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Europe

Coming to Terms With Vichy

For years, France preferred to remember those who resisted the Nazis, rather than those who collaborated with them. But gradually the story of the Vichy regime's betrayal of the Jewish community has emerged.

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Vichy leader Henri Philippe Petain was sentenced to death for treason

After France fell to Germany in 1940, a government continued to operate from Vichy in an unoccupied zone in southern France. The regime passed anti-Semitic laws and helped to deport more than 75,000 Jews. Only a small minority survived the concentration camps. In the Paris region 13,000 Jews were rounded up in one night alone, in what became known as the Vel d'Hiv round-up, named after the cycling stadium where most of them were subsequently imprisoned.

These were not the events which were highlighted after General Charles de Gaulle's triumphant entry into a liberated Paris in 1944. Instead, his famous words stressed the heroic role of the French in resisting the Nazis. Olivier Todd, who was 15 years old at the time, watched the scenes that were played out on the Champs Elysees, and said the reality wasn't quite so clear-cut.

De Gaulle Statue

Statue of former French President Charles de Gaulle in front of the Grand Palais in Paris

"Everybody turned out to be Gaullists by that time, but as a kid, I'd seen Marshal Henri Philippe Petain -- the leader of the Vichy regime -- be acclaimed by Parisians on the Champs Elysees, and only a few weeks later I saw de Gaulle be acclaimed," Todd said. "We were versatile."

Reassuring myth

After the war, de Gaulle repeated his message -- something historians have come to see as a reassuring myth of national resistance. The reality was that only a small minority had actively fought the Nazis. The vast majority of the police in Paris worked for the Germans.

The embellished story of the French resistance was a deliberate policy, thought out against a background of serious divisions between Gaullists and communists, according to Antony Beever, the author of several books about World War II including "Paris After the Liberation."

"De Gaulle needed to project an image of France which almost everyone could sign up to," Beever said. "It was very cleverly done -- but it was not entirely cynical because de Gaulle, like many military leaders, had this sort of ideal version of what post-war France would be. However, it was an ideal which didn't exactly work out in reality."

During de Gaulle's years in power, the French republic sought to play down past divisions in an effort to make a clean break with the past. Only gradually did the French begin waking up to the truth about les annees noires -- the dark years of the war. The 1970s and 1980s saw a series of revelations about France's wartime history. But it wasn't until President Jacques Chirac took office that France agreed to compensate victims of the Holocaust.

"It took a very long time before the attitude of the Vichy state was actually acknowledged, particularly what was done to the Jews during the war," said parliamentarian Herve Mariton.

Jean-Marie Le Pen

Extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen

But even today, there are signs that not everyone accepts what has now become conventional wisdom. Earlier this year, the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen described the wartime occupation by the Germans as "not particularly inhumane" despite "some excesses." His comments provoked a furor, but even in a subsequent radio interview, he refused to back down.

"They say I'm too hard on the Arabs," he said. "Now they say I'm not hard enough on the Germans. In our country people are not free to think. It's scandalous that 60 years after the war, there's no free expression on these subjects."

Le Pen's original interview was given to a far-right journal called Riverol, which was started up by Vichy sympathizers after the war. For some, his comments suggest traditional revisionist thinking about the wartime era is still alive and well.

Generational civil war

Yet last year's commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris passed without too much argument. Historian Antony Beever said that, on the whole, France has learned to separate myth from reality.

"Rather like in Germany, there was almost a civil war between the generations over that history, particularly in the late 1970s, and 1980s," Beever said. "But Germany faced up to its past and I think France has certainly managed to as well."

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