Andreas Whittam Smith: To Understand Modern France, You Really Must See "La Rafle"





[Andreas Whittam Smith is a columnist for the Independent (UK).]

The memory of France's most shameful wartime episode, buried deep for 30 years and then only grudgingly recognised, has finally come fully to the surface. For the appalling fate that the French state inflicted on thousands of its Jewish people one morning in July 1942 has become the subject of a film made with serious and respectful intent, a sort of documentary with actors. It is titled La Rafle (The Round-up). It opened last week in 775 cinemas throughout France. The telling is vivid and leaves one shaken....

By 1942 the victorious German army had been occupying northern France and the coastal districts for two years. Marshal Pétain, who had negotiated a deal under which central and southern France would be administered along Nazi lines, governed from Vichy in the centre. The "rafle" was conceived and planned by the secretary-general of the French national police and other Vichy officials together with the German authorities. The French as well as the Germans were strongly anti-Semitic.

There were no reports of this atrocity by newspapers or radio at the time. If the news sheets published by various resistance groups covered the story, it was soon overlaid by fresh events. Then at the Liberation in 1944, the victorious General de Gaulle gave a version of contemporary history that flattered his fellow citizens by omitting unpleasant details. In his defence it has been said that he was editing the truth to bind the wounds of the nation and restore a sense of self-confidence. In the event De Gaulle's account became the received wisdom for many years....

As a matter of fact, during the 1940s and 1950s, the great majority of French Jews had little desire to claim a special place among the heroes or the casualties of the war. As a book just published in France (La Mémoire Désunie by Olivier Wieviorka, Seuil) shows, their preoccupation was to re-integrate themselves into the national community from which they had been excluded. Jewish associations were more concerned with mutual aid than lobbying....

Finally, in 1995, President Chirac publicly recognised that the French state apparatus had supported the German occupier in persecuting the Jews of France. The "rafle" of the Vel' d'Hiver could longer be denied. France had, "delivered those it should have protected to their executioners". The new film completes the process....

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