Europe’s Crumbling Myths – Shmuel Trigano – France: Memory Versus Truth

After the war the French ignored the surviving Jews. They wanted to wipe out the recent past and start anew from a state of forgetfulness. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre concludes this in his book Reflexions sur la question juive, (Anti­ Semite and Jew) a sentiment confirmed by many survivor testimonies.

The memory of the Shoah only reemerged in the 1980s. Sociologist Shmuel Trigano relates its earlier suppression to the myth created by General Charles de Gaulle that the true France was akin to the Free French abroad and the under­ ground opponents of the Nazis. “Accepting the exaggerated tale of major resis­ tance meant that France – vis-a-vis its Vichy past – did not need a thorough self­ investigation, unlike the Germans.”

Differentiation between Political and Racial Deportees

“In post-war France an official distinction was made between the status of racial and political deportees. The latter, often non-Jews, considered it degrading to be equated with  racial deportees. They had chosen to resist and as a result were deported. Those who had not resisted were considered passive victims.

“Former French cabinet minister Simone Weil refers to this often. She explains the shock of the camp returnees when they realized non-Jews didn’t want to listen to them. The survivors did not protest vocally, but many wrote about it. Annette Wieviorka has published extensively about the memories of the Jews who returned from the camps. Most texts were not widely read, but were rediscovered at the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s. Then the information blackout ended and France began dealing with the memory of the Shoah. The turning point was the election of socialist President Francois Mitterrand and the coming to power of the socialist party in 1981.

“The racial deportees also had difficulties in retrieving their belongings. Some claims could not  be presented  since there were  no heirs. The reemergence  of restitution issues in the 1980s was the result of multiple aspects not having been treated properly. Some claims had not been recognized and others had not been received correctly by a French society that sought to efface its collaborative past. “Renewed interest in war criminals also emerged at a late, though significant, moment. Maurice Papon, a post-war government minister, was the last Frenchman to be condemned on this account. During the war he had been a Vichy functionary and had acted on behalf of the French state. The question thus arose as to who was responsible for Papon’s acts during the war: he himself or the French state?

The myth of France largely resisting Germany imposed a cover-up, which made it difficult to answer this question. I think it was reasonable requesting the French state to assume those responsibilities. This was finally done by President Jacques Chirac in  1995.”

A New Dimension of Jewish Life

“Before the war Jews were full-fledged citizens of their respective countries. During the war they were robbed of their citizenship and nationality, and gathered like strangers throughout Europe. Thereafter most were destroyed. Xavier Vallat – in charge of Jewish affairs under Petain for some time – stated that a foreign people existed in France: the Jews.

“French Jewish life was reconstructed after the war. Some Jews wanted to forget their past and several changed their names. A number kept their very French-sounding names from the Resistance. Nicole Lapierre, a daughter of one such survivor, wrote books about this name changing and the Jews of Plocz. This is an example of memory resurfacing in the next generation.

“One important lesson from the Shoah for many other Jews – sometimes only subconsciously – was their collective destiny whether they liked it or not. Many concluded that they might as well face it, rather than flee from it. This led to a reconstitution of Jewish life, which was different from that before the war. The wartime past and the post-war environment together created a new Jewish identity, which developed a sense of belonging for the Jews.”

Trigano emphasizes the lack of a Jewish community in France before the Second World War. “Belonging to the Jewish faith was a strictly private matter. Ultra-orthodoxy, as we now know it, hardly existed. The only Jewish community in the contemporary sense emerged around the First World War and comprised Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom did not want to integrate under the religious umbrella of the Consistoire Israelite de France. They were often secular or anti-religious – such as the Bundists and Yiddishists.”

A New Collective Identity and the CRIF

“A quarter of the Jews in France were murdered during the Holocaust, which claimed proportionately fewer victims than in most other countries. That three­ quarters survived enabled Jewish life to be reconstructed relatively quickly. A new collective identity emerged already in the Resistance, represented by the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France. Better known as CRIF, the Conseil was created in 1944, when there was no legitimate French state, and it represented the Jews just as the National Resistance Council represented the legitimate France. “The CRIF was a direct consequence  of the Shoah, which  changed  the situation of the Jews everywhere in Europe. It set out to represent the Jews, not only on the basis of their religious adherence, but also politically and communally.

Initially it was meant to be the representative body of French Jews; but this was impossible, since they had not elected it. Thus it became the representative body of Jewish institutions, i.e. the organized community.

“For the French this was an alien concept. What is a communal identity in a democratic country? Democracy supposes universal voting. Jews cannot, however, elect representatives in this way as that would imply their being a state within a state. Their only universal representative is the elected president of their country. On the other hand, voluntary bodies can legitimately defend specific Jewish interests. These refinements are far too complex for French public opinion, which is totally confused by it – as are many Jews.”

