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WWII anniversary highlights best - and worst - of Paris police

Photo : AFP / Patrick Kovarik | French Prime minister Manuel Valls reviews veterans during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the uprising of the Paris police, on August 19, 2014.

France honoured Tuesday the role Paris’s police played in freeing the city from Nazi Germany 70 years ago this week. But despite their heroics, World War II also holds one of the darkest chapters in the history of the French capital’s police force.


On 24 August, 1944, after four long years of occupation by Hitler’s forces, French and American soldiers entered the streets of Paris, cheered on by jubilant crowds. A day later, German forces in the city surrendered.

But the liberation of Paris had really begun a few days earlier, when, with the sound of the artillery from the advancing Allies in the distance to the west, the city’s police rebelled against the occupiers. They went on strike then took over the Paris police headquarters and raised the French flag in a show of defiance against the Nazis.

Their actions helped spark a general uprising led by the French Resistance against the German occupiers. The police played a prominent role, with nearly 3,000 manning barricades across the city.

A week of fierce fighting followed, in which 167 police officers were killed.

The police headquarters became “the first public building to be liberated, a symbol of the reestablished republic, the starting point of the liberation”, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls at Tuesday‘s ceremony commemorating the police uprising.

“In this place, a glorious page was written by the police,” he said.

Collaboration, arrests and deportations

But while the police undoubtedly played a vital role in the liberation of Paris, there is another side to the story of the city’s police force during the Occupation.

French police arrest Jews in Paris on August 20, 1941
© Wikimedia Commons

Though many police joined resistance movements, the institution as a whole was placed at the service of the collaborating Vichy government and the Nazis themselves, actively assisting in the arrest and deportation of French Jews.

One moment in particular casts a long shadow. On July 16th 1942, police officers, acting on German orders, began rounding up thousands of Jews living in Paris.

They were brought to the city's indoor velodrome, the Vel d'Hiv', where they were held for days in searing heat with almost no food, water or sanitation.

More than 13,000 were arrested, around 4,000 of them children.

Those who did not die in the velodrome itself were deported to extermination camps.

Though French police had already begun arresting both foreign and French Jews in 1941, the Vel’ d'Hiv Roundup, as it is known, was the first in which women, children and the elderly were also taken.

According to historian Jean-Marc Berlière, an expert on the history of the police, Tuesday’s commemoration acts "like a memory screen”, covering over a moment in France’s past many find difficult to confront. It is a way of “obscuring the roundup of Vel' d'Hiv", he told AFP.

But, much like the history of French police throughout World War II, even this dark chapter is not completely black and white.

Despite the thousands of Jews rounded up at Vel d'Hiv, the Germans were left furious. Almost 10 thousands fewer Jews had been arrested than they had expected, says Berlière. The police had leaked news of the impending roundup the day before, allowing many to escape.

The conflicting history of Paris’s police force in World War II is perhaps best demonstrated by two monuments that stand side by side outside their headquarters.
One lists the names of officers killed during the liberation, the other of those shot by the resistance for collaborating with the Nazis.

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