Magazine article Insight on the News

Will France Clean Up Anti-Semitism? While Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin Admits to France's Past Complicity in Persecuting Jews, President Jacques Chirac Still Claims It's All a Jewish Conspiracy. (Special Report)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Will France Clean Up Anti-Semitism? While Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin Admits to France's Past Complicity in Persecuting Jews, President Jacques Chirac Still Claims It's All a Jewish Conspiracy. (Special Report)

Article excerpt

In a moving speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the infamous roundup of French Jews in 1942, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin spoke hard truths to his fellow countrymen. For two generations, the French have cloaked themselves in the memory of a resistance movement against the Nazi occupation that was neither widespread nor terribly glorious. Now, said Raffarin, it was time for the French to own up to the truth and make amends.

"The French state, in organizing these systematic roundups, plunged into collaboration and betrayed the founding principles of our nation," Raffarin said at a July 21 ceremony at the Square of the Martyrs, a Paris memorial built where a bicycle stadium was turned into a transit camp for captive Jews.

Citing names that live on in infamy as centers for the deportation, Raffarin went on: "Yes, the Vel' d'Hiv, Drancy, Compiegne and all the transit camps, these antechambers of death were organized, managed and protected by Frenchmen. Yes, the first act of the Shoah played itself out here, with the complicity of the French state.... Seventy-six thousand Jews were deported from France. So few ever came back."

On the night of July 16-17, 1942, the records show, 13,152 Jews were rounded up and taken to the Paris bicycle stadium, the Velodrome d'Hiver, or Vel' d'Hiv, and subsequently deported to Nazi death camps. And yet, even today, defensive French officials insist in interviews that the French government protected French Jews during the occupation. "There were only [sic] 76,000 Jews deported from France because the French government, even under Vichy, made an effort to save the essential part of the French population," one official tells INSIGHT. And never mind that only 2,500 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France survived.

Raffarin saluted the memory of the Free French, who heeded the call of Gen. Charles de Gaulle from his exile in Britain to rise up against the German occupant and the French collaborationist government in Vichy. But he also spoke out forcefully and unequivocally against the rage of anti-Semitic attacks that in recent months have ravaged French synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, and which have struck fear into the hearts of French Jews for the first time in 60 years.

"Attacking the Jewish community is to attack France, to attack the values of our republic where there is no room for anti-Semitism, racism or xenophobia," Raffarin said. He pledged that his government, which came to power in the wake of the presidential and parliamentary elections this spring, would "take all necessary measures" against the perpetrators of "these acts that insult our country."

Intellectuals and Jewish organizations have sharply criticized the French government during the last 18 months for failing to take action against the most extensive wave of anti-Semitic attacks since the Holocaust. Until late April, that government was headed by Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was humiliated during the first round of presidential elections when he was edged out by far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. French society from left to right rallied behind President Jacques Chirac in the run-off election to defeat Le Pen and, ultimately, gave Chirac a clear majority in the parliamentary elections that followed.

Chirac's new interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, donned a bulletproof vest immediately after he was appointed and visited violence-prone housing developments in the predominantly Muslim suburbs of Paris. He warned Muslim leaders in France that fresh violence would be met firmly and that the French police would keep close tabs on local mosques to ensure that they stopped preaching violence against Jews. He and his subordinates met repeatedly with French and visiting American Jewish leaders and pledged to prosecute the perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks. "When we met with Sarkozy in early July, Rabbi [Abraham] Cooper told him he was not a breath of fresh air, but a blast of fresh air," says Shimon Samuels, the European director of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. …

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