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France: Past Imperfect -- Still-Unresolved Past Haunts Nation (Part 7)

  • Joel Blocker

More than most Western nations, France is a country obsessed with the memory of its history -- recent, revolutionary, and ancient. Yet, paradoxically, the country has yet to come to terms with much of its past.

Paris, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is France's revolutionary and post-World War II past that generate the most controversy in a country where the sense of history -- true or false -- is pervasive.

French historian Marc Ferro told RFE/RL: "One can say that, in France, the recourse to the memory of history is a permanent exercise. The country's past plays a much bigger role in its present than in other countries. Of course, the Germans took their time to acknowledge their guilt for [wartime] crimes, but when they did so, it was complete. For the past 10 years, the Russians have tended to blame the [Communist] Party -- to blame Lenin or Stalin -- for the crimes committed in their country. That's a means of exculpating themselves: 'It's not our fault.' But in France, it's completely different because, for several centuries now, we have had the habit of constantly returning to the past, which has become an object of both polemics and politics."

Today, Ferro says, there are still ongoing debates in France about the French Revolution of 1789, World War I, and other crucial events. He regards knowledge of French history as a very active element in the nation's political life, and contrasts it with the United States. "In America, analysis of the past is never related to the present, while with [the French], it's an active political issue all the time."

But Ferro and other French historians say that for all its obsession with the past, France has left many of its memories unresolved. For some 20 years after the end of World War II, for example, many -- perhaps most -- French citizens and some of the country's historians accepted the myth of a broad internal resistance to France's Nazi occupiers. There was, indeed, some resistance, particularly after it became clear the Allies would triumph, but there was also considerable collaboration with the Germans.

Comforting to many citizens, the resistance myth also suited many politicians, whose own pasts had been ambiguous. They included the late French President Francois Mitterrand who, after being a member of the Vichy collaborationist government, became a resistance leader.

There was no serious academic debate in France on the complicity of the Vichy government in war crimes until the 1960s, when a U.S. historian, Robert Paxton, found proof of it in files that had always been accessible to French historians. His work, plus the release of Marcel Ophuls' film "The Sorrow and the Pity," which included interviews with French collaborators, served to reveal the reality of French wartime behavior. But the Ophuls film was not permitted to be shown on French television, then entirely controlled by the government, until 10 years after it was released commercially.

French historian Benjamin Stora says, however, that the full extent of French complicity in war crimes was not clear until the 1970s and '80s. For this, he credits less Paxton and Ophuls than Jewish organizations in France, particularly those led by Serge Klarsfeld, much of whose French family perished in the Holocaust. A lawyer by training, Klarsfeld has devoted his life to uncovering the full record of Vichy and Nazi atrocities in France and bringing French and German criminals to justice.

Stora believes it was what he calls "Jewish memory" that was most responsible for changing French attitudes toward the resistance. "What called into question, and [finally] destroyed, the resistance myth was quite simply Jewish memory -- the movement in the 1970s of the children of those deported [to Nazi death camps] who completely turned upside-down the traditional French view [of wartime behavior]. The same was true in the 1990s, when the children of French soldiers who served in [the 1954-62 war] in Algeria and the children of the Harkis (Algerians who served on the French side) knocked holes in the official version of the Algerian war."

Stora is widely considered the preeminent French historian of the Algerian war and its aftereffects. Our correspondent asked him whether the French have finally come to terms with the Algerian conflict. "No, France has not yet come to a full resolution of its memory of the Algerian war. We're only at the beginning of the process, which is very painful for France because it's a matter of the loss of a part of the nation's territory. Algeria was considered a French department. So the fact that Algeria was separated from France was felt to be a national wound, a humiliation for France."

Stora adds that the departure of a million largely French so-called "pieds-noires" -- French for "black feet," because many were farmers -- further complicated the resolution of the nation's memory of the Algerian war. So did the massacre of tens of thousands of Harkis by an independent Algeria and the failure of French authorities to compensate adequately those who survived or the families of those who did not survive.

