France’s wartime past continues to fascinate and divide the public. Eric Zemmour’s failed presidential campaign cast this reality into sharp relief, reviving a legend of national innocence in which France bore no guilt for the Holocaust and precipitating a fierce battle over the legacy of the Vichy regime. Zemmour, the son of Algerian Jews, cited outdated, erroneous historical accounts to claim that the regime and Marshal Philippe Pétain protected French Jews from deportation. He averred that the puppet regime had only collaborated with the Nazis. Zemmour, who has previously questioned the innocence of Captain Dreyfus, sees the historical facts and official commemoration of the Holocaust as an obstacle to his plan of national renewal. He wants to replace France’s guilt with pride, its introspection with self-assertion.
He is not alone. Holocaust education has become a bone of contention in some French schools, as Arab Muslim students refuse to sit through lessons on the topic. Postcolonial intellectuals, meanwhile, insist that excessive focus on the extermination of the Jews distracts from European imperialism, the latest incarnation of which is the Jewish state itself.
The facts, however, remain the same: 75,000 French Jews disappeared into the nacht und nebel of the camps. Historians have shown in excruciating detail how the Vichy regime launched a homegrown program of antisemitic persecution and cooperated in the implementation of the Final Solution. Most scholars maintain that the Holocaust, in the ferocity, intentionality, and scale of murder, stands as a singular crime.
France has done much since the ’60s and ’70s to reckon with its own history. The immediate postwar era saw the coalescence of dueling narratives on the nation’s conduct in the war, both of which served to exculpate French society at large. Resisters maintained that Pétain had usurped power and that the Vichy regime had no claim to representing France. A narrow coterie of villains welcomed defeat and packed off resisters and Jews on trains to the east. High-profile collaborators like Pétain and Deputy Pierre Laval told another story, which also absolved the nation. The Vichy regime had interposed itself between the German occupiers and French society as “a shield.” Collaboration limited the exactions of the occupation, including for Jews, whom officials had quietly saved while ostensibly cooperating with the enemy.
The ’60s and ’70s saw the emergence of cultural production and academic literature that disproved the nostrums of the postwar moment. Robert Paxton dispelled many comforting illusions with the publication of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order and (with Michael Marrus) Vichy France and the Jews. Prominent collaborators like Rene Bousquet and Maurice Papon came to trial in the ’90s. The debate appeared settled when President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state’s role in the Holocaust in 1995. France could now construct a new memorial consensus on the basis of historical fact; the matter might even lose much of its salience as the older generation died out.
But Zemmour’s provocation and the banlieues’ backlash persist. The memorial consensus, itself of fairly recent vintage, no longer musters unanimous approval. It might even appear to some as the product of elite opinion. French Jews, stewards of Holocaust memory in an age of extremes, now find themselves in a delicate position.
Frenchmen found themselves confronted at the Liberation with moral and legal questions surrounding collaboration. Charles de Gaulle and the resisters understood the wartime regime’s actions as “null and void”; de Gaulle refused to declare a new republic because he asserted that the republic had never ceased to exist. He viewed the Vichy regime as a band of usurpers, traitors rather than legitimate representatives of the nation. De Gaulle adopted this line despite the fact that France’s deputies had voted the Republic out of existence in July 1940. His assertions contributed to a memorial consensus that absolved the French nation of responsibility for the crimes of the Vichy regime and the Holocaust. Vichy had simply not been French, an argument that he restated in his memoirs, in which he memorably declared that “France is not France without greatness.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, no matter his position on the other end of the political spectrum, also dismissed the collaborator as a marginal man, an alien to the national community. Sartre avers in his essay “What Is A Collaborator?” that this stratum of society represented perhaps 2% of the overall population, whereas almost “all the workers and almost all the peasants were in the Resistance.” He depicts the collaborator as “an internal exile” who could not “resist the force of attraction exerted by a foreign community” due to a lack of “real ties to contemporary France.” Sartre is careful not to elide fine distinctions in his assessment of the collaborator, which he delineates from the fascist or the attentiste, who adopted a wait-and-see approach and backed Pétain from the sidelines. He nonetheless paints the collaborator as a rare outcast, whose decisions were more reflective of personal alchemy than flaws in national character.
