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« A crime committed in France by France ». In a powerful speech, Prez Hollande makes France responsible for the horrible Vel D’hiv roundup of 1942, a way to present the facts that might overlook a part of the complex reality.
But in the same speech, he reminds us how the Jews trusted the state and how it helps the French police to carry out the roundup. Is it then the role of the State to tell us how to understand History, or should the State teach us how to think by ourself?
The Vel d’Hiv roundup is definitely one of the most disgusting events that took place during WWII in France, and the very dignified ceremonies to remember this 70 year old episode must be in the spotlight. However, once again, politics are looking to create an official History, some kind of a simple shortcut, in which France becomes the Villain. Fear not, I have no intention here to make it look like that France is not responsible at all. Yet, it seems a little hard to leave the Nazis totally out of that event, and more importantly, if the aim is to make sure such a horror never happens again, maybe we should avoid shortcuts and simple lines of reasoning in historical matters that are complex…
Looking for guilty people is human, and it’s all over the news for any events: the Euro crisis, Global warming or a shooting in an American high school. Our WWII Nazi occupation trauma also, and yes, some Frenchmen were actively collaborating, like Pierre Laval. But it might not be sound to make France responsible of everything that happened in France during the war. First because the allied had lost the war in 1940, France was defeated and occupied, and different people could represent France. Charles de Gaulle, as Churchill will decide in June 1940, was the real France for some. Philippe Pétain, as the US will decide in 1940 by sending an embassy to Vichy, therefore accepting the defeat of France and legalizing Vichy state, was France for others. What is sure, is that Pétain was not elected, a few panicked congressmen chose him in a Bordeaux theater, and Pétain then did a coup d’état, unilaterally dissolving the parliament and choosing to be a dictator, therefore lacking the democratic approval of his power. Back then, it was in fact impossible to answer the question “who is France?”, so how could we answer it now? And of course, the real people calling the shot in Paris at that time where the Nazis. It’s not like we invited the Germans to occupy us and willingly decided to participate in the Final Solution. The French police had to obey to the SS leaders in Paris, and it is the German who demanded the round-ups to take place. Not Pétain, not even Laval… Even if you consider Vichy State as being France, the Germans were in charge in Paris, a good example of this is the yellow star: While Pétain refused it for the Free Zone, it was imposed in the North of the country…
But more importantly, and François Hollande pointed it out very well, the trust in the State is what made this dramatic events possible. The French Jews believed the state, and willingly went to the Police stations for the 1941 census, helping the Nazis and the Police to create a Jewish file. They also obeyed to the orders of the round-up, trusting that France would not betray them, as they were all foreign refugees in one of the only countries that still welcomed Jewish foreigners. And what about the French police itself? They had orders. Just like today, when cops are taking a 18yo kid to Police custody because he smoke pot or when they bust several illegal aliens with a surprise control asked by the Préfecture. They might not agree with it, but they have to obey. They are “agents’”. And as agent, it is not up to them to judge, they are demanded to trust the order they get. So by and large, if really guilt must be laid on somebody else besides the Germans, and besides France for having lost the war in 1940, it must be laid on the lack of Esprit Critique, the lack of critical faculties.
And that is all the problem in this new official version of History. Now we will be taught in school that France did it. But we are not going to be told why and how, nor to what extend the Jews -and the Police- trusted the State. Student will be served a pret-à-penser, a ready-made consistent Historical tale. And it’s not that much that in that tale, France will be the evil guy, although that is not very respectful to those who did already judge the facts right after they happened, and to all the French who during the war, resisted or simply disagreed with Vichy state and Pétain. No, the problem will be that teaching this is a good example of what not to do if one wants to avoid a return of manipulation. During the Revolution, school was to be a wall against tyranny, by giving each citizen the tools to think for himself. By reducing History to Manichean axioms, and to make it look like the State knows it all and it’s useless to do your own research, the school system will fail to prevent the return of these kinds of events. Because if fascism ever comes back, it will look and taste like democracy, and it will take a lot of esprit critique to expose it.
So yes, the Vel d’Hiv round-up is a crime committed in France, by Frenchmen maybe, but probably not by France, because it is not really possible to define who or what was France in these terrible years. And the line behind it is: Never Trust the State 100%. That’s what I wish Hollande would have said in his speech, instead of asking the schools to teach the state’s vision of History while ignoring the facts.