In the presence of President François Hollande, the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv round-up was officially commemorated last Sunday in Paris. On July 16 and 17, 1942, 12,884 Jews were penned into the Vélodrome d’Hiver for five days in the summer heat with little sustenance, before being moved on to Drancy and extermination at Auschwitz. The mass-arrest and deportation was conducted by some 9,000 French police officers.
For the president of a country that has long suppressed its role in the Holocaust, Mr Hollande’s statement was striking: “The truth is this was a crime committed in France by France”, he acknowledged.
His decision to actively observe the anniversary comes as France is in danger of forgetting this most significant event. A poll revealed last week that 67 per cent of those aged between 15 and 17, 60 per cent between 18 and 24, and 57 per cent between 25 and 34, do not know of the Vel d’Hiv round-up. Across the entire population, 42 per cent possess no knowledge of the event.
It was not until 1995 that the French government officially accepted responsibility for the Vel d’Hiv round-up. “France committed the irreparable,” Jacques Chirac proclaimed. Earlier, beginning with Charles de Gaulle, the Vichy regime was suppressed in official discourse and declared an illegitimate aberration — national identity was constructed upon the myth of mass-resistance.
Even on the 50th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv round-up, François Mitterrand, a civil servant during Vichy, could not speak openly about France’s collusion in the murder of 90,000 French Jews.
A shift in public awareness came only in the last 25 years of the 20th century, attributable to a succession of public trials of Nazi and Vichy war criminals. In 1987 the Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, was convicted of crimes against humanity, just as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah received its television debut. René Bousquet and Jean Leguay, organisers of the Vel d’Hiv round-up, had proceedings opened against them in 1993; 1994 saw Paul Touvier’s imprisonment for the murder of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape.
Until the French understand Vichy as it was and not as they have chosen to misremember it, can they begin to face their past, as Tony Judt has argued. Now, 20 years on from Chirac’s expiation, it seems the nation and its schools have failed to reinforce the devoir de mémoire — the duty to remember.