FSJU and the Paris School of Jewish Thinkers

“The newly found postwar Jewish identity in France also led to the establishment of other institutions, among which the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU) is particu­ larly important. Created with the help of the American Joint Distribution Commit­ tee, and based on an American model alien to the French political tradition, the FSJU fulfils non-religious cultural and social functions in the community.

“The end of the war also heralded a new intellectual experience, the main element of which was the ‘Paris School’ of Jewish thinkers. These intellectuals wanted to affirm a Jewish presence at the universal level. Its core comprised religious philosophers: Emmanuel Levinas, Eliane Amado Levy-Valensi  and Leon Ashkenazi. In their view – specifically expressed by Levinas – while the Shoah primarily concerned the Jews, it had a much wider implication for humanity as well.

“They said: ‘We are witnesses that the Jewish people and Judaism have a universal, intellectual and spiritual dimension.’ These thinkers interpreted the Shoah as a challenge to which Jews must respond intellectually and spiritually. With the departure of several leading figures to Israel in the 1980s, the school started to fade away.”

Renewed Interest in the Holocaust

“In 1979, the weekly L’Express published an interview with Darquier de Pellepoix, who was for several years in charge of Jewish affairs in the Vichy government. After the war he fled to Spain. De Pellepoix told the interviewer only fleas were gassed in Auschwitz.

“The article provoked a major scandal in France and boosted interest in Holocaust history. Around the same time, in  the United States, the televised Holocaust series was broadcast. Thereafter, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah movie was screened in France. All these events together led to an explosion of articles over many years. Magazines devoted cover stories to the Shoah and Auschwitz, often containing  minimal  substance.

“A major breakthrough occurred in 1981 when the Socialist Party came to power. This was a totally new situation as for the first time since the war, the French government was unequivocally left-wing. Before the Socialists had only occasionally been government members.

“This changed situation permitted questions about all that had been established. Yet taboo issues remained, such as those concerning French responsibility for crimes committed during the war. Jews never raised these in public, political or historical references. The ‘Paris School’ Jewish philosophers did so only philosophically.”

Questioning Collective Memory

“France then began questioning its collective memory vis-a-vis Vichy. It had been able to present itself as not guilty, since three quarters of the Jews had survived. That meant that French civil society had helped when the state betrayed them. Mitterrand however, had a rather ambiguous personality. He systematically re­ fused to discuss this issue, not wanting to admit that the French republic was responsible for Vichy’s crimes. He refused to equate the Vichy regime with the French Republic, arguing that the latter should therefore not assume its responsi­bility.

“This argument – that the Republic cannot be guilty as it did not betray the Jews -was false. The Third Republic’s parliament had voted, with a great majority, to give Petain absolute powers. He thus arrived at the head of the Vichy regime democratically and not by a coup d’etat. Yet it remained inconceivable for many decades that the Republic could be guilty, irrespective of whether it was republican, monarchial or fascist.

“After the Holocaust many fundamental issues were not clarified by the time community life was reconstructed. French  society only became more aware of the existence of a Jewish community in the 1980s. A major event was the lethal attack on the Copernic synagogue in Paris on October 3, 1980. Ten years later, much indignation was caused in May 1990 by the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in Carpentras which, as it later turned out, had not been aimed specifi­cally against the Jews.”

Mitterrand: Creating an Anti-fascist Front

“Mitterrand developed a strategy in which the Jews played a key role. For political reasons, he promoted the idea of establishing an anti-fascist front of all democrats around him against the danger of Jean-Marie Le Pen. He inflated it by designating Le Pen – to whom he gave access to state-owned television – the main enemy. To lend credibility to Le Pen’s danger, which was minimal at the time, Mitterrand needed the backing of the Jews. Only they could bear witness to what was anti­ Semitic, following their Shoah experiences.”

Trigano comments: “At that time, Jews were not threatened by anybody; but they committed themselves totally to Mitterrand’s positions. They lacked proper political understanding and fell into his Machiavellian political trap. The Jewish question became central to this debate, gaining much publicity. The memory of the Shoah was also further developed without initially, much new information becoming available. Years later this led to the accusation of the manipulation of the Shoah. Earlier, when it became known during Mitterrand’s presidency that he had been a Vichy official, accusations followed that Jews had distorted information about his dark past. Everything got mixed  up.”

Chirac’s Admission: The Republic is Responsible

“One Jewish lawyer, Serge Klarsfeld, fought a lonely fight almost his whole adult life. His moment of triumph came in 1995 when Mitterrand’s successor, President Jacques Chirac, declared the Fourth Republic as the successor of the Vichy Gov­ ernment, accepting French responsibility for its actions, implying that eternal France was guilty.

