“NOT ESPECIALLY inhumane.” This was French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s recent verdict on the wartime occupation of France. During the Second World War over 60,000 resisters and 75,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps from France. Fewer than 3,000 Jews returned. These deportations were made easier by the willing participation of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, which governed the part of France not immediately occupied by the Germans following France’s defeat in 1940. Vichy drew up lists of Jews resident in France and then played a full role in their persecution.
It was no accident that Vichy became an accomplice in the Holocaust. The regime drew on a tradition of anti-Semitism which went back many years, and lives on today in Le Pen’s Front National. Jews were targeted from the moment Pétain came to power. Independently of any Nazi pressure, anti-Semitic measures were drawn up by Vichy as early as October 1940, withdrawing citizenship from thousands of French Jews, granting local authorities the right to intern foreign Jews and purging all Jews from public sector jobs. Quotas were imposed on the number of Jews allowed to work in almost any job. From the end of 1942 the French authorities were stamping every identity and ration card issued to its Jewish population with the word “Jew”.
By the time Germany ordered the systematic deportation of Jews from France in 1942, over 40,000 had already been interned in Vichy camps. Conditions there were so appalling that 3,000 detainees had died of cold or hunger by 1941. When the “final solution” was announced, Vichy volunteered to transfer foreign Jews from its territory to the German-controlled area of France.
The mass deportations began with the barbaric round-up of 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, into a Paris cycling stadium in July 1942. From there they were transferred to a camp at Drancy, on the outskirts of Paris. And then to Auschwitz. No Germans took part in the round-up, which was carried out by 9,000 French policemen acting on orders from Vichy. The actions of the regime contrasted with the outlook of most French people. Their reaction to the desperate scenes of screaming children being parted from their parents during the round-ups of the summer of 1942 was generally one of outrage.
It took the French state until 1995 to apologise for its role in the Holocaust. For most of the post-war period it refused to acknowledge the full extent of Vichy’s crimes and many of those responsible were allowed to escape punishment.
One of these, Maurice Papon, had overseen the deportation of Jews from the Bordeaux region. He was eventually tried and convicted in 1998. Until then he enjoyed a successful career in public life, first as prefect of police in Paris, where he played a part in the killing of 200 Algerians demonstrating against French colonial rule in October 1961, and then as a government minister. Many former collaborators later found a political home in the Front National with Le Pen, who considers the Holocaust a “detail” of the Second World War.
Jim Wolfreys is co-author with Peter Fysh of The Politics of Racism in France