Menteurs or martyrs? France’s struggle to accept its past

CW: Mentions of the Holocaust and xenophobia-related crimes

Debates on issues of acceptance of the Holocaust and state-committed war crimes have had France at their centre for decades. French leaders have portrayed the Vichy regime as a victim, rather than an active participant in Germano-Franco fascism. This attitude is known as the Vichy Syndrome.

Illustration credit: Nicola March

Former President Mitterand said: “I didn’t think about the anti-Semitism of Vichy”. But this is the very regime which smuggled Jews across the German border during World War II. And its consequences widened the gap between the French and their past. Every so often we get a physical reminder of this struggle towards acceptance. In August 2020, Holocaust denial graffiti appeared over a memorial village in France. This is where the largest mass murder in the country happened during the War.

Holocaust memorial defacing and its implications for France

Oradour-sur-Glane is a half-memorial, half-inhabited village in central France, and a massacre site. On  June 10th 1944, an SS division set fire to the village church, killing 642 citizens, including 500 women and children. Almost 80 years later, an unknown perpetrator has crossed off the word martyr and replaced it with liar at the entrance of the memorial site. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti promised to do everything to find the ones responsible for “such sacrilegious acts”. So far, this has meant throwing a tarpaulin over the graffiti.

The Oradour-sur-Glane incident mirrors previous events, which had concerningly similar patterns of behaviour. On one occasion, in 2019, someone spray-painted the word Juden (German for Jew) in yellow across a Parisian bakery. The Star of David that European Jews wore during World War II was also yellow.  The bakery is in Paris’s 4th district,  where the French police arrested 13,152 Jews in collaboration with Nazi Germany during the War. President Chirac publicly admitted to this in 1995. There is a pattern between the bakery and the Martyr village incidents. It shows that Holocaust deniers seem to target places with a tragic past.

The Vichy regime and nationalism in war-torn France

Controversial Maréchal Pétain’s leadership divided a country exhibiting its devise of Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, brotherhood). Pétain obtained power after a National Assembly meeting faced the prospect of losing their country. His administration became the Vichy government, because its de facto capital was established in Vichy.

The ‘Vichy’ regime was the detrimental consequence of occupation, combined with fervent nationalism. At the time, the regime saw collaboration as the sole answer to retaining France. It replaced Liberté, égalité, fraternité with Travail, famille, patrie (work, family, homeland). Its purpose lay in reconnecting with France’s ancient history of liberating themselves from Roman rule. Vichy became the birthplace of nationhood in France. Pétain acted as the saviour France needed if it wanted to survive the twentieth century.

The ‘Vichy’ regime was the detrimental consequence of occupation, combined with fervent nationalism. At the time, the regime saw collaboration as the sole answer to retaining France.

With the fall of the Republic came a torrent of raids to capture ‘undesirables’, even in the so-called free zone in Southern France. France has always prided itself upon its Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen and its widespread virtues of independence and enlightenment. It is then understandable it chose to transform hurt and shame into incomprehension. How could our country have performed such acts? It must simply be down to the individuals in charge: Vichy is not France.

However, in forming this distinction between Vichy and France, the act of recognition, the necessary education and amends to those who lost their lives and to those who lost their loved ones became impossible.

The issue therefore remains: what must France do to overcome this mistaken perception of its history?

France’s modern attempts to accept its past and why they didn’t work

In the twenty-first century, President Sarkozy’s administration attempted to educate children on France’s Jewish victims. In 2008 he became the first President of France’s Fifth Republic to attend a dinner with the CRIF organisation (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions) as a symbolic acceptance of historic responsibility. This meeting brought forward Sarkozy’s plan that every French ten-year-old would ‘be entrusted with’ the memory of one of the 11,000 French child victims of the Holocaust.

The participants in the CRIF meeting itself applauded Sarkozy’s initiative. The single person to not applaud Sarkozy for his idea was the Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil, who said: “You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is too heavy to bear”.

Politics and commemoration: why they are incompatible

Whilst progress was becoming more obvious, France still seemed to be misinterpreting the significance of its past events. Some declared that Holocaust memory wasn’t Sarkozy’s true motive but instead it lay in the advancement of his own agenda. Commemoration shouldn’t be performed as a superficial act. It should instead openly accept the past and make an explicit promise to instil recognition based on evidence, not on politics.

France’s culture has succeeded in expanding the knowledge of World War II through films such as “La Rafle” depicting the Vel d’Hiv roundup in 1942 concerning the deportation of thousands of French Jews. In 2017, President Macron made an act of publicly re-stating France’s responsibility. He rejected the separation between Vichy and France, stressing that, while not the entirety of France was to blame, it was still the French government.

Commemoration shouldn’t be performed as a superficial act. It should instead openly accept the past and make an explicit promise to instil recognition based on evidence, not on politics.

One cannot deny the country’s recent progress towards widespread acceptance – or at least recognition – of its history. Whilst there may always be politicians who prefer to distinguish between Vichy and France – Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, herself being one of them – it is difficult for any country to achieve universal acceptance of such an emotionally charged topic. Yet, until French and international citizens accept this, the town of Vichy faces the effects of the lasting consequences.

Being born in Vichy holds negative connotiations to this day. Many Vichy-born people prefer to deny it or avoid the question altogether. Admitting to it would indicate that you’re extremist and align yourself with Pétain’s beliefs. Even their rugby team has been labelled as “Pétainist”, roughly 80 years afterwards. Businesses refuse to trade and sign deals with the town to avoid looking like they support the Vichy regime. The effects do not exist just in politics and national image. They lie in the economic and psychological implications for Vichy residents.

France must stop disassociating itself from the Vichy regime, for the wellbeing of its citizens, who have not lived through it and who are not to blame. When this memory unites into national history, France will be able to move on.