In the wake of continuing reverberations from recent revelations about French President Francois Mitterrand’s right-wing past, the leader of French Jewry has defended his president against charges of anti-Semitism.
At the same time, however, Jean Kahn, head of CRIF, the umbrella organization representing France’s secular Jewish organizations, has taken issue with Mitterrand’s refusal to acknowledge France’s responsibility in collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.
“Let us not now pick on a man who is sick and has always been courageous, who never was an anti-Semite and has always shown that he is a friend of Israel,” Kahn said in an interview last week.
Kahn’s comments came amid the latest chapter of a long-simmering debate here about France’s actions in connection with the collaborationist Vichy government of Marshall Henri Philippe Petain and whether the country should bear responsibility for Vichy’s actions during World War II.
Kahn spoke after Mitterrand, 77, who reportedly is ailing from prostate cancer, appeared in a television interview on Sept. 12 to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism and to explain his friendship with a former official of the Vichy regime. The interview followed the publication of “A French Youth: Francois Mitterrand 1934-1947,” a book by French investigative journalist Pierre Pean that details Mitterrand’s activities before, during and after World War II.
The book describes Mitterrand as a right-wing student activist in prewar Paris, as a faithful officer of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1942 and as a close friend of Rene Bousquet, a former Vichy official charged with crimes against humanity for ordering roundups of Jews for deportation.
SEPARATING VICHY FROM POSTWAR FRANCE
Mitterrand apparently assisted in the research for the book, a development some observers attribute to Mitterrand’s desire to defend his wartime activities as he concludes his last term in office.
During the television interview, Mitterrand sought to distance the actions of the collaborationist Vichy regime from the subsequent postwar governments of the French Republic.
Declaring that he was unaware of the anti-Semitic laws imposed by Vichy two years before he served as an official for the regime, he said the actions of the Petain government were attributable to the country’s defeat at the hands of the Nazis.
France has no need to apologize for the crimes committed during that period, he added.
“The republic had nothing to do with all that. I do think that France is not responsible,” he said. “Those who are accountable for those crimes belong to an active minority who exploited the (French) defeat. Not the republic and not France. I’ll never ask for forgiveness in the name of France.”
Mitterrand further denied that he had ever been anti-Semitic. He recounted how, in 1936, he had helped a group of young Jews who were being attacked by a mob and how one of the young Jews he helped became a lifelong friend.
“No one has ever found anything anti-Semitic in my deeds,” he said.
While supporting Mitterrand’s claims regarding his relationship with the Jews, Kahn of CRIF said the Jewish leadership of France has always disagreed with the French president about the role of Vichy.
“Mitterrand maintains that Vichy is like a parenthesis in French history,” Kahn said in an interview. “We do not forget that it is the French Assembly who freely voted in favor of full powers to Marshall Philippe Petain, that the French administration served faithfully the Vichy regime.
“I cannot accept to hear now that the French Republic owes no apologies to the victims of this regime,” said Kahn.
During the course of the television interview, Mitterrand said he had maintained a longstanding relationship with Bousquet, Vichy’s police chief between 1942 and 1944. But Mitterrand said he had no knowledge of Bousquet’s wartime activities.
Charged with the deportation of 2,000 Jewish children, Bousquet was killed by a self-styled avenger last June at the age of 82 before he could stand trial.
Mitterrand admitted he had hindered legal proceedings against Bousquet, but said he took the action to “appease the continuous civil war among Frenchmen” over the country’s role during World War II.
Here, too, Kahn was critical of the French president.
“It seems hard to believe that the French president had no knowledge of the criminal deeds of this man,” he said. “And we deplore that he could maintain ambiguous relations with him for such a long time.
“I was also very surprised to hear that the president of the republic has, in certain circumstances, slowed down legal procedures. I am very attached to democracy and to the principles of separation of powers,” said Kahn.
“This suggests that some people responsible for the crimes of the Vichy regime, for reasons of ‘civil peace’ or ‘harmony,’ were not brought to trial,” he added. “The Vichy regime should not be trivialized. Only a clear view of our past will guarantee this much sought-after ‘civil peace.’ “
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.