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A Legend of Innocence

France’s wartime past continues to fascinate and divide the public. Eric Zemmour’s failed presidential campaign cast this reality into sharp relief, reviving a legend of national innocence in which France bore no guilt for the Holocaust and precipitating a fierce battle over the legacy of the Vichy regime. Zemmour, the son of Algerian Jews, cited outdated, erroneous historical accounts to claim that the regime and Marshal Philippe Pétain protected French Jews from deportation. He averred that the puppet regime had only collaborated with the Nazis. Zemmour, who has previously questioned the innocence of Captain Dreyfus, sees the historical facts and official commemoration of the Holocaust as an obstacle to his plan of national renewal. He wants to replace France’s guilt with pride, its introspection with self-assertion.

He is not alone. Holocaust education has become a bone of contention in some French schools, as Arab Muslim students refuse to sit through lessons on the topic. Postcolonial intellectuals, meanwhile, insist that excessive focus on the extermination of the Jews distracts from European imperialism, the latest incarnation of which is the Jewish state itself.

The facts, however, remain the same: 75,000 French Jews disappeared into the nacht und nebel of the camps. Historians have shown in excruciating detail how the Vichy regime launched a homegrown program of antisemitic persecution and cooperated in the implementation of the Final Solution. Most scholars maintain that the Holocaust, in the ferocity, intentionality, and scale of murder, stands as a singular crime.

France has done much since the ’60s and ’70s to reckon with its own history. The immediate postwar era saw the coalescence of dueling narratives on the nation’s conduct in the war, both of which served to exculpate French society at large. Resisters maintained that Pétain had usurped power and that the Vichy regime had no claim to representing France. A narrow coterie of villains welcomed defeat and packed off resisters and Jews on trains to the east. High-profile collaborators like Pétain and Deputy Pierre Laval told another story, which also absolved the nation. The Vichy regime had interposed itself between the German occupiers and French society as “a shield.” Collaboration limited the exactions of the occupation, including for Jews, whom officials had quietly saved while ostensibly cooperating with the enemy.

The ’60s and ’70s saw the emergence of cultural production and academic literature that disproved the nostrums of the postwar moment. Robert Paxton dispelled many comforting illusions with the publication of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order and (with Michael Marrus) Vichy France and the Jews. Prominent collaborators like Rene Bousquet and Maurice Papon came to trial in the ’90s. The debate appeared settled when President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state’s role in the Holocaust in 1995. France could now construct a new memorial consensus on the basis of historical fact; the matter might even lose much of its salience as the older generation died out.

But Zemmour’s provocation and the banlieues’ backlash persist. The memorial consensus, itself of fairly recent vintage, no longer musters unanimous approval. It might even appear to some as the product of elite opinion. French Jews, stewards of Holocaust memory in an age of extremes, now find themselves in a delicate position.

Read entire article at Tablet