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France

French bestseller says Vichy regime ‘tried to save French Jews’

© German Bundersarchiv - French policemen register Jews at the Pithiviers internment camp

Text by Tony TODD

Latest update : 2014-10-12

A controversial French journalist and historian’s latest bestseller claims that the collaborationist wartime Vichy government's role in the Holocaust has been misunderstood, and that it “tried to save” French Jews from the Nazi death camps.

“The suicide of France: the 40 years that defeated France” is Eric Zemmour’s scathing attack on the failures of the country’s leadership and its elites since the end of the Gaullist era in 1969.

Alongside economic stagnation, immigration has killed France’s cultural identity, writes Zemmour, a popular if controversial figure whose outlook is seen as drifting ever closer to the far-right. In a review of his book this week, left-leaning daily Libération opens its article calling him “sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic”.

Perhaps most controversially, Zemmour states that the dark days of Vichy France during the Nazi occupation are both misunderstood and misrepresented, victim of an historical orthodoxy that views everything about the collaborationist regime in terms of “absolute evil”.

In particular, Zemmour challenges American historian Robert Paxton, whose 1972 book “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order” opened French eyes to the realities of the Vichy regime and its complicity in the Nazi-led Holocaust.

Attack on historical orthodoxy

It’s surprising not least because Zemmour himself is the son of Algerian Jewish immigrants to France.

According to news website Rue89, had Zemmour lived in France in the early 1940s, “he would himself have been the victim of [anti-Semitic] terror and would have faced deportation to Nazi death camps”.

Not necessarily so, insists Zemmour, who attacks the accepted view of Vichy as described “evangelically” by Paxton, whom he describes ironically as “our good teacher”.

For Paxton, the fact that a quarter of Jews living in France during the war perished was part of a wide-ranging and deliberately anti-Semitic collaborationist policy.

But Zemmour leaps to the Vichy leadership’s defence – insisting that the surviving 75 percent were “saved by the strategy of [Vichy leader] Philippe Pétain and [wartime Prime Minister] Pierre Laval in the face of German demands”.

Specifically, he says they deliberately “sacrificed foreign Jews (living in France) in order to save French Jews”.

While stopping short of praising Pétain and Laval, Zemmour wants his readers to understand that there is a “difference between morality...and political efficiency” when making their judgement on the Vichy regime.

Zemmour’s arguments are ‘absurd’

Contacted by Rue89’s Pascal Riché, Paxton hit back at Zemmour’s “empty arguments”.

“It is absurd to argue that Vichy sought to protect French Jews,” he said. “Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws of 1940-1942 attacked all Jews living in France, including those with French nationality.

“Their removal from public service, their exclusion from universities, the ‘Aryanisation’ of their property, were targeted at all Jews, French or not.”

Paxton goes on to say that the removal of foreign Jews first was a German decision, and that France would have understood very clearly that “we’ll take the foreign ones first, but understand that we will take the French Jews later on”.

“There is no reason at all for me to alter my conviction that Vichy committed terrible acts against all Jews, including those of French nationality.”

Of the approximately 330,000 Jews living in France at the beginning of the war (around 150,000 were French citizens, the others refugees), some 75,000 were deported –French and foreign alike – to the east. The vast majority did not survive the camps.

On Saturday, Zemmour’s book topped Amazon France's bestseller list. It has not yet been translated into English. 

 

Date created : 2014-10-12

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