“This was what Klarsfeld had always sought. He had created the Association of the Sons and Daughters of the Jewish Deported, which greatly influenced the debate on this issue. He had assembled the historical and statistical data to prove what Chirac later admitted. The Jews now considered the issue closed, thus eliminating all claims against France. They thought they had found -albeit belated – their own place in the French nation.

“According to some opinions, Chirac made his declaration out of political opportunism; it had no moral or spiritual significance, but was convenient at that particular moment. For example, he attacked Israel violently when he visited Jerusalem’s old city some time later. In this way he disassociated Israel from the Jews. Many Frenchmen were willing to recognize whatever was necessary about the Shoah without consequences for Israelis or today’s French Jewish community. To some extent, the Jews who died in the Shoah were different in their eyes from those living there today.”


“The admission of guilt was followed by a period of repentance. Christians wanted to be penitent in the presence of the Jewish community, which meant the CRIF. They addressed God, using the Jews as their witnesses. Developments in the years thereafter raise the question: What value did this repentance have? Today there is a hidden anti-Semitic atmosphere, which wishes to deny the Jewish people’s right to exist. The same people also deny the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Yet some of them ask to repent for the Shoah. This attitude has many elements which merit psychoanalysis.

“France today is a post-Christian country, yet the anti-Judaic Christian mind­ set has endured. Indeed, one finds ancient Christian attitudes more often among secular people than committed Christians. The Church tried to change its positions but, among some of those who remain outside it, the ancient stereotype of the Jews remained. Examples are the demonization of the Jewish people, denying its legitimacy to exist, and a fascination with the purported killing of children by Jews – a profoundly anti-Semitic motif in the Christian conscience, as expressed in the many blood libel stories throughout history. This fascination is current in the media.

“The main  image  of  the  Palestinian  uprising  was  the  death  of  the  child Mohammed al-Dura. It recalled the anguish of the Middle Ages and its supposed ritual crime. This image of the Jew as a child murderer, is ever-present in Israel’s depiction  in  the  French  media.  One  French  television  presenter  said  it  over­ shadowed the image of the little Jewish child who raises his hands in the Warsaw ghetto. It is now known that al-Dura was probably  shot by Palestinian  snipers. “A further question  thus emerges  as to whether  Chirac’s  and the Church’s repentance may have paved the way to a massive return of anti-Semitism. The French collective conscience has liberated itself from its responsibility by cutting the link between the Jews of the past and the Jews of today. In other words, it is becoming increasingly clear that Europe is only willing to recognize the Jews as Holocaust victims, not as free people in a Jewish State. The specific, supposedly moral demands of Israeli policy negate its political condition.”

The French Inability to Accept a Jewish Collectivity

“The issue of the Jews belonging to a specific community remains highly problem­ atic for French society. Such unease implies Jews do not have the right to exist in France other than as abstract individuals. Creating a communal life and a collective identity leads to a confrontation. The French inability to accept a Jewish community is structural.

“This issue has been latent for a long time but consistently reemerges when concrete issues, such as restitution, have to be dealt with. If one sees the contemporary Jewish community as the heir of the heirless deported and robbed Jews, a historic and political continuity is created for the Jews. It also implies that organized Jewry is a permanent and concrete feature of French society. In French political culture, this signifies the opposite of their abstract status as individual citizens, which means that a number of people who are de jure individuals in fact form a collective.

“The French cultural mentality is secular, promoting abstract citizenship. In France the state created the nation, not the reverse, as in Germany. This state only recognizes individuals, not communities. But the fact remains that, collectively, as a nation,  the Jews were Shoah victims. Later, as Jews, as a community, they reestablished their identity after the war.

“This process repeats itself. Itis a typical phenomenon of the last two centuries. The French Revolution turned the Jews into equal citizens. Napoleon reunited them in the form of a church community of the Jewish faith with obligatory membership. As early as the beginning of the 191 century and again around 1840, anti-Semitism exploded and the Jews were accused of plotting to control France behind their official citizenship. This anti-Semitism transformed the Jews into a people, despite both their own desires and official declarations.”

In Trigano’s view, this attitude explains some of the problems Jews encounter today in France. “They reappeared in Europe after the Shoah as a people, irrespective of their national citizenship. This also lies behind the accusation that the Jews use the Shoah for economic interests linked to their Jewish identity.” He wonders whether a Jewish communal  identity has a future in France and thinks that perhaps, the last 50 years were a transition period.

New Leftist Anti-Semites

“Similar accusations were found in recent years in the publications of intellectuals such as Tzvetan Todorov and Alain Brossat distinguished post-modern university professors who identify with the left.

