In France, Jews are still forced to prove loyalty Papon trial offers another chance to examine anti-Semitism

March 15, 1998|By Jack Fruchtman Jr.

ANTI-SEMITISM and collaboration with the Nazis have long haunted France. Despite the crisis in Iraq and President Clinton's troubles, the big news occupying French attention is France and its Jews.

Articles in every French newspaper recently commemorated the anniversary of the publication of "J'Accuse," Emile Zola's famous defense of army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin even made a special trip to the Pantheon ** to pay homage to the great writer's remains.

And every day, the readers of French newspapers follow the trial of 87-year-old Maurice Papon, the French prefect in Bordeaux accused of sending more than 1,560 Jewish men, women and children to their deaths in Auschwitz during World War II.

Zola brought enmity on himself when he used his great prestige to defend Dreyfus, who four years earlier had been convicted on trumped-up charges of providing German agents in France with state documents. When the evidence showed that the actual traitor was Maj. Ferdinand Esterhazy, the government - along with a curious combination of royalist, republican, and socialist anti-Semites - buried it, and Dreyfus remained discredited and imprisoned on Devil's Island.

Zola, meantime, was exiled for one year for speaking the truth.

As for Maurice Papon, the French press, unlike its American counterpart, has found the story riveting news because France has long struggled with collaboration under the Vichy regime. After the war, Charles de Gaulle perpetrated the myth that, except for a few traitors, the French resisted the Nazis and fought for free France.

Only President Francois Mitterrand, in his final years in office, acknowledged that possibly thousands of French citizens collaborated with the Nazis. And recently President Jacques Chirac apologized on behalf of the government to the French Jewish community for the Vichy regime.

And yet, the French focus on the Jews of France is not new in 1998. For several weeks last summer, another effort sought the truth about Nazi collaboration.

The important newspaper Liberation printed the transcript of a remarkable six-hour round-table discussion that focused on whether two highly respected Resistance leaders collaborated with the "Butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie, himself responsible for the arrest, torture, and execution of Resistance leader Jean Moulin (and thousands of others). De Gaulle had sent Moulin to Lyon in the spring of 1943 to meld the disjointed Resistance groups into a united fighting force.

On June 21, 1943, Moulin and seven others met in the Lyon suburb of Caliure. Alerted by an informant, the Gestapo arrived to arrest them. One man, Rene Hardy, later thought to be that informant, escaped.

The round-table centered on specific questions raised by five French historians of the Resistance concerning the activities of Lucie and Raymond Aubrac, now in their 80s, who were leaders of the Resistance in Lyon. The Aubracs, each of whom has written a highly acclaimed memoir of this dark period, have long been considered heroes of the Resistance. Film director Claude Berri recently made a documentary highlighting Lucie Aubrac's life and work.

But in a book published last year, "Lyon, Aubrac 1943," a revisionist historian, Gerard Chauvy, printed "Barbie's Testament," a document suggesting that the couple collaborated with Barbie in Moulin's arrest and murder.

This accusation developed after Barbie's 1987 trial for crimes against humanity. After Barbie was sentenced to life imprisonment (he died in 1991 in prison), his lawyer, Jacques Verges, released the "Testament," claiming that the Gestapo arrested Moulin with information supplied by Raymond Aubrac in exchange for his own "escape."

Liberation, which has its own roots in the struggle of the free French against their Nazi occupiers, provided a breathtaking service to its readers by printing not only a supplement of 14 pages on July 9 last year, but then more supplements over six days that month.

Like the recent commemoration of Zola's famous newspaper article in support of Dreyfus or the ongoing trial of Papon, the point of such an exercise is simply that every revelation is a step forward to unleashing the truth.

It is important, for example, to review the evidence against Dreyfus from time to time to hold up truth, as Zola courageously revealed it, against the forces of hatred and prejudice. It is essential to publicize the evidence against Papon so the world can see what happened in those horrible years of Nazi occupation.

As for the Aubracs, no evidence showed that they were traitors and no evidence demonstrated that Barbie's "Testament" was authentic. If anything, they were heroes. The major question was why Raymond Aubrac had forgotten why he used so many pseudonyms.

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