Vichy leaders are called to account Trial is sought for retired banker

April 11, 1993|By Alix Christie | Alix Christie,Contributing Writer

PARIS -- Fifty years after they collaborated to send 76,00 Jews to their deaths in Nazi camps, two leaders of France's Vichy regime are being called to account.

One, the former head of Vichy police, Rene Bousquet, is alive and may face charges for crimes against humanity. The other, long-dead Vichy chief of state Philippe Petain, is being tried in the court of public opinion with the appearance of an unprecedented film on his World War II government.

Mr. Bousquet, who ordered the roundup of 12,884 Jews by French police in the summer of 1942 for deportation to Auschwitz, is the archetypal French administrator who went on to a brilliant banking career after the war.

Petain, the World War I hero who stepped in to lead France after its defeat in 1940, incarnates a conservative, anti-international tradition in French society whose legacy is carried today by the extremist, right-wing group, the National Front.

The fact that the social elements both men represented continue to underlie French political life explains why Vichy has remained a guilty secret so long, historians say.

Mr. Bousquet, now 82, was acquitted of treason in 1949 at a trial in which no mention of the Jewish deportations was made. But in 1989 Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, whose research had brought the German Klaus Barbie before French justice, uncovered documents alleging Mr. Bousquet's deep complicity in the deportations, and the retired banker was indicted.

This month, French magistrates will ask an appeals court to approve the charges and set the case for trial.

The trial of Petain in public opinion, meanwhile, has evolved over a year of unprecedented national soul-searching sparked by a legal decision last April not to indict Paul Touvier, head of the Vichy militia, for crimes against humanity.

That decision, since overturned, outraged the French, who drew the conclusion that the state was willing to try Barbie but not one of its own. The controversy only deepened with the 50th anniversary of the Jewish roundups last July.

Then President Francois Mitterrand declared a day of national commemoration for the crimes of Vichy earlier this year -- but also placed a wreath on Petain's tomb last Armistice Day.

Historians say what makes Vichy so hard to accept is that Petain's collaborationist regime was no aberration, but a reflection of a profound split in French society that has never gone away.

"We argue over who was responsible, the republic or the Vichy state," says historian Henry Rousso, author of "The Vichy Syndrome." "But it was not some extraterrestrials who did these things -- it was the French."

Filmmaker Jean Marboeuf, whose movie "Petain" hits the screens next month, says France has yet to accept that Vichy was not some renegade act.

"To judge Vichy is to judge the French state," Mr. Marboeuf says. "The phenomenon of this story is that the French state never stopped functioning. Our police during the Algerian war were the same who conducted the 1942 roundup of the Jews."

The early exoneration of Mr. Bousquet and the painfully slow prosecutions of Mr. Touvier and another Vichy figure, Maurice Papon, have led some commentators to claim willful obstruction. Mr. Touvier lived in hiding for 40 years, although journalists easily found him. Mr. Papon, another militia leader, went on to become a minister in the government of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

Mr. Rousso ascribes the reluctance to face the past to an undeclared "civil war" in French society that has helped turn Vichy into a "national obsession."

The roots of the division stretch back to the French Revolution and forward to today's National Front, in a persistent war between the forces of republicanism and the traditionalism and anti-Semitism that characterized Petain's regime, he says.

That regime was for years mythologized as a passive, unwilling collaborator with Nazi demands.

But research has shown it was a calculated bid to secure through collaboration a better standing in the future German-dominated Europe, as well as a successful domestic revolution that provided traditionalists an opportunity to persecute their internal enemies.

Petain seized the occupation as a chance to rescue France from what conservatives viewed as a decadent decline into internationalism, led by Communists and Jews, Mr. Paxton wrote.

Well before Germany called for anti-Jewish measures, Petain promulgated a vast anti-Semitic program of his own, ordering that French Jews be registered and purged from the administration and foreign Jews be interned.

In some cases, Petain and his prime minister, Pierre Laval, even anticipated and exceeded the Germans' demands.

When Germany ordered the delivery of Jews in the summer of 1942, Mr. Bousquet's police organized the roundups and decided that children should be included. Thus 4,051 Jewish children were deported from Paris to Auschwitz, never to return.

Vichy also acceded to demands for Jews from the nonoccupied southern zone, the only nonoccupied power in Europe to do so.

Of the 76,000 Jews deported, only 2,500 survived.

After the war, thousands of collaborators were executed in purges. Petain was stripped of honors and later died under house arrest. But many were given amnesty in the name of national reconciliation, and under Gen. Charles de Gaulle a myth emerged of "La France Resistante."

The buried truth has haunted French memory ever since. Even now that Vichy is debated publicly, many doubt it can ever be laid entirely to rest.

"It will never be over," says Jeanne Moreaud, president of the Memory of Auschwitz Association. "At least, it will never end until Vichy is tried in full."

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