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France confronts its Jews, and itself

by Roger Cohen
in The New York Times, Week in Review, October 19, 1997


As a bloody century wanes, repentance is in vogue, a sort of global purging of the soul before the millennium. A world relatively becalmed, perhaps moderately bored, is confronting the upheavals of the past hundred years as a form of atonement. British colonialism, Nazism, Communist totalitarianism, apartheid: the candidates for expiatory examination are rich and varied. But nowhere, perhaps, is the process more fraught or obsessive than in France's contemplation of its treatment of the Jews during World War II. The forces pushing France toward an orgy of retrospection are similar to those at work elsewhere: the passing from power of the generation that lived the war years; the end of the cold war with its bending of truth to strategic imperatives; the odd moral magnetism of the number 2000, so evocative of a circle completed as to be an invitation to what Pope John Paul II has called "the purification of memory."

Moment of Masochism

Yet in France, whose Revolution of 1789 shattered the old theocratic order and ushered in the shifting modern age, this penitential process has acquired a special intensity. France, which competes with the United States as a model of enlightenment, seems determined to clear its conscience. It is as if the first avowedly modern state -- that of the empowerment of citizens, of the enshrinement of dignity in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the first formal emancipation of the Jews, in 1791 -- is unready to take on a new century without sweeping away the shadows that form part of France's eternal, sometimes maddening, ambiguity. "This is a moment of extraordinary masochism in France," said Michel Lussault, a sociologist. "We have a need to make a spectacle of our past errors and settle every outstanding account."

Apologies to the country's 650,000 Jews are pouring in -- from the Roman Catholic Church in France, from the French medical association, from the police -- for acts of commission and omission that date back more than a half century, to the time when the Vichy regime ruled at the sufferance of France's Nazi occupiers. Couched in terms of great humility, these requests for pardon have been marked by extraordinary frankness for a country traditionally more inclined to the discretion of a church confessional than the public display of emotion, and which has long wrestled with its "Jewish question." Until 1995 France portrayed Marshal Philippe Petain's Vichy regime as an imposed aberration that left unsullied the French Republic, an institution coeval and so eternally synonymous with the quest for equality and dignity. At the same time, the trial in Bordeaux of 87-year-old Maurice Papon, the first and almost certainly the last Vichy official to be prosecuted for the deportation of Jews from France, has confronted the French with an agonizing fact: Mr. Papon is not a monster, but everyman, a bureaucrat par excellence, a servant of the French state and a product of its meritocracy who prospered under both Vichy and the subsequent Gaullist Republic, whose views on the Jews in the 1940's were almost certainly quite average, neither rabidly anti-Semitic nor inclined to see the Jew as a citizen like any other. His trial is therefore that of a certain France, one whose death throes now appear to be in progress.

These death throes involve different forms of absolutism that have at times blurred memory and fueled conflict: the infallibility of the church, the honor of the Republic, the doctrine of the glory of France itself. In their place, some now see a new France emerging: more tolerant, more pluralist, less dogmatic. Naturally this shift is not without opponents, particularly the rightist National Front, but a change is perceptible. That this transition involves Jews is perhaps inevitable. For the Jewish question in France has never been a peripheral one; it has occupied a place near the heart of what are sometiems called "les guerres Franco-Francaises," the internecine struggles of the French. From the Revolution to the Dreyfus Affair, from Dreyfus to Vichy, and from Vichy to the contemporary National Front, the place of the Jews in French society has been a recurring issue. Its resolution would be a significant turning point.

The Revolution of 1789 created the concept of a nation constituted by the will of its equal citizens, and those citizens included the Jews. French nationality became, in Ernest Renan's words, "a daily plebiscite," an act of personal volition. Jew, Provencal and Longuedocien were all citizens, and citizenship was nationality. This, for the long-oppressed Jew, was deliverance. It opened avenues previously closed, and some led to the heart of power. Adolphe Cremieux, one of the first Jews to be a minister in a French government, held that a new Trinity had been created: G-d, the Revolution and the Republic of 1870. To these deities Jews owed their devotion.

