“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”

Paris is known as the city of light, but it has its dark side. Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo were adept at presenting sinister scenarios in their novels and the paving stones and renovations of Paris conceal many horror stories. Others are all too visible on its walls. Yet, many people remain blind to the past – and that can be dangerous for the future. 

Along the rue de Sévigné, near the Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris, the unwary tourist may stumble upon a shocking plaque. Affixed to the wall of a school, it commemorates the deportation of children to Nazi concentration camps: “To the memory of the children, pupils of this school, deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of Nazi barbarism and the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. We must never forget them.”

Elsewhere, in a quiet garden at the eastern end of the Ile de la Cité, stands the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation. Located behind the Place Jean XXIII, it was designed by the architect Georges Henri Pingusson and inaugurated by President Charles de Gaulle on 12 April 1962. It memorializes the 160,000 people deported from France to the concentration camps between 1940 and1945. Eighty-five thousand were political activists, resistance fighters, homosexuals, and gypsies. Seventy-six thousand were Jews, including 11,000 children. Only 2,500 of those deported survived.

On the walls inside the monument are texts and poems by Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Jean-Paul Sartre and Antoine de St. Exupéry. Black triangles embedded in the walls bear the names of the death camps and contain the ashes of victims from the camps. A Hall of Remembrance is lined with pebbles, representing the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave of a loved one.

After Germany invaded France in 1939, the country was divided into a northern zone under the control of the Nazis and a southern zone under the leadership of Marshal Pétain. In 1941 anti-Semitic legislation, applicable in both zones, came into full force. French police carried out the first mass arrests in Paris in May 1941 when 3,747 men were interned. Two more sweeps took place before the first deportation train provided by French state railways left for Germany under French guard on 12 March 1942. On 16 July 1942, Paris police arrested 12,884 Jews, including 4,501 children and 5,802 women, during what became known as La Grande Rafle (“the great round-up”).

Many historians consider that an even worse crime was committed in Vichy-controlled southern France, where the Germans ostensibly had no say. In August 1942, gendarmes were sent to hunt down foreign refugees. Families were seized in their houses or captured after extensive hunts across the countryside. Some 11,000 Jews were taken to Drancy in the Paris suburbs, the main transit centre for Auschwitz. Children as young as three were separated from their mothers before being sent to their deaths.

Why is this still relevant today? Quite simply because, despite the hand-wringing, and the plaques on walls, and the long delayed prosecution of criminals like Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon, France is still in a state of denial. In Paris, bestselling novelist Alexandre Jardin has just published Des Gens Très Bien (Very Nice People). It tells the story of his highly respected grandfather, in 1942 chief of staff to Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval. Jardin’s grandfather was instrumental in the roundups and deportations, but did nothing to forestall them. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the book have been bought by young people trying to come to terms with the idea that members of their own families might have “collaborated” in some way.

Critical reaction in the French press has veered from plaudits to vicious attacks across the ideological spectrum. The problem is that by denouncing his own grandfather, Jardin implicitly denounces all the other “very nice people” – and there must have been thousands – in wartime France. Place this controversy in the context of anti-Semitism and racism in France, and of the political ambitions of Marine Le Pen (the leader of France’s far-right National Front in succession to her notorious father), and this piece of repressed history becomes explosive.

Marine Le Pen senses a political opportunity for what one commentator describes as “a more moderately presented, more middle class, more gently smiling form of extremism, rather than a snarling form of extremism.” I imagine that Alexandre Jardin’s grandfather also smiled gently while colluding in the deportation of children. Aesop had it right: Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing!

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