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Monday, 22 March 2010

Sixty Years Later...

... The Sins
 of Our Fathers Linger

By Liliane Clever
Junto Staff Writer Bio
I ran into old acquaintances recently, and after hugging and catching up, one of the two castized himself for never having visited Paris. He lowered his voice to tell me that his wife, who is Jewish, won’t go to France because of anti-Semitism. I was born in France, and, now, a naturalized citizen

I was hurt and disappointed to hear this statement about somebody I thought I knew and actually like. I have heard this allegation many times; mostly from Jewish Americans. To some people it is like an accepted fact.

It always makes me angry. After swallowing hard, I usually ask, “In comparison to which other country?”, and I then state statistics. Namely that France has the largest Jewish and Muslim population in Europe and one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Call me simplistic and naïve, but to me, this data speaks for itself. Often, these statistics are enough to end an emerging debate.

It is a fair statement to say that there is some anti Semitism in France. There never seems to be any shortage of misdirected and bigoted individuals. It is also a fair statement to say that anti- Semitism is a world-wide issue, starting in the Middle East. Show me a country with no prejudices and I will call it Utopia.

What I really object to is the blanket statement in which all are guilty of the same crime. Anti-Semitism does not describe in any shape or form any of the people I know and love in my native country, and I am deeply insulted by the accusation.

I do not know if this image of an anti-Semitic France is held world-wide, or if it is belief held only in the US. I have a theory that this view of France and of the French people might yet be another vestige of WWII. It would go right along the sentiment that France owes the US its freedom and mere existence, and that nothing in France has changed or evolved since the GIs entered Paris.

Interesting enough, the Jewish population in France grew considerably after WWII.

But my recent run-in with my Jewish friend has forced me to re-examine.

I grew up in a post WWII France in which the Jewish holocaust and the Vichy government’s responsibilities were simply not discussed. At the time, France was too busy struggling and working hard to get over its defeat, humiliation, and economic downturn.

It was also the beginning of the end of its mighty colonial power. I remember world maps in my classrooms on which French possessions, colored in red, were barely pointed out by the teachers. None of the ‘the sun never sets….’ propaganda for us French kids. It was a time when France did not feel very good about itself.

I'm a product of the French public school system and of its strong secular ethics. I grew up unaware of any religious and ethnic differences between myself and my classmates. At home it was much the same. I never heard my parents say any thing about any particular group of people.

It wasn't until the early 60s, after Algeria’s independence, followed by refugees to France from northern Africa, that I became aware of ethnicities. But I would have been unable to say whether the new-comers were Muslims, Jews, or Christians. Simply stated, I lacked the practice to think that way.

As a girl, I had, at best, a limited knowledge and understanding of the Jewish holocaust and its consequences. At worst, I was completely unable to weigh its magnitude and its relation to my own history.

As a teenager, I knew that there had been internment and concentration camps in France during WWII. My parents took my sister and me to visit one of these camps in the Alsace region. The camp was rather small and very sterile. If it had not been for pictures of naked skeletal prisoners, and signs pointing to various chambers, it would have looked like a just desolate and dreary place. This particular camp had been under German control, and so, at no point during the visit, did I make any connection between the French and the Nazis.

I also have very vivid memories of the Israel, a newly developing country, dipicted regularly on television. This was the time when France was the 'best friend' with the new country. My father, a raving liberal and an absolute dreamer, was in complete awe of kibutzes. In our household, kibutzes became a symbol of what can be accomplished with hard, dedicated, collective work.

But these are small snapshots in the big picture. France and the French people have taken a long time to come to terms with their own history. It was not until 1971, when the movie Le chagrin et la pitie was released for the first time, that an objective assessment of France under German occupation during WWII became part of the public domain. The documentary was controversial and not well received by all. But it did mark the beginning of a willingness to speak openly of the subject.

A new movie by Roselyne Bosch La Rafle was released on March 10 of this year. La Rafle is an account of the infamous Jewish roundup that took place at the Vel d’Hiv in Paris in July 1942. The film is based on historical facts and the powerful testimony of Joseph Weismann, a survivor, who was 11 years old at the time. The Vel d’Hiv round up was not the first Jewish roundup in Paris, but it was the first one that included women and children. Only a handful of people rounded up that day survived. It is perhaps the most horrific and shameful event that took place under the Vichy government and with the full cooperation of the French police.

I am ashamed to say that I only became fully aware of the Vel d’Hiv roundup in the 1990s, when then President Mitterrand erected a commemorative monument on the site and, later, President Jacques Chirac denounced the guilt and shame of the Vichy government. He called it a double crime. A crime against people, and a crime against France.


La Rafle has been well publicized and will most likely be well received. It represents a new generation, and France and the Frenchmen have come a long way.

So, how long can a country be held responsible for the mistakes of its past? Is coming to terms with its own history, even if it took over 50 years, enough to be reborn in people’s eyes?

It is unclear to me how much the well-reported issues that France is having with a segment of its Muslim population have contributed to the anti-Semitic label. Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity. Unlike the Jews who have a very long history of residing in France and are well established, Muslims are still relative new-comers. While a majority of Muslims residing in France are of Arabic descent, and therefore Semites, it is not true for all.

Much has been said in the US media about the veil controversy in French public schools. I am a strong believer in a secular state. I think that the US does not go far enough. But this is a diversion. A small detail in a much larger and complex set of issues. France does have an integration problem. This problem dates back from the 1960s when France lost his northern African colonies and a large influx of people took refuge in the mother nation. This integration problem has been made even more difficult in recent years with new comers and the radicalization of Islam.

It is a work in progress. Many would argue that progress is not happening fast enough. The integration issue has been discussed and analyzed by politicians, sociologists, activists and pundits. Opinions differ, but the problem can no longer be denied. Maybe this reality will help bring a new approach to the problem. It is a question of acceptance. What can no longer be swept under the rug calls for real and lasting solutions.

The France of today is not the same country I grew up in. It has long regained a position as an economic power and is a player on the European and world stage. But in many ways, it has become a much more complicated country. Its face has changed quite a bit. Large cities are now melting pots with a very diverse population of people coming from all over the world. Not all French people are willing or able to come to terms with this fact. Diversity brings choices and opens people’s minds, but it also brings discrimination and resentments.

There will always be prejudices, hardships, xenophobia, and plain hate and ignorance around the world. And France is no exception. LePen’s Front National has enough supporters to run chills up and down your back. But I hope that the anti Semitic image that some Americans have of France can be replaced by a truer if not perfect image of a country which is fighting to retain its own identity while embracing its diversity. France does not speak with one voice. Few countries do. But historically, France’s policies have been generous towards people from all over the world looking for a new place to start over and call home. And it is my opinion that many French people -– if not all -- have accepted these policies and their consequences and are ready to move on.

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