Europe

France grapples once more with its anti-Semitic past

BY Tom Wheeldon | tomwheeldon1   /  14 February 2018

At the end of January France’s culture minister Françoise Nyssen retracted the decision to include Charles Maurras – a far-right, virulently anti-Semitic author who enthusiastically backed the collaborationist Vichy regime during the Nazi occupation – in this year’s National Commemorations, an annual state-backed book celebrating the anniversaries of important events and people, with a frequent focus on literary figures.

As Sudhir Hazareesingh – one of Britain’s best living writers on France – told the FT, “this is the very French part of the story – […] the role of the state in all of this.” The notion of the British “Department of Culture, Media and Sport” showing the slightest interest in literature – let alone producing a yearly body of work including essays on notable British writers – is laughable. But across the channel, a central question of literary theory – what defines a notable body of literature?  – is seen as a matter of state.

The problem is that Maurras’ work is not really literature at all. His oeuvre (if it can be so described) is just a plethora of attempts to provide an intellectual basis for repugnant ideas. The omnipresence of the word métèque – a strong derogatory term for ‘foreigner’ with no counterpart in English – is its most telling aspect.

Born into a staunchly traditional old Provençal family in 1868, two years before France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Maurras wrote prolifically for over fifty years until France’s liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. He was arrested for “complicity with the enemy” and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1952, disgraced.

Maurras loathed Germans, Protestants and Freemasons just as much as he loathed Jews. The one exception to this visceral hatred of difference seems to be a love for his fellow French reactionaries.

And he was certainly influential – the dichotomy at the core of his work between the “pays réel” (“the real country”) and the “pays légal” (“the legal country”) sounds familiar in this age of Trump, Brexit and Le Pen; Steve Bannon is a big Maurras fan.

But perhaps Nyssen’s justification for the initial decision to include Maurras, as an attempt to help shine a light on “the dark hours of France’s history,” is not as mealy-mouthed as it might seem.

Despite the indubitable heroism of the Resistance, for decades after World War II France underplayed the other, sordid reality of collaboration with the Nazis. It wasn’t until the nineties that the country started what Germans call Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung – the process of coming to terms with the past.

Take for example the figure of Maurice Papon. During the war, he was a senior police officer under the Vichy regime; in this role he rounded up approximately 1600 Jews and sent them off to Nazi death camps. After the war, Papon became prefect of the Paris police; in this role he ordered the massacre of between 100 and 300 pro-Algerian independence demonstrators in 1961. Later, Papon entered politics, serving as Budget Minister from 1978 until 1981. His past had finally caught up with him – but it took seventeen years for the French courts to convict Papon of crimes against humanity.

In light of the need to remember such horrors of Vichy, the idea of putting Maurras in the book perhaps seems more understandable – although still just as misguided. There are far better ways of dealing with the dark underside of French history.

Indeed, Emmanuel Macron provided a good example in the single Great Moment of his presidency so far. This was his speech last August marking the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, in which 13,000 Jews were detained in Paris’ indoor velodrome, then sent off to Nazi concentration camps, where only 100 survived.

Macron pared down his usual grandiloquence to unadorned assertions of uncomfortable truths: “France organised it”; “not a single German took part”.