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Socialist Premier Confronts France’s Wartime Aid to Nazis

The French Jewish community is welcoming Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s willingness to confront France’s wartime actions.

In a break from the position adopted by the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, Jospin has recognized the French state’s responsibility for the arrests and deportations of thousands of French Jews during the Nazi occupation of the country.

Jospin addressed how France helped the Nazis carry out the Final Solution, speaking plainly about French complicity during his remarks at a ceremony marking the 55th anniversary of the notorious Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 16, 1942.

Early that morning, French police took at least 13,000 Jewish men, women and children to the cycling stadium. They were held for four days in sweltering heat without food, water or sanitary facilities before being shipped to the Auschwitz death camp.

In all, about 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, were deported from France to Nazi death camps. Only about 2,500 returned.

“The swoop was decided, planned and carried out by Frenchmen,” Jospin said at the ceremony.

His words echoed a historic 1995 speech by Conservative President Jacques Chirac, the first French leader to publicly recognize his country’s participation in the Holocaust.

“Political leaders, administrators, judges, police and gendarmes took part in it. Not a single German soldier was necessary to accomplish this infamous task,” Jospin said during his speech at the Monument to the Jewish Martyr on the site where the cycling stadium once stood.

Jospin’s remarks have allowed the French left to finally distance itself from the stance taken by Mitterrand.

The former president had refused, despite pressure from Jewish groups, intellectuals and former Resistance fighters, to apologize for the actions of France’s wartime Vichy regime.

Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, said he was pleased with the prime minister’s acknowledgement of the “necessity not to hide this period, but to face all responsibilities of the past.”

“This is a moment of truth and those who have a sense of responsibility are not turning their backs on the past,” said Hajdenberg. “A new era was ushered in two years ago with Chirac’s speech. There is a consensus among our leaders.”

Hajdenberg also praised two promises that Jospin made during his speech:

to facilitate research into France’s wartime actions by modifying laws that keep “sensitive” World War II archives closed for 60 years; and,

to create a Holocaust museum in Paris.

Mitterrand, who was jeered at the 50th anniversary ceremony marking the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup, had maintained, like other postwar presidents who grappled with the issue before him, that the French public was not accountable for the crimes of the illegal, pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

That refusal, along with his friendship with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy regime’s national police chief who ordered the roundup, and his efforts to prevent French war criminals from going to trial, dogged the last years of Mitterrand’s 14-year presidency.

Bousquet was killed by a publicity-seeker in 1993 on the eve of his war-crimes trial.

During his speech, Jospin also expressed his desire to see that the war-crimes trial of former Vichy official Maurice Papon, which is due to open Oct. 8 in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, be a “time of remembrance for our society.”

The trial is expected to give the French people an exhaustive examination of the Vichy government’s role during the Holocaust.

Legal proceedings against Papon, which were first undertaken in 1981, were delayed by successive French governments in the hope that the now 86-year-old man would die before a trial took place.

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