The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz could not have coincided with a more politically fraught moment for the French government. After all, 75,000 Jews were deported from France during the reign of the collaborationist Vichy regime and most of the deportees never returned. Three weeks ago, homegrown French jihadists staged bloody assaults upon the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket in Paris. The two attacks killed 17 people, half a dozen of them Jewish. The French government was deeply cognizant of the need to reassure its frightened Jewish citizens of its commitment to their security.
The morning’s frigid cold and grey sky offered an appropriately morose atmosphere for the proceedings. French President Francois Hollande’s speech at the Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais would be delivered in front of hundreds of survivors. A trio of representatives of The Sons and Daughter of the Deported Jews of France carried banners and stood in their picturesque blue uniforms. An octogenarian walking with a cane had her decades-old yellow star pinned to her tremendous coat, with a small sign that related how she had been deported at the age of six from the French capital’s tony 16th arrondissement.
Hollande arrived at the event at least an hour early and sat listening attentively to a group of five survivors and five young Jews. His expression was placid and he occasionally asked brief, courteous questions. In fact he became so engrossed with the conversation that the ceremonious placement of a tri-color wreath on the base of the eternal flame began half an hour late. Hollande was guided to the outdoor podium, past the permanent exhibition of the glass-fronted cabinets of the Paris police dossiers on French Jews (2015 promises to be an auspicious year for French Holocaust studies and French society both, as the last of the period’s sealed police files will be opened).
Approaching the podium with a grey uniformed officer, Hollande was flanked by Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Valls had catapulted himself to the forefront of French politics with his stern response to the Charlie Hebdo crisis, and is likely France’s most strident defender of the Jews. Throughout the ceremony he appeared to be even more stoic and grim-faced than usual.
Hollande’s speech was introduced by the president of the Mémorial de la Shoah, French-aristocrat banker Eric de Rothschild. Hollande began with the pronouncement that “Le 27 Janvier est une date à jamais gravée dans la mémoire de l’humanité”–”the 27th of January is a day forever etched in the memory of mankind.”
He addressed the survivors as the “final witnesses” and expressed both his gratitude and that of the nation to them for their testimony: “You have decided to make your nightmare a lesson.” Fervent promises that the Republic would never forget were proffered. There was a lyrical reference made to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick Modiano.
After about five minutes of the French specialty of florid classist rhetoric, Hollande acknowledged the renewed threat of anti-Semitism in France (“The rise of anti-Semitic acts is an unbearable reality”) and lauded the response of his cabinet headed by Valls (“faced with threats, the first answer is security”). The speech included an announcement of the latest round of anti-terrorism initiatives as well as additional comprehensive legislature aimed at combating racism and anti-Semitism. Another such proposal was announced by Minister Taubira a week ago. In fact, the French government has announced so many of these in the past several weeks that it is hard to keep them straight, despite the fact that it is my job.
Hollande also included a pledge to improve the transmission of Holocaust memory within the school systems, and underlined the need for universal implementation of the curriculum (the implication being an acknowledgement of the French state’s difficulties with purportedly widespread incidents of students in the Banlieues refusing to study the Holocaust) as well as assurances of the increased visibility of sanctions against perpetrators.
The most powerful moment of the speech came when the president seemed least stiff. Hollande raised his voice to address the “French of the Jewish confession” and announced pointedly that “France is your country. Your place is here. This is your home. If terrorism encourages you to move away from France, from French culture, from the French language, then terrorism will have achieved its purpose.”