,000 Jews into Nazi hands hasn't been an easy task for France's leaders.
Immediately after the war, Charles de Gaulle forged the myth that between 1940 and 1944, France - the authentic, legitimate France - had been based in London, where the French Resistance, led by de Gaulle himself, was coordinating anti-Nazi operations that were carried out on French soil. In the 1980s, Francois Mitterrand, Hollande's predecessor as (the only other ) socialist president under the current constitution, who also happened to be a civil servant in the collaborationist government in the first few years of Nazi occupation, staunchly denied on several occasions that the French state had had anything to do with the deportation of Jews.
From de Gaulle to Mitterrand, the dominant narrative about occupied France portrayed the Vichy regime as a bunch of hoodlums who had seized power and collaborated with the Nazis for their own benefit, while the bulk of the French population had supported and to a great extent participated in the Resistance effort.
It took 50 years for the responsibility of France as a state to be formally recognized. In 1995, right-wing president Jacques Chirac caused a commotion among Gaullist leaders when he said, in his speech on the Vel d'Hiv roundup anniversary, that "France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, committed on that day an irreversible crime: Betraying its promise, it delivered those it should have protected to their executioners."
Hollande's choice to reaffirm the stance taken by a predecessor from the opposite political camp rather than follow in Mitterrand's footsteps also created a stir. A former Sarkozy adviser said he was outraged by the portrayal of France that had emerged from Hollande's speech. The Vel d'Hiv roundup was a horrible event, but "France had nothing to do with it," he retorted.
The fact is that Hollande went further than Chirac. He emphasized the need to tell the truth - that the Vel d'Hiv arrests had been carried out by French police only, that "not a single German soldier had been mobilized for the operation." Referring to a recent survey, Hollande also noted that two French teenagers in three today have no knowledge of the Vel d'Hiv roundup, and he stressed the critical role of the school system in passing on to future generations the memory of what had been done to the Jews. "There mustn't be a single school in France," he added, "where that history can't be taught. I will see to that personally." Finally, he pledged that the French Republic would make every effort to combat every single anti-Semitic act or statement.
These commendable words, however, come at a moment when even a president's best intentions may not suffice to reverse an alarming trend that has been developing in the past few months. Expressions of anti-Semitism are on the rise again in France, this time among the fundamentalist minority in the Muslim community. Anti-Semitic attacks have been up 46 percent, according to Interior Ministry statistics, since Islamist parties won the first democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt. They increased more significantly after the Toulouse killings last March - which Hollande recalled in his speech, saying that in that event children had died for the same reason as after the Vel d'Hiv roundup - "because they were Jewish."
In schools with large proportions of children of North African descent, some students refuse to hear about the Holocaust in class. Organizations that promote interfaith dialogue are reporting that anti-Semitic attitudes have become commonplace in areas with high concentrations of Muslims, the low-income suburbs.
These facts are ignored by the mainstream media, and are causing growing concern among French Jews. As has been the case for decades in France, Jewish-Arab relations are to a large extent shaped by developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This surge of anti-Jewish hatred among some French Muslims is thus fueled by the current Israeli government's determination to pursue the occupation and the expansion of settlements.
Beyond the dissenting voices, Hollande's speech was saluted by an array of public figures. But in the absence of any prospect of change, in the radicalization of the Islamist minority among French Muslims or in Israel's policies, there's little doubt that it will remain just that - a speech.
Corinne Mellul is a political commentator in France.
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