David A. Bell: François Hollande’s Apology Tour—and What Americans Should Learn From It
David A. Bell is Professor of History at Princeton University.
Is your president a socialist who has repeatedly apologized for his country? If you are an American, the answer to this question is no, despite apoplectic Republican claims to the contrary. If you are French, however, it is most certainly yes. Not only is President François Hollande a proud Socialist; this year he has made two high-profile apologies for France. This summer, on the seventieth anniversary of the notorious "vel d’Hiv" roundup of Jews in Paris. he gave a speech acknowledging the country’s guilt in the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, And this past week, he ended official denials that the Parisian police had carried out a massacre of Algerian protestors in 1961, and paid homage to the victims. The two statements say a great deal about French public life today, about the country’s relation to its history, and about its widening differences from the United States.
Both of the incidents for which Hollande apologized, in the name of the French Republic, were long hidden from sight. After the liberation of France in 1944, a battered and demoralized population consoled itself with the myth that all but a few traitors and criminals had resisted the Nazi occupation. The deportation of some 76,000 Jews to the death camps was blamed on the Germans. Only slowly, and in large part thanks to the effort of North American historians (especially Robert Paxton of Columbia) did the full sordid story emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the French had in fact supported the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain for several years. Many had applauded, enthusiastically, anti-Semitic policies modeled on those of the Nazis. And while it was the Germans who demanded the deportation of Jews from France, the job of identifying, arresting and transporting these Jews was carried out entirely by French authorities, including the horrific, days-long incarceration of 13,000 Jews in the "Vel d’Hiv"—an indoor bicycle racetrack—without adequate food, water or ventilation.
The 1961 massacre similarly remained, for decades, occluded in French public memory. It took place in the final stages of Algeria’s violent struggle for independence against France, after thousands of Algerians living in Paris staged demonstrations in violation of a curfew imposed on them by the Prefect of Police, Maurice Papon. Papon allowed his forces to disperse them with wanton brutality. The police itself gave an official death toll of three, but in fact, as many as 200 Algerians were shot, beaten or trampled to death, with some of their bodies thrown into the Seine River. It took nearly thirty years for French historians to bring these facts to light, and the exact numbers remain hotly debated. This reckoning has been closely linked to the reckoning with Vichy, in part because one of the officials who had organized the deportation of French Jews, only to move unscathed into a brilliant post-war career, was none other than Maurice Papon. Even as the historians revealed his role in the massacre, the French state finally decided to prosecute him for his wartime crimes (convicted in 1998, he died nine years later).
François Hollande is not the first French head of state to apologize for his country’s role in the Holocaust...
comments powered by Disqus