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President Macron, like President Chirac before him, has admitted France’s contribution to the Holocaust. It was the French police, not German ones, who rounded up Jews, holding them in the Vel’ d’Hiv stadium for transportation to Germany and the camps.
Admittedly this was done at Germany’s request, but it was the French Government which insisted the work be done by the French police. In a curious way this insistence represented an assertion of French sovereignty; if people were to be arrested in France, they should be arrested by the French themselves, not by the German police or Army of Occupation.
Admittedly too, the then French Prime Minister Pierre Laval attempted to make a distinction between Jews who were French citizens and Jews who weren’t. It didn’t hold, and there were many in Vichy who were eager that it shouldn’t.
Admittedly again – and finally – Laval believed, or persuaded himself, that the Jews were being transported to a new colony somewhere in the East. This, of course, was nonsense. In short: it was a shabby, despicable business.
For years French responsibility was denied on the grounds that Vichy wasn’t France. The Left held this view strongly, but weren’t alone in doing so. Many on the Right preferred silence and the blind eye. Now the wartime generation is either dead or very old, and the truth can be faced without the residual embarrassment or shame that led so many to keep silent.
So this week, receiving the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron said: “It’s convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it’s convenient, but it’s false. We cannot build pride on a lie”.
Well, it’s a good line. But since it is evident that Macron is ambitiously modelling himself on General de Gaulle, he might remember that it was precisely by promoting that same lie that de Gaulle set out to restore French pride after the twin disasters of 1940 and the Vichy regime. “Vichy,” he said, “was always null and void”. It wasn’t France, he insisted, denying Vichy’s legitimacy.
He was wrong, of course. After the Battle of France and the Armistice, the National Assembly voted by a huge majority to grant all powers to Marshal Petain, giving him the authority to devise a new Constitution – the same authority that would be granted to de Gaulle himself in 1958, though the Marshal’s Constitution never got beyond the planning stage.
But Vichy was regarded as the legitimate Government of France, even by Britain. The USA kept its ambassador in Vichy until the North African landings in November 1942, at which point the German Army took over what had previously been the Unoccupied Zone and Vichy became a mere puppet regime.
Even so, things might have been different had the Marshal flown to Algiers as he was urged to do. Asked later what the response would have been had he done so, de Gaulle said the Americans and French there would have received him with open arms, the British would have fallen into line, and “we, my friends, would have been fucked.” Fortunately for de Gaulle – and for France – Petain remained in Vichy, saying he had promised the French People he would not abandon them.
De Gaulle’s lie was arguably a necessary one – just as it was perhaps necessary that in August 1944 he should proclaim that Paris had been liberated by its own citizens, though in truth if they had all stayed in bed, the Americans would have done the job a couple of days later. They were lies intended to restore France’s battered self-esteem; myth-creating lies.
We shouldn’t judge them too harshly. We had our own wartime myths, and needed them. In times of national crisis no leaders can ever speak the unvarnished truth. Churchill might say that the British people were unique in their willingness to be told the worst, but this wasn’t ever quite true. We stood alone – yes – but only up to a point. We had the backing of the Empire, and, very soon, huge material aid from the USA. And by the time of the D-Day landings in Normandy we were third in the alliance against Nazi Germany, contributing less to the final victory than the Soviet Union and the United States. It took us a long time to acknowledge our diminished status; some of us are still reluctant to do so.
President Macron is right to acknowledge France’s guilty role in the Holocaust – though of course many French people sheltered Jews and a higher proportion of French Jews survived the war than in any other occupied country, except Denmark. He is right that it is false to pretend that Vichy came from nothingness and returned to nothingness.
Vichy was a mess and in many respects a nasty one. But for at least its first two years it enjoyed widespread popular support. Moreover it was, in its way, patriotic. It defended the French Empire to the best of its limited ability, which is one reason why the Governments of the Fourth Republic fought wars in Indo-China and Algeria; they couldn’t be seen to do less than Vichy.
The years from 1940 to 1944 are remembered in France as the Dark Years; a confused time – the Vichy Secret Services continued to spy on the Germans – and a painful time to live through and remember. Inasmuch as Macron, while condemning the willing surrender of Jews to the Germans, is insisting on Vichy’s legitimacy, he is doing a service to History, and therefore to Truth. Myths are often necessary in their time, but the day comes when they have outlived their usefulness and should be discarded.