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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Brief History of Anti-Semitism in Paris, Part 3

In the last installment of this subject, I will discuss how France has come to deal with its actions towards the Jewish during World War II, and whether or not anti-semitism is prevalent in France today.

France was in an interesting position following World War II, at least in comparison to their German neighbors. The German role in World War II was pretty clear, which seems to have led to a more clear understanding of their mistakes and has allowed them to educate their populace with the hope that they can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

The French role is not as obvious. While they were at war against Germany and worked towards their defeat, they also complied with the Nazi government and assisted in achieving the goals of the Third Reich in France. In the summer of 1944, the French military (thanks to the assistance of several other countries) felt safe enough to band together to fight against their invaders and declare victory. In an effort to cleanse their population of collaborators, many were sent to their deaths for their roles in complying with the Vichy Government and the SS. As a result, the French activity during the war is remembered differently, depending on who one asks.

The average American has the impression that the French did not fight back against the Nazis and it was the Americans, with help from other Allied troops, who saved the French following the invasion in Normandy. The French did fight, albeit they were poorly organized when the Nazis pushed through the Ardennes Forest in 1940. Many did fight with the French resistance throughout the war. It is true that the Allied forces did strike the death blow that led to the surrender of the Nazis in France, though the French did their part to help as well.

The impression is slightly different in France. Until recently, French film and other media related to the war, at least in my opinion, gave the impression that France was conquered by a superior army, and were brutally oppressed until the French, with allied help, rose up triumphantly and banished the German forces. The parts included in this impression are accurate, although there a quite a few details, in particular in relation to the Vichy Government and their treatment of the Jews in France, that had for a long time been overlooked.

Until very recently, the French government denied any responsibility for the actions of the Vichy Government, as they claimed that they had nothing to do with the choices of Philippe Pétain and his supporters. This seemed to be something that has been widespread in France- in retrospect the actions of the Vichy Government were horrendous and inexcusable, and although the Vichy Government received widespread support in France during a large part of World War II, everyone seems to point their finger and say that they had nothing to do with those guys. It is almost as if the Vichy Government was seen as an invading body as well- they crossed the border and took power in France, and as soon as they were defeated, they packed up their things and returned to their native land.

In 1995, Jacques Chirac , on the anniversary of the round-up at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, blasted the French government as well as the French people for ignoring the entirety of their role for so long. In sum, he declared that the French needed to own up to their past, and accept that France "delivered those it protected to its executioners." Though much had been made of their heroics during World War II, little had been discussed regarding French complicity in World War II in sending thousands of Jews to their death.

In 2010, the deportation of the Jews by the French suddenly received unprecedented attention. Last year, two of the top grossing films in France focused on the round-up at the Vél d'Hiv. The first, "La Rafle" is a French film that focuses on the round-up and deportation of several Jewish families in Montmartre during the war. From what I heard, this was the top grossing film in France last year and many were saying that it would be used in schools so that French students would learn more about the complicated role that the French played during the war. This story uses real names and was based on interviews with several of the characters featured in this film.

A second film, "Elle s'appelait Sarah" based on a very popular book (known as Sarah's Key in English) focused on the story of a reporter tracking down the story of a Jewish girl who apparently survived the round-up in 1942, and the connection of her husband's family to this girl. The story itself is fictional, but the events regarding the round-up are true. As the film was shot in French and English, I believe that it should now be available in English speaking countries (of the two films I mentioned, I thought this was the better one). As a result of the recent attention, the French (and the rest of the world) have the opportunity to become better informed on the complicated situation in France in World War II.

The last issue that I need to address is regarding anti-Semitism in France today. Does it still prevail today? My answer would be not necessarily, though there were many who were furious with Israel regarding their attack on a ship headed for Gaza in 2009 to provide aid. Protests were huge and quite angry in the Arab neighborhoods of Paris, and did lead to some violence against Jews in Paris, or at least some strong words. However, general anti-Semitism is not a common site in today's Paris. The Marais, home of much of the city's Jewish population, is a thriving quarter that is considered by many to be the most desirable place to live in all of Paris. It is a neighborhood popular with tourists as well, as it is filled with good delis, as well as the most popular falafel stands in Paris. Furthermore and most importantly, it gives people an inside look at a thriving Jewish community that is very proud of its identity and their traditions.

Thank you for reading, and as always, if you have comments, let me know!

If you are traveling to Paris and looking to see (and eat) what French people really eat and take a walk around some cool neighborhoods of Paris, look into my tours .

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  1. Hi John-Paul

    Thanks for a really interesting article. I too am fascinated by the French role in both wars, and, living on the border of Champagne and Picardie, can feel the history, the wars' presence, even now. In fact, I've also written a blog post on war if you'd like to read it:

    With regards to your last paragraph though I'd urge caution. Anti-Semitism is often claimed when someone raises doubts as to the legality or morality of the existance of the State of Israel as it stands today. Given the atrocities that occur in Israel and Palestine today, perpetrated by minorities on both sides, I think it does a great disservice to the discourse and, ultimately, the chance of peace in the region if people are not able to validly raise concerns about Zionism - without being labelled anti-Semitic.

    Having said that, I do think that your point was not that opposition to Israel's actions in that context was necessarily anti-Semitic but that it created tentions in a country that has both the largest Muslim and largest Jewish population in Europe that ultimately led to a higher rate of occurances of anti-semitism.

    Anyway, thanks again for an interesting and thought provoking read and keep enjoying all that life in Paris has to offer.


  2. Hi Shannon,

    Thanks for your insightful comments! You are absolutely right it is difficult to criticize the Israeli state without sounding Anti-Semitic. The majority of the protests regarding the attack of the ship heading to Gaza in 2009 spurred protests that seemed geared towards the Israeli government, rather than Israel and its people themselves. However, as an unfortunate byproduct of the protests, there were some that decided to escalate it and take it out on some of the Jewish population here in Paris. The protests themselves were not anti-semetic, but it did lead to some anti-semitism.

    I read your article and I understand what you mean about signs of the war everywhere out there. My girlfriend's family lives about 20km west of Chateau Thierry, and there are reminders of World War I everywhere. Seemingly every town has a war memorial. We even chanced upon a small cemetery for mainly British soldiers in the middle of a corn field (near Signy-Signets). I like you feel lucky that we did not have to grow up in a war torn environment.

    Thanks again for reading and thanks especially for the commentary, I really appreciate it!

  3. Thanks for the response. We are also not far from Chateau Thierry, in fact, it is our closest "big" town, though, being in a family of champagne vineyard owners, the culture is much more Champagne than Picardie in my neck of the woods.

    I should clarify also my previous comment - that a reference to Israel was my lazy shorthand for the Government of Israel. Fortunately, there are many individuals in both Israel and Palestine who can't and shouldn't be representatives of their respective elected leaders.

    Incidentally, we also chanced upon a war memorial in the middle of a cornfield further north in Picardie, past St Quentin on our way to Lille, an Australian war memorial, accessible by 2kms of dirt track. They are everywhere.

    If you're interested, there is also a memorial for the Battle of the Marne not too far from Chateau Thierry that you may like to visit the next time you're out visiting the "in-laws".

    Thanks for the response.