First legal admission of country's collaboration in Nazi atrocities
France's highest court put an end to decades of legal timidity and moral taboo yesterday when it issued a ruling recognising the state's responsibility in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during the second world war.
Citing "mistakes" made by the collaborationist Vichy regime, the council of state said the government's share of blame was clear in acts which had not been forced on it by the occupiers and which "allowed or facilitated the deportation from France of victims of antisemitism".
The ruling, which will be recorded in the official state legislative journal, marks the first time any French judicial body has acknowledged in such stark terms the government's role in Nazi-era atrocities.
Calling for a "formal admission of the state's responsibility and of the prejudice collectively suffered", the court said it had concluded that acts such as the arrest, internment and dispatching of Jews to transit camps were clear indicators of the government's guilt. "As they led to the deportation of people considered Jewish by the Vichy regime, the acts and activities of the state ... became its responsibility," it added.
The move was welcomed by historians and Jewish groups, many of whom have expressed disbelief at France's unwillingness to face up to its actions. From 1942 to 1944 a stream of Jews were rounded up by Vichy authorities, and by the end of the war some 76,000 had been deported to Nazi concentration camps. Although under the overall control of the SS, the main transit camp of Drancy, from which 63,000 people were sent to their deaths, was run by Paris's police force.
"It is a decision with which I am content," Serge Klarsfeld, the leading French historian of the Holocaust, told Le Figaro. "France is showing now that she is at the forefront of countries which are confronting their past, which was not the case even in the 1990s."
For decades after the war, the suffering of French Jews at the hands of their countrymen was buried, along with the shame of collaboration, at the back of national consciousness. François Mitterand, president from 1981 until 1995, insisted France "was never involved" in ill-treatment of its Jewish population, and it was not until Jacques Chirac in 1995 that a head of state admitted France's "inescapable guilt".
Yesterday's ruling, issued in connection with the individual case of a deportee's daughter requesting damages, did however find that the current French state had largely made up for the sins of its past. Apparently ruling out any reparations for victims or their families, the court said the acts had been "compensated for" through various means since 1945.
Klarsfeld, whose postwar research was the first to reveal the extent of France's complicity in the deportations, agreed that enough had been done in recent years. "The people asking now for other forms of compensation have often already got something with the measures in place," he said.