Marc Bloch, the great French historian who was killed by the Nazis, declared, "The time of the Messiah came with the French Revolution." Before his execution, he declined the presence of a rabbi. "I will die as a lived," he said, "as a good Frenchman." For many, many years, even after Vichy, the peculiarity of Franco-Judaism was its intense patriotism. But of course the Revolution was fiercely contested, and it divided France. Where the American Revolution ushered in a nation of citizens on relatively virgin soil, the French ivolved the destruction of an old order. As Toqueville remarked, Americans were lucky enough to be born equal, rather than having to become equal. The French attempt to become equal was naturally a violent process. The effect of the Revolution, the historian Francois Furet once said, was to turn the French into "this strange people that cannot together like all their national history."

The old order was strongly represented in the Roman Catholic Church, and for the counterrevolutionaries it was natural to portray the forces out to destroy the Catholic soul of France in the name of secularism and egalitarianism as a collection of Jews, Protestants and Freemasons. In the trumped-up charges against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Angst of French society reached an apogee. The fact that Dreyfus, a Jew, had risen to represent a pillar of French tradition, the army, made the case explosive; for French anti-Semites, it showed that the danger was now within.

Revenge of Dreyfus

The cracks engendered by the Revolution never entirely disappeared, perhaps because they were not fully acknowledged. The rear-guard action continued to involve anti-Semitism. The Jew remained a potential proxy for all that was not traditionally French. For the influential writer Charles Maurras, Vichy was the "divine surprise," and his conviction for treason at the end of the war "the revenge of Dreyfus." Of course, if three-fourths of France's Jewish population survived the war, it was precisely because many people rejected such attitudes and helped the Jews. Still, an easing of tensions after the war never involved a full accounting of what had happened under Vichy, and official attitudes to the Jews proved vulnerable to the politics of the Middle East. In a notorious phrase, de Gaulle, in 1967, called the Jews "an elite people, sure of itself and dominating."

The two sides of French society clung to their divisive myths: the church to its immaculacy, the Republic to the illusion that it had nothing to with Vichy's deportion to their deaths of 70,000 Jews. Here, it seems, lies the critical importance of the events of the last few weeks. Both church and state have abandoned their pretensions. The church, by confessing to errors and begging the Jewish people for forgiveness, has adopted a position of striking modesty. It has, said Pierre Birnbaum, a sociologist, "Finally abandoned any notion that it represents some eternal France." Similarly, after President Jacques Chirac's acknowledgment in 1995 that Vichy was the French state, the start of Mr. Papon's trial has exposed the human failings of the Republic. The fervent religion of republicanism -- one that many French Jews embraced -- has been dealt a blow, leaving more space for the reasoned embrace of republican values. These changes, Mr. Birnbaum suggested, could herald a France with its old battles behind it, a more adaptable France shorn of its divisive myths. "Without quite embracing an American multiculturalism, we are turning toward a more pluralist model," he said. Certainly, a Jewish community invigorated by the arrival of large numbers of North African Jews has changed its attitudes: emancipation is no longer synonymous with the abandonment of Jewish traditions.

Resistance remains virulent. The National Front, with 15 percent of the vote, is now the third-largest party, and last week its paper, National Hebdo, bore the screaming headline "JUDAPO." This is the acronym the party uses for what it calls "politically organized Judaism," the malevolent force it sees behind the Papon trial and the bishops' statement of repentance. The Front is the standard bearer of a new rightist coalition, bolstered by France's 3.6 million unemployed, if largely deserted by the church. Its central theme is an old one: the degeneration of France through the pollution of traditional values. That pollution, for the National Front, has many sources: Arab immigration, globalization, Jews and the like. But for now this force seems unlikely to outweight the powerful tug of a millennial reconciliation of the old French demons.

Audio-video documents
France in WWII
Vichy law and the Holocaust
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