A Closer Look at Hollande’s Vel d’Hiv Speech Controversy

Vel d’Hiv
Photo: Flickr.com/couscouschocolat

Exactly one week ago, President François Hollande gave a speech to commemorate the Vel d’Hiv roundup in 1942, during which 13,152 French and foreign Jews were arrested and deported to camps. 4,000 were children. Hollande’s speech focused on two main points: a personal commitment concerning the obligation to remember and the fight against anti-Semitism, and a more historical and polemical approach to commemorating the events.

In response to the recent RSA survey, Hollande committed himself to remembering this part of French history, “There cannot be, there will not be, within French Republic, a lost memory.” Furthermore since the Meyrat case in March 2012, Hollande also committed himself to fight against re-emerging anti-Semitism advocating that “anti-Semitism is not an opinion, it is an abjection.”

In continuity with President Jacques Chirac’s speech in 1995, Hollande recognized the historical responsibility of France concerning the Vel d’Hiv roundup. “The truth is that the French police dealt with the arrest of thousands children and families … Gendarmerie escorted them to the internment camps. The truth is that this crime was committed in France by France. “ He also asserted that: “the truth is that the Vel d’hiv crime was also committed against France, against its honour, against its values, against its principles.

Indeed when that event occurred, there were two “France”s, existing simultaneously. The first “France” was the official French state under the Vichy government controlled by General Pétain. This government was supporting Nazi Germany and helped Hitler achieve his objective. The second “France” was embodied by Charles De Gaulle and his now infamous radio call on June 18th 1940 from London, asking people to resist Germany and Pétain’s government. This latter France was considered by many to be the “true” France and has always been seen as a “separate France” than that of Pétain.

When Hollande said that “this crime was committed in France by France”, he referred to the Vichy’s government, which allowed and ordered the Vel d’Hiv roundup, and by doing so, Hollande denounced the cowardice of the French men and women who witnessed it, and while they were not in favor of it, they did nothing to stop it. However the controversy lies in the part of the speech describing it as a “crime [that] was also committed against France.” The Vel d’Hiv roundup was also a crime against De Gaulle’s France, the one that resisted, the one of Les Justes or “the fair ones” who personified this resisting France; this France that said “no” to Vichy and its complicity with Nazism; this France whose citizens saved and hid many Jews at the risk of their own lives.

While it is of the utmost importance to not forget the atrocities committed by Vichy France and many French citizens, it is equally important to remember the courageous men and women who resisted, many of whom died because of it. Hollande knew this, and so gave them homage.

However, Hollande did not specify the “France” he was referring to in his speech, and on which one he was pinning the responsibility.  As a result, many debates emerged after the speech from both the right and the left of the political spectrum regarding Hollande’s use of the word “France,” creating an issue of vocabulary.

The Euro-Deputy Rachida Dati emphasized that not all the French people cooperated with the Vichy system, and she pointed out those that fought Petain’s policies as she did not think they were adequately recognized. It seems that the polemic over the use of the word “France” has overshadowed the rest of Hollande’ s speech, notably the part dedicated to Les Justes.

From Jean Pierre Chevènement of the left PS to Henri Guaino of the right UMP, both who have raised concerns with the speech, this lack of clarity is hard to accept because these two “France”s were different, and both must be recognized.

It is true that the President could have been clearer in his choice of his words, but many seem to forget the larger point. They are focusing on small details rather than the truth about the President’s initial intention: to remind people to never forget.

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