“Todorov wrote Les abus de la memoire (The Abuse of Memory) in 1995, which can be considered as the beginning of the present anti-Israeli and anti­ Jewish wave. He became the leader of an ideological trend, which developed during the 1990s. The book starts with a very distinguished, moral and ‘human-rightist’ stance. In a lecture at the Auschwitz Foundation in Brussels, Todorov developed his ideas and addressed the issue somewhat indirectly, elab­ orating on what he terms a ‘distorted Jewish memory’  – Jews  seeking the status of the ‘most-favored victim’ (a play on the ‘most-favored’ nation status of world trade).

“Todorov alleges that the Jews developed a victim’s memory in order to pursue their own identity and interests, and that this is a distortion of the democratic process. Brossat more openly alleges that the Shoah has thus become a political tool both for Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel. Todorov is a distinguished, well-known figure in the United States, seemingly irreproachable, yet his theory concerning this point is basically anti-Judaic and opens avenues for potential anti-Semitism.”

Brossat and Chaumont

“A fundamental claim of the new anti-Semites is that the Holocaust covers other genocides for which the West is responsible. This idea appears much more brutally in Brossat’s book L’Epreuve du desastre (The Test of the Disaster), published by Albin Michel, a mainstream publishing house. Half the book’s 500 pages are devoted to violent criticism of the Jewish community and Israel. Brossat elevates the Palestinians to a position of the chosen people, as opposed to the Jews who are reversed into the role of Nazis.

“Jean-Michel Chaumont applies economic terminology when discussing the memory of  the Shoah. He uses words such as ‘to establish the accounts’ and ‘indebted’ in his La Concurrence des victimes (The Competition Among Victims). Chaumont has worked at the Auschwitz Foundation  and is not an anti-Semite. Yet he helps to put mental anti-Semitic structures in place. The restitution debate sharpens this issue, as the myth of the Jewish interest in money reemerges. It is combined with the accusations of how undignified it is to translate the memory of the Shoah into money.

“Their work helped lay the foundation for the anti-Jewish explosion during the second Palestinian uprising. The French translation of Norman G. Finkel­ stein’s The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering obtained considerable publicity, although formally it has generally been condemned. It had a major impact on the left-wing intelligentsia and press,  the leading left-wing dailies Liberation and Le Monde devoted two pages to it.”

The Profound Penetration of Anti-Semitic Ideas

“A comment from Jean Matteoli, head  of the committee, charged with probing the  fate  of  Jewish  property  stolen  in  France,  indicated  how  profoundly  anti­ Semitic ideas have permeated French society. In an interview with the Swiss paper Le Temps in March  1999, he said: ‘The French Jews are Jews, but they are also French. To make a distinction for comparable damages between French Jews and French  Catholics,  or whoever,  creates a very  facetious precedent  of which  the Jews could finally become victims themselves.  In France there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews… It is the Germans who have made this distinction …’ “The construct of Matteoli, a member of the Resistance himself, is that, while French Jews were killed by the Germans for belonging to the Jewish people French citizens died there as anonymous individuals. In other words, the French Republic cannot accept the evident reality of Jews having died as such during the Holocaust. Only Frenchmen  were  supposed  to die, not Jews.  Even  if killed by the Nazis because they were Jews, deprived of their citizenship, they must still be considered only as French citizens.

“While Finkelstein’s book marks the moment one passes from a distinguished soft-spoken accusation to a formal and open accusation; the Palestinian uprising created the explosion. The fire was already smoldering; now the spark that ignited it, gave it different dimensions.”

The Stage Setting for the Explosion

“Today’s violence against the French Jews is mainly committed by Islamists. But they  have  found,  in  the  global  condemnation  of  Israel,  legitimacy  for  their anti-Judaism. Anti-Semitism exists in France, which has nothing to do with the Islamists. The new anti-Semitism, disguised  as anti-Zionism, is very present in the extreme left and right, each of which collected 20% of the votes in the first round  of the French presidential  elections of May 2002.

“Furthermore, there is the classical anti-Semitism of the Catholic left, which today is subconsciously very influential in both the media and intellectual life. The Catholic left has a humanitarian view  of Jewish  existence, which amounts to negating its political existence. The same is true of secular ‘new left’ intellectuals who hate both religion and nation states. If one then adds the Islamists, one becomes aware of how many anti-Semitic environments exist in France.

“It is nonsense to say that France today is anti-Semitic, but it is the case that there has been a significant growth in anti-Semitism which could explode one day. Its intellectual infrastructure exists,  as does the stage setting. What we do not know yet is the scenario and how it will be triggered.”

Shmuel Trigano was born in Algiers. He is a Sociology professor at Paris­ Nanterre University. He is also director of the College of Jewish Studies at the Alliance Israelite Universelie, editor of Pardes, a journal of Jewish studies, and has authored numerous books, especially on Jewish philosophy and Jewish political thought. In 2002 he founded the Observatoire du Monde Juif, a research center on Jewish political life.

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