France opens Vichy files to face its painful past

France's decision to open up archives from its World War II collaboration with Nazi occupiers is being seen as breaking one of the last taboos that has poisoned debate about the era for years.

France opens Vichy files to face its painful past

“This brings an end to the fear of scandal. We are taking responsibility and we will have a better understanding of the issues,” said Gilles Morin, a historian who heads the association of users of national archives.

From this week, the government has opened up the police and justice archives from 1940 to 1944 when the Vichy regime, led by Philippe Petain, collaborated with the invading German army.

While the Nazis occupied the north of France, Petain – a hero of World War I – led so-called Vichy France in the centre and the south of the country, with its headquarters in the genteel city of the same name.

Despite having autonomy from German policies, Petain passed legislation that saw Jews – around 150,000 of whom had fled to the south believing it to be safer – subjected to severe discrimination similar to that in the Nazi-occupied north.

Under Petain, the Vichy regime put to death up to 15,000 people and helped deport nearly 80,000.

But at the end of the war, France emerged on the side of the victors thanks to the actions of the Resistance led by General Charles de Gaulle. It was given a seat on the UN Security Council and took part in the post-war division of Germany.

'Blip' in history

The Vichy regime's role in the deportation of Jews was hushed up for years, portrayed as a “blip” in history. It was not until 1995 that then-president Jacques Chirac recognised France's responsibility in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to death camps.

Chirac, born in 1932, was only a child during World War II, unlike his predecessor Francois Mitterrand, who faced scrutiny during his 14 years in power over his controversial role under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand was given an award by the Petain regime in 1943, although he also had a role in the Resistance.

“Time has passed. The generations who were involved in World War II are no longer around. This isn't a hot political debate any more, so it can be re-opened without any risk,” said the historian Annette Wieviorka, who specializes in the Holocaust.

Current president Francois Hollande, who was born after the war, announced on the 70th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Europe on May 8th that the archives would be thrown open, which he said would guard against “these evils which threaten us, of revisionism, the altering of history and forgetfulness”.

Experts say while the archives will now be almost fully accessible, they were not fully closed off before and their contents have helped historians to write dozens of books about the period.

However until now, a special request to view the archives had to be submitted, a process that could take “between two weeks and six months”, Wieviorka said.

Now, only a small number of files will remain secret.

Exploded myth

One of the most explosive books about the Vichy regime was written by American historian Robert Paxton, although he used archives seized  from the Nazis by the US army.

When the book came out in 1973, it revealed in detail the extent of the collaboration between the state and the occupiers and exploded the myth of a country united behind the Resistance.

The opening up of the archives now is not expected to throw up any new revelations.

However, “history is full of small stories within stories”, said Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer who acts for the deported Jews, who believes the newly accessible archives will help clarify issues such as the still-sensitive issue of possessions seized from Jews.

Denis Peschanski, the director of the CNRS research institute, says that apart from the Vichy officials, between 150,000 and 200,000 French citizens were “collaborators” and hundreds of thousands of others “accommodated” the situation, including cultural figures such as Jean Cocteau, whose plays were put on with German approval.

Many historians are now asking why documents from France's later wars in Indochina and Algeria cannot also be opened up.

“The systematic de-classification of archives is the rule in the United States and Britain. In eastern Europe, archives were quickly opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Gilles Morin. “But in France, we're scared of our own shadow.”


France: Final farewell for Chirac in family’s home village

Former French President Jacques Chirac's family bade him a final farewell Saturday at an intimate ceremony in the southwestern village where he grew up.

France: Final farewell for Chirac in family's home village

“I can only say thank you in the name of my father and mother,” the statesman's daughter Claude Chirac said in a tearful address at Sainte-Fereole, a small village in the Chirac fiefdom of the Correze region.

“In childhood and adolescence, Jacques Chirac was made here,” said mayor Henri Soulier.

Born in Paris, Chirac, who died aged 86 on September 26, moved as a young boy to Sainte-Fereole where he was elected a municipal councillor in 1965 before becoming a Correze lawmaker two years later.

He continued to represent the Correze department until becoming president in 1995, serving as head of state until 2007.

Chirac's widow Bernadette, 86, did not attend the gathering of some 200 people in a picturesque village square decked out in portraits of the former president showing key moments of his life in public service.

Soulier said he had proposed and Chirac's family had agreed to rename the square after him in the village which they had insisted would be the site of the final homage to his life.

Prior to the ceremony, local leaders had accompanied the family to lay a wreath at the tomb of Chirac's parents.

The group then stopped by the village hall and the family home, of which Claude Chirac's husband Frederic Salat-Baroux vowed “we shall never sell this house. One is always from somewhere and, for Claude, that's here.”

Claude recalled how she was “often at Sainte-Fereole with Laurence,” Chirac's other daughter, who died in 2016.

“We would leave Paris on Friday and our parents would leave us there before travelling around the department,” she recalled.

“My mother is very emotional today that she cannot come … it's an exceptional homage. It is very comforting to her. And I want to say thank you for that because she really needs it,” Claude said.

Local authorities said meanwhile some 3,000 people had participated in a day of “memory and friendship” to honour Chirac at nearby Sarran, where Bernadette was first elected a municipal councillor in 1971 and which houses a museum dedicated to his life.

Among those attending Saturday was former Socialist president Francois Hollande, who was a political rival of Chirac in Correze, as well as Chirac's grandson Martin Rey-Chirac.

Dozens of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, last Monday paid their final respects at a funeral service in Paris alongside dignitaries including former US president Bill Clinton, a day after 7,000 people queued to view Chirac's coffin at Invalides military hospital and museum.

He was then laid to rest at a cemetery at Montparnasse in Paris.