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Hollande acknowledges French role in Holocaust
François Hollande said Sunday France was responsible for the death of thousands of Jews during WWII, a stance that draws him closer to former president Jacques Chirac, until now the only other head of state to admit French guilt in the Holocaust.
President François Hollande said Sunday that France bore responsibility for the killings of thousands of Jewish people who were detained and deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His speech – delivered at a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of a two-day police roundup of more than 13,000 Jews in Paris in July 1942 – followed in the footsteps of former president Jacques Chirac.
While Hollande has often sought comparisons to François Mitterrand, the only other left-wing president under the Fifth Republic, his position over France’s role in the Holocaust once more confirmed for many observers Hollande's affinity with the conservative Chirac. In 1995, Chirac broke with tradition when he declared that France had “committed the irreparable” and “owed [Holocaust victims] an everlasting debt.”
Admitting guilt over the Holocaust is something Mitterrand, who was in power from 1981 to 1995, cautiously avoided during his tenure, even if he instituted the day of remembrance for the Vél d-Hiv roundup, named after an indoor cycling track that once stood near the Eiffel Tower.
On Sunday, addressing a small crowd at a solemn ceremony in southwest Paris, Hollande remembered that “not one German soldier, not a single one,” participated in the July 1942 operation. “The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France,” the president declared.
Hollande also directly referred to Chirac’s groundbreaking speech 17 years ago, saying the decision to finally recognise France’s collective responsibility in the wartime extermination of Jews had been “lucid” and “courageous”.
Hollande also paid tribute to the “anonymous heroes” who risked imprisonment or worse by hiding Jewish neighbours and who “allowed three-quarters of French Jews to survive”.
A ‘fundamental question’
According to Stephane Rozés, a political consultant who has advised Hollande in the past, the question of French complicity in the Holocaust is a fundamental one and it was no surprise the French press highlighted the president’s stance on the issue with numerous headlines and opinion pieces.
“Hollande is saying that it really was France that participated in this crime, where Mitterrand and [president] Charles De Gaulle said it was not France, but the Vichy government, that collaborated with the Nazis. It may seem subtle, but it is a critical difference, an interpretation of history,” Rozés noted.
While former president Nicolas Sarkozy often spoke out against anti-semitism during his time in office, his position on France’s role in Holocaust crimes and Nazi collaboration was not as clearly defined as it was by Chirac before him, or as it now is by Hollande.
On several occasions, including a controversial speech in Senegal in July 2007, Sarkozy said it was time for France to stop repenting for its past, in particular its colonial history.
A day after Hollande spoke at the commemoration, joining Chirac’s stance on the issue, French dailies took the opportunity to focus on the two men’s shared and much-reported dislike of former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
But according to Rozés, Hollande was not looking to differentiate himself from Sarkozy or point an accusatory finger at his predecessor. “Hollande’s position on France’s role in the Holocaust is much closer to Nicolas Sarkozy’s than the one defended by François Mitterrand,” he said.
The ongoing debate over France’s role in the Holocaust, as well as the one about its colonial legacy, may be defined less by opposed ideologies. It may be more a question of time.
In an interview with the right-wing daily Le Figaro, historian Henry Rousso explained that the issue remained a sensitive one, but the controversy has been quelled over the past 20 years. “With De Gaulle and Mitterrand on one side, and Hollande and Chirac on the other, it is more of a generational divide,” Rousso argued.