On the facade of the nursery school at 5 Rue de Poissy in Paris’s fifth district, a black marble plaque hangs. Written in golden letters, it contains a stark message: “To the memory of the children – students of this school deported from 1942-1944 because they were born Jewish. They were victims of Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy Government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them.”
The plaque underlines a dramatic transformation in France’s memory of the Holocaust. Gone is the Gaullist postwar myth of France united in resistance against occupying Nazis and their Vichy collaborators. Gone is the falsehood that those who helped Germans soldiers deport Jews were not French. French police, not German soldiers, arrested the Jewish schoolchildren and put them on the trains to Auschwitz.
This wave of commemoration comes at a crucial time, just when anti-Semitism is rising in the country. France this month reported a 74 percent increase in violent attacks against Jews. Anti-Establishment Yellow Vest protesters in Paris last month screamed “Back to Tel Aviv,” “France is Ours!” and “Dirty Jew!” at Alain Finkielkraut, a leading French essayist and the son of an Auschwitz survivor. A Jewish cemetery was desecrated.
Yet we are not returning to the 1930s. In France and elsewhere in Western Europe, the main danger comes from the street, often from Muslim communities, left-wing anti-Israeli activists and a resurgent far right. So far, the majority center has stayed immune – or in the case of France, taken up the fight for fellow Jews.
French President Emmanuel Macron responded to a wave of attacks by announcing new measures to tackle anti-Semitism. He told Jewish leaders that France would recognize anti-Zionism – the denial of Israel’s right to exist – as a form of anti-Semitism.
Macron’s support contrasts to the danger of East European leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose governments propagate anti-Semitism. Our just-published report on Holocaust Revisionism shows Hungary and other former communist governments rehabilitating their wartime criminals and minimizing their own country’s guilt in the destruction of their Jewish communities.
Unlike in the 1940s, however, the French government is doing much to protect its Jewish population, the largest in Europe. Mass demonstrations for tolerance followed Knoll’s murder. According to the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of the French have a favorable view of Jews.
An accurate view of France’s wartime history began to take shape in the 1980s. Activists Serge and Beate Klarsfeld hunted down and brought to trial those involved in the Holocaust in France, including Vichy officials who had been rehabilitated and were making their way back into government. One by one, prosecutors showed how Vichy Police Chief René Bousquet and fellow collaborators, Jean Leguay, Maurice Papon and Paul Touvier were involved in Holocaust atrocities. The Klarsfelds detailed, name by name, the children deported by Vichy to Auschwitz.
Official change came in 1995 when President Jacques Chirac, the first postwar French president without any involvement in the war, acknowledged that it was French police, not German soldiers, who raided schools and sent the children on their way to death. Barely two months after taking office, Chirac acknowledged: “Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”
Successive governments have gone even further. President Francois Hollande in 2012 said the roundups were a “crime committed in France, by France.” In July 2017, Emmanuel Macron spoke at a ceremony at the Vel d’Hiv Holocaust memorial monument exactly 75 years after French police officers rounded up 13,152 Jews there for deportation. He named individual collaborators who helped the Nazis kill Jews, including Bousquet, the police chief who was indicted for planning the Vel d’Hiv roundups.
For the first time, Macron detailed the post-war cover-up, explaining how “ministers, civil servants, police officers, economy officials, unions, teachers” from the Vichy government were incorporated into the post-World War II government that replaced it. “It is very convenient to view Vichy as a monstrosity, born of nothing and returned to nothing,” Macron said, emphasizing the continuity between governments. “But it is false. We cannot base any pride on a lie.”
To be sure, Holocaust revisionism has not vanished in France. On the right, the National Front is trying to bring back the old mythology. Party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen continues to minimize the Holocaust. Comedians such as Dieudonne express hatred of Israel and crack jokes about the Holocaust being “the suffering of sufferings…higher than the universe, higher than God.”
For French Jews, the biggest danger comes from the young, mostly children of Arab and African immigrants. Many support Holocaust denying comic Dieudonne “because he speaks out against… political correctness,” Jean-Claude Kuperminc, the director of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, explains. Others, perhaps, are drawn to him because of his immigrant background, seeing his act as an attack on the sacred cows of French society and a “way of opposing white, Western domination.”
In response, the government has pursued hate speech and Holocaust denial cases with a furious passion, prosecuting cases wherever and whenever they appear and has made as extensive efforts as possible to shut down Holocaust revisionists. A Paris court fined Le Pen 30,000 euros for his comments. The Ministry of Culture banned Dieudonne’s shows and a French court convicted him for his hate speech, advocating terrorism, and slander.
Far from declaring victory, the government is redoubling its efforts. In recent months, it has given new powers to Dilcrah, an organization run by the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, that coordinates efforts to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. Judges can send people convicted of hate crimes to a two-day “citizenship course” at the national Holocaust memorial. Police are being training to respond better to victims.
Over the past few decades, France has made remarkable progress, both in bringing Holocaust memory into the national consciousness and in facing the rising challenges to the newfound acceptance of French guilt. Almost every schoolchild in France knows the events of the Holocaust, and the vast majority of the population have at least some understanding of the tragedy. Unlike many other countries in the world, France seems to recognize the need for continued vigilance to make sure that convenient narratives don’t displace true ones.