PARIS (Jul. 16)
French President Francois Mitterrand was booed by a small group of Jewish militants when he laid a wreath at the memorial marking the site of the Velodrome d’Hiver cycling racetrack, where thousands of Jews were rounded up 50 years ago by French police before being sent to concentration camps.
The protesters were said to be members of the Betar youth group, who were among the 3,000 people attending the ceremony here on Thursday evening.
The hecklers were apparently protesting the remarks made by Mitterand earlier this week, when he refused to condemn the Vichy regime. In his traditional Bastille Day interview, Mitterrand said those responsible for the deportation of Jews from France during World War II “have already been tried.
“Don’t ask this republic to account” for what was perpetrated by the wartime Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Petain, Mitterand said.
The more than 13,000 Jews rounded up at the “Vel d’Hiv” on July 16-17, 1942, were later handed over to the Nazis and deported to the extermination camps. Only a handful survived. None of the more than 4,000 deported children came back.
The issue remains heated here in France. Some 200 intellectuals, Jews and non-Jews, had asked Mitterrand to condemn Vichy’s role in the Final Solution.
Heated debate followed the recent decision not to prosecute Paul Touvier, who was head of the Lyon collaborationist Militia responsible for the deaths of numerous Jews.
Mitterrand strongly differentiated between the French republics since the war and the Vichy regime. So did a Jewish government official.
Addressing the crowd at the memorial service, Robert Badinter, the Jewish child of a deportee who became a justice minister and is now president of the Constitutional Council — the highest legal authority in France — said the republic could not be held responsible for the crimes of the Vichy regime.
MANY WREATHS AND MANY TEARS
He chided the protesters for desecrating the memory of those who had died. “Be quiet or leave,” he said to a round of applause.
In a separate event, the French Organization of Jewish Students held a mock trial of the Vichy regime in front of the Paris Court of Justice, asking the government and the entire French political echelons to finally acknowledge Vichy’s role in the Final Solution.
The commemoration service brought piles of floral wreaths and many tears. They recalled that all in all, some 75,000 Jews were deported from France, of whom about 2,600 returned.
Mitterrand has said that as president, he cannot comment on the court’s decision not to try Touvier. But he made clear he hoped it would be reversed next fall by the French supreme court.
The French courts have had similar approaches in the cases of other Vichy officials. The more time elapsed since the end of the war, the more lenient have been the courts’ sentences.
Rene Bousquet, head of the Vichy police, was deprived of his civil rights and, like Touvier, pardoned. He subsequently enjoyed a successful banking career and was reportedly on very good terms with Mitterrand until Mitterrand was elected president. None of those who were tried and condemned for collaboration and treason were ever judged for their part in the Final Solution. The handling of Jews by Vichy has always been minimized.
The court’s decision in the Touvier case was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. In short, it said the Vichy regime had no anti-Jewish policy, thus whitewashing the regime of Marshal Philippe Petain of any wrongdoing regarding the Jews.
Until 1983, French schoolbooks made no mention of the collaboration, including of the fact that the Vichy regime passed anti-Jewish laws even before the Nazi occupiers asked them to.
The attitude of successive French governments toward Vichy largely remains unchanged.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who led the French government in exile, was eager to rebuild postwar France while keeping the Communists at bay. He drew a veil over the era. “France resisted,” de Gaulle maintained.
There are many in France who wish to reopen the books.