PARIS. — Paris -- In 1972, Robert Paxton, an American historian, published a history of the wartime Petain government in France. He argued that it had been not only collaborationist but a dynamic and coherent attempt to create a new France -- conservative, corporatist and authoritarian.
He said the Vichy regime produced technocratic and administrative innovations that greatly influenced postwar France. He also said that Vichy had its own racialist ideas, and that its policies toward the Jews were not simply dictated by the German occupation authorities.
This month saw the 50th anniversary of the most scandalous act of French collaboration with Nazi racial policy, the arrest by Paris police on July 16-17, 1942, of some 13,000 Paris Jews for deportation to the Nazi camps. There were 4,000 children. Until the trains came, they were held in the Paris bicycle stadium called the ''Vel' d'Hiver.'' Of the 13,000, about 400 survived.
A committee formed in recent weeks petitioned President Francois Mitterrand to make a formal statement on this terrible anniversary acknowledging that ''the French state of Vichy'' was responsible for this crime and others.
Mr. Mitterrand replied in the following words: ''Do not hold the French Republic accountable: legally speaking, it has done its duty. . . . The French state in 1940 was that of Vichy; it was not the Republic.'' The sense of this was that the Vichy government occupies a parenthesis in French history and was not a legitimate government; that its acts are not the responsibility of today's Republic.
In 1940, soon after his famous appeal from London for the French to continue resistance, Gen. Charles de Gaulle challenged the constitutionality of the French parliament's grant ''full powers'' to Marshal Petain to create a new French state devoted to ''work, family and patriotism.'' This had been done by the overwhelming vote of the last parliament of the Third Republic, on July 11, 1940, in the town of Vichy.
It was essential for the Gaullists to claim that the Third Republic -- in which De Gaulle had been a junior cabinet minister -- survived and that they possessed its legal continuity.
To do so gave them standing in their dealings with the British and American governments. When De Gaulle took control of French colonial forces in North Africa, which had recognized Vichy's authority, the Free French again insisted that the Republic had never ceased to exist.
However, as commentator Edwy Plenel has written in Le Monde, while this argument may be legally tenable, it is historically misleading and politically insufficient. This is what Mr. Mitterrand has found. His statement simply generated a larger controversy.
Marshal Petain had become the last prime minister of the Third Republic on the night of June 16-17, 1940, in order to ask for Germany's peace terms. He was nominated by the wartime prime minister, Paul Reynaud. Reynaud and others had wanted to go on fighting from French North Africa, but there was never a showdown vote between them and supporters of surrender.
When the marshal announced that he sought an armistice, resistance simply collapsed for the vast majority of the French. Whatever the legality of the new state formed in Vichy, Marshal Petain's actions responded to the will of the French public in those final days of defeat and first months of German occupation. For many months to come he remained the object of popular adulation and confidence.
Even more significant is the point made by those who petitioned Mr. Mitterrand. The great institutions of the French state, and the majority of its civil service and judiciary, together with its police, faithfully carried out the Vichy government's collaboration with Nazi Germany. In some cases, as in the deportation to Germany of refugee Jews and then of French Jews -- French citizens -- some officials went beyond what the Nazis demanded.
Francois Mitterrand is of a generation which knew the popular support Petain enjoyed and experienced the moral complexities of the period. He served the Vichy state for a time, subsequently joining the Resistance. His refusal to acknowledge the French state's responsibility for what was done by Vichy is endorsed by former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who also says that no continuity exists. The Vichy state and present Republic stand for opposite values, he says; hence one cannot accept responsibility for the other.
The argument is one a foreigner is imprudent to enter. It is undeniable that certain Vichy loyalties are not yet dead. It would also seem undeniable that Vichy was a French regime which expressed the will of the majority. It commanded the apparatus of the French state in carrying out policies that the public majority did not repudiate until late in the war.
The argument that the Republic never ceased to exist was necessary to the Gaullist movement's own wartime legitimacy. Also to its ability afterward to reconcile the French who fought, who collaborated and who sat the war out. The notion that by the war's end all had become Free French was a cynical, if brilliant, invention of Gaullist realpolitik.
The real issue today would seem to be historical responsibility, rather than legal accountability for what Vichy did. As such, it would seem fairly easily answered. Mr. Mitterrand chose to frame his response in terms of the latter accountability -- where the answer avoids an answer.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.