Stora believes that the Algerian war remains today -- 40 years after it ended -- a trauma for France. It will eventually be resolved, he says, but only by new generations of French and Algerians with no direct memory of, or personal connection to, the conflict.

More generally, Stora and other French historians attribute the country's failure to come to terms with its recent past to the impact of the 20th century's two world wars.

Although France was nominally one of the victors in World War I, it lost almost an entire generation -- 1.5 million men -- in the trenches and never really recovered from the human and demographic shock.

Before recovery could take place, France capitulated to the German Army in less than six weeks in the spring of 1940. The country remained occupied for some four years.

Stora notes the defeat in 1940 was followed in the 1950s by two more -- the loss of Indochina, a French colony for a century, and the withdrawal from Algeria. The three defeats, Stora concludes, provoked "a great crisis of French nationalism and an inability to face up to the past."

The substantial -- if still far from complete -- rectification of France's postwar record by many of its historians has been accompanied by similar -- if slower and still imperfect -- progress by the state and its public school system.

For 50 years after the end of World War II, for example, no French government saw fit to admit the official complicity of the Vichy regime (1940-45) in Nazi crimes against French Jews. Some 75,000 of them were deported to Nazi death camps, and less than 5,000 survived. There is strong documentary evidence that the Vichy regime often exceeded Nazi demands for such deportations -- for instance, by including children in the so-called "shipments" to the camps, when the Nazis had clearly asked only for adults.

Yet until 1995, when then-newly elected conservative President Jacques Chirac made a public apology for French guilt, no high official had raised his voice on behalf of the truth. Chirac's predecessor in office, Socialist Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), had himself concealed his Vichy past. As chief of state, he insisted that the collaborationist government was an anomaly with no relation to what he called the "true French republic," whose record, he said, was therefore clean.

But Mitterrand, like Chirac after him, did undertake the building of a number of Jewish history and Holocaust museums and monuments in Paris and other major cities. And, perhaps more importantly, Mitterrand's education minister, Jack Lang, oversaw a thorough revision of the public school system's curriculum.

Today, a French ninth-grader's (14-15 years old) history textbook begins its account of the Vichy regime with at least an implicit condemnation that would not have been possible a quarter of a century ago. It says that Marshall Louis Petain, the regime's leader, sought an "understanding" with the occupying power. That led him, the text continues, "to satisfy Germany's demands and to deliver to the Nazis Jews living in France."

An accompanying picture of a French Jewish girl's identity card clearly states her ethnic origin. It is dated December 1940, well before the Nazis made any demands on the Vichy regime, now known to have been itself imbued with anti-Semitism from its outset.

As for France's internal resistance to the Nazis, the textbook does not exaggerate its importance -- but without ever going so far as to say flatly that the Allies liberated the country. It carefully distinguishes between the external resistance, the "Free French" led by General Charles de Gaulle, and the internal fighters who were divided into several rival groups, the most numerous of which was led by communists.

On the eight-year-long Algerian War, the history textbook goes much further toward righting historical wrongs than any French government has yet been able to do. Two pages are entirely given over to excerpts from a diary kept by Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun until he was assassinated by French extremists in Algiers in 1962.

The textbook asks students to summarize the rise of the Algerian National Liberation Front and the French army's reaction to it, as reflected in Feraoun's diary. One ninth-grader reports that the highly controversial subject of systematic French torture of Algerian suspects during the war is freely discussed in his classroom -- while no government has ever dared to admit it in public.

In fact, the curriculum in the French school system's upper grades is now "politically correct." It leaves official pronouncements on major past events far behind, and matches the mentality and left leanings of the 2 million-strong French teaching corps, most of whom are known to have supported the Socialists, Communists, and Greens throughout their adult lives.

Sooner or later, most historians agree, official rhetoric and action on still-sensitive subjects such as Algeria are bound to catch up with what has been instilled in students' minds for some 15 years now.