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François Hollande and French Jewish Memory

Paris marks its liberation, pays tribute to deported Jews

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Commemoration of the Liberation of Paris(Adam Chandler)

The very idea of a muscular commemoration in honor of French military prowess defies many of the stereotypes that people tend to heap upon the French. But over the weekend in Paris, muscular is what the city got as it marked the 68th anniversary of its victory over the forces of Nazi occupation in the Battle of Paris.

Outside the Hôtel de Ville, the site of the city’s municipality since the mid-14th century, a series of speakers told the history of the occupation of Paris to a huge crowd including a number of tourists, children, and pensioners–some of whom were among the last remaining veterans of the battle and were dressed in the mothballed uniforms of the famous resistance. A chorus sang battle hymns! The whole of the 4th arrondissement quaked as three fighter jets swooped in low from the Seine in a military flyover. (A gripe: Very little credit was given to the assisting Americans.)

French President François Hollande used his speech as an opportunity to make the parallel between the French struggle against Nazi Germany and the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime. (A few blocks away from the event, a raucous anti-Assad rally was taking place in a square beside the Châtelet metro stop.)

“I am thinking at this instant of the Syrian people, oppressed by a regime which is only motivated by the fear of disappearing. This regime will disappear–which is a lesson we give to the world–because when freedom is on the move, nothing or nobody can stop it.”

Considering how deep the misgivings were about the election of Hollande, the center-left Socialist, in the French Jewish community and beyond, this rhetorical swagger–or “walking” in the words of George W. Bush, who could have cried that Saturday’s speech was cribbed from one of his–might have been expected on the topic of Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance. Back in April, Richard Prasquier, head of France’s official umbrella group of Jewish organizations, warned that electing Hollande would bring about “a surge in leftist and Communist manifestations of anti-Zionism.”

But governing does a strange thing. While it’s still very early, Hollande has made efforts to showcase his bravado in the fight against anti-Semitism and to lead the responsible transmission of historical memory in France. Just last week, Hollande stripped John Galliano–disgraced French designer from the House of Dior–of his decoration as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the protracted wake of Galliano’s vitriolic and drunken anti-Semitic outbursts caught on video at a Paris cafe.

Saturday’s commemoration incorporated the history of the Vel d’Hiv, the infamous 1942 round-up (and eventual deportation) of 13,000 Parisian Jews (of which less than 900 returned). Last month at the 70th anniversary of the event, Hollande went as far as to condemn the French for their historical complicity in the matter, calling the round-up “a crime committed in France by France.”

This is a welcome note bearing in mind that a poll released earlier this year cited that 42% of French people don’t know what the Vel d’Hiv round-up was and that 60% of the 18-to-24 French demographic had never heard of it.

Another poll, which I hope has more to do with the economy than Hollande’s early efforts in the domain of French memory, that was released on Saturday revealed that Hollande’s approval rating had dropped from 61% to 54% since he took office in May.

John Galliano Stripped of Legion of Honor [WWD]
Francois Hollande Sorry for Wartime Deportation of Jews [Guardian]
Hollande approval rating slips to 54 percent [The Star]
City at heart of Jewish deportations confronts past [France24]

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The undercurrent in this article is typical of the kind of truly offensive anti-Frenchism that keeps cropping up in American Jewish publications. (I note that I’m a French-born American Jew and have been a correspondent for the Herald Tribune, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe 1962-69 and 1977-91 in Paris, where I still live.) Nothing in François Hollande’s past justifies the suggestion of any basis for concern, The article also fails to recall that Hollande’s condemnations of Vichy explicitly reaffirm a solemn statement by President Jacques Chirac also apologizing in the name of the French nation for the Vichy regime’s anti-semitic actions.

With the active help of the non-Jewish population, three quarters of French Jews survived the Nazi Occupation — aside from Denmark, by far the largest proportion in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Catholic and Protestant church hierarchy publicly opposed Vichy’s anti-semitism and constrained Marshal Petain to write to Hitler that public opinion made it impossible for his government to continue to cooperate in deportations of Jews.

France armed Israel. It aided the success of the Dimona program, Israeli President Peres started his career as the chief of Israeli arms procurement in France.

Israeli Ambassador to France Elie Barnavi forced Prime Minister Sharon to apologize and recant his public statement that French Jews are endangered.

Leon Blum, René Mayer, Pierre Mendes-France, Michel Debré, and Laurent Fabius are amongst the French Prime Ministers of Jewish origin since WWII, representing Left, Right and Center. As a First Amendment advocate, I disapprove, but France has outlawed Holocaust denial.

At the Liberation, it is estimated that some 10,000 Collaborators were executed, legally or extrajudicially — a number for their anti-semitic activities, notably the virulent pamphleteer Robert Brasillach whom De Gaulle refused to pardon.

When will American Jewish publications cease their drumfire of false assertions that France is somehow anti-semitic and/or has not faced up to Vichy’s crimes ? Why don’t such publications ever seem to consult the French Jewish community about their perceptions ?

Nobody denies that French governments have a complex relationship with the Arab world because of French colonial history and geography and the millions of North Africans in France. What responsible government would ignore its country’s interests and problems ? That reality does not justify the ongoing suggestions in American Jewish media that France is unwelcoming to the world’s third largest Jewish population.

    Adam_Chandler says:

    Ronald,

    Thank you for this thoughtful response. If you read again, I’m sure you’ll that I agree with you on most of these points. In the first sentence, I explained the conventional stereotype that outsiders have of France and spent the rest of the piece debunking it. Also, in discussing Hollande, I did not take the position that he was an anti-Semite, only that the mass media churn leading up to the election was that he was going to embolden anti-Zionists. Unfortunately, I can’t control the words of others. I admire you scholarship and hope that if you have specific concerns, next time you’ll include examples in your response.

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François Hollande and French Jewish Memory

Paris marks its liberation, pays tribute to deported Jews

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