Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews

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Jews get off the train in Pithiviers, France, May 1941. More than 3,000 of them were arrested by the Paris police headquarters and imprisoned in the transit camps of Pithiviers et Beaune-la-Rolande.

Following decades of debate over the nation's wartime history, France's highest judicial body has formally ruled that the French state bears moral and legal responsibility for the deportation of nearly 76,000 Jews during the nation's WWII occupation. In doing so, the court officially recognized the willful participation of France's collaborationist Vichy government in anti-Semitic persecution that had long been attributed to Nazi occupying powers.

The ruling Monday, by the Conseil d'Etat, or State Council, was cheered by organizations representing French Jews and families of Jews who were deported during the war — a mere 3,000 of whom ultimately returned. The judgment involved the case of a 76 year-old woman seeking damages for the 1941 deportation of her father by Vichy forces to Auschwitz, where he was killed. In its decision, the Conseil d'Etat held the French state, as then represented by Vichy, "responsible for damages caused by actions which did not result from the occupiers' direct orders, but facilitated deportation from France of people who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution." (See pictures of Adolf Hitler's rise to power.)

That ruling definitively buries historical interpretations rooted in the post-war reconciliation period. The common view, which has endured for decades, held that it was the Nazis who mistreated and deported France's Jews, or forced their French collaborators to. "This is a very satisfying ruling for me, in that it legally refutes the notion that the Vichy regime and the acts it committed were entirely the responsibility of German occupiers," says Serge Klarsfeld, France's leading Holocaust historian and Nazi hunter, whose own father perished in German camps. "What this says in legal terms is that as much as France may detest what the Vichy state did, it is responsible for the acts it committed in the name of France."

In 1995, as Klarsfeld notes, then-President Jacques Chirac gave a historical speech that sought to atone for the nation's dark past. Chirac broke with the traditional French depiction of wartime events by accepting, in the name of France, responsibility for the July 15-16, 1942 arrests of 13,000 Jews by French police. Known as the "Vel d'Hiv roundup" — after the name of the winter cycling stadium in Paris the deportees were held in — the infamous case was cited by Chirac as an example of active French participation in Jewish persecution. Chirac called on his French countrymen to accept responsibility for the Vichy regime just as they celebrate the anti-Nazi efforts of General Charles de Gaulle and his Free French forces. "France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable," Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d'Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. "Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers."

Yesterday's ruling goes further. "While [Chirac's] speech was so important to France and her Jews by finally stating an historic truth, the ruling by the Conseil d'Etat is also crucial, because it now sets that down in stone in legal terms," Klarsfeld explains.

Ironically, the court decision also delivered a setback to the plaintiff by rejecting over $357,000 in damages she had sought for hardship resulting from her father's deportation. The reason: the Conseil ruled that organizations set up to pay deportees and their survivors damages, or to compensate them for belongings stolen by Nazis or their French collaborators, have proven to be capable of fairly settling damages without court involvement. (See pictures of the Nazis in Paris.)

Klarsfeld says nearly $702 million in damages have been paid out to applicants since 2001, while $501 million in endowments to the Shoah Memorial Foundation have generated additional funding to those who suffered deportation. "It closes the door to further court cases in such affairs, but that only shows the system put in place to hear them is working," he says. What the Conseil decision doesn't do, Klarsfeld stresses, is force French society into a reckoning with its war-time past that foreigners often think it denies. That has already happened, according to Klarsfeld and others, often in a deeper way than in other countries.

"Many nations, especially here in the U.S., tend to view France with the out-dated, 40 year-old perception that it hasn't faced its past and learned hard lessons from it," says Robert Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia University and an acclaimed expert on fascism and Vichy France. "It has done deep research, held trials, updated text books, and even uncovered troubling wartime information on public figures — late President François Mitterrand for one. I'd like school teachers around the U.S. to be able to teach American responsibility for slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans the way French educators do their own war-time history. Alas, if they did that here, most would get fired."

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