France’s postwar legend of innocence received a boost from the former men of the Vichy regime themselves. At the purge trials of the regime’s high officials, including Pétain and Pierre Laval, the defense maintained that collaboration had been the sole means to blunt the depredations of the German occupation. Some argued that the Vichy regime had done much to protect France’s Jews, and deserved credit for the survival of three-quarters of the prewar population. And so was born the tale of the shield and the sword, according to which Pétain and the men of Vichy had deflected the worst consequences of the occupation by remaining on French soil (“the shield”), while de Gaulle and the London-based Resistance had carried on the battle abroad (“the sword”).
Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy (1954) represented the first attempt at an integral history of France’s wartime experience. The man of letters, whose prose underscores his training as belletrist rather than as professional historian, concentrated on the regime’s high politics and palace intrigue. Aron, himself a victim of the regime’s antisemitic legislation, sought the position of honest broker between Vichy’s partisans and detractors, but lent credence to the tale of “the shield and the sword.” Aron heaps blame for the regime’s misdeeds on the marshal’s aides, particularly Foreign Affairs Minister Laval and Justice Minister Raphael Alibert. Pétain emerges as a tragic figure, a statesman whose ethic of service had been deformed by world events. Aron avers that France needed both Pétain and de Gaulle, writing: “Both were equally necessary to France. According to the quote first attributed to Pétain and then to de Gaulle: ‘The Marshal was the shield, the General the sword.’” Even the master manipulator Laval, to whom Aron attributes the demise of the Third Republic, was not really so guilty. Aron, citing the minister’s infamous declaration that he desired a German victory, opines: “He will employ words that seem useful to him, so provocative that nothing will erase them; and perhaps he will end up paying more for those words than for the associated actions.” Vichy’s leaders might have been misguided and megalomaniacal, but the radical evil of the period arose elsewhere than in their midst.
Aron views the phenomenon of the French state’s collaboration with the Nazis in much the same manner: Pétain tried to steer a middle course, between alliance with and open rebellion to the Germans, in order to safeguard the nation’s interests. This rose-colored vision of the Vichy regime extends to his description of the new French state’s antisemitic legislation. The amateur historian’s assessment of the regime’s anti-Jewish ambitions initially seems damning: He acknowledges that the statutes came about at the initiative of French decision-makers; that Pétain had toughened the legislation’s exclusion of Jews from educational and legal careers; that the “Who is a Jew?” clauses of the Statut des Juifs were more rigorous than those contained in the Nuremberg Laws; that the legislation rested on implicit racial classification, no matter French antisemitism’s claim to be strictly religious or national.
He somehow manages, however, to assert that the Vichy regime’s antisemitic legislation spared Jews in the northern occupied zone harsher German decrees. He immediately contradicts himself in noting that the German military administration nonetheless imposed its own antisemitic rules. Nevertheless, he assures readers, not a whit of evidence in hand, that French legislation initially prevented roundups of Jews in the northern territories. He does concede that antisemitic legislation in the free zone expressed a homegrown French antisemitism, but mouths the polite fiction that these discriminatory statues did not target individuals or possessions. French state malevolence again figures as secondary in the Jewish tragedy; he feebly volunteers that the Vichy regime’s Statut des Juifs “blazed a path for the depredations that the Germans would commit throughout the country after the occupation of the Southern Zone.”
Vichy’s relative benevolence toward the Jews continued, Aron avers, as the Final Solution came into view. The regime did its utmost to prevent the mass deportation of Jews, to the point of producing false statistics and, in the worst of cases, handing over only foreign and stateless Jews. This was an unsavory business, in which the French state tainted itself. But the regime played only a cameo role in the extermination of tens of thousands of French Jews. Another two decades would have to elapse before more probing scholarship would refute these theses.
France’s postwar memorial edifice, no matter the buttressing of the period’s initial historians, sat on a sand foundation. Jewish voices, timorous and faint at first, introduced discordant notes into the diapason of French innocence. German Jewish exiles in France could not but recall Marianne’s crossed-arm embrace. The ’30s had displaced them, reduced them to men sans feu ni lieu, living as semiclandestines in Paris’ flophouses. French authorities, the German war machine rolling toward the capital, ordered that thousands be interned as “enemy aliens.” The Franco-German armistice, signed in a few weeks’ time, guaranteed the Third Reich’s right to extradite these same prisoners. Allusions to this situation abound in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. The reader lingers in particular on her description of the miasmic effect of the Nazi regime’s antisemitism, felt in democratic as well as fascist countries. “Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics,” recalls Arendt, “made it possible for the persecuting governments to impose their standard of values even on their opponents. Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyists—were received as the scum of the earth everywhere.”
Jewish experiences received scant attention in the immediate postwar. French Jews did not constitute the sole group who had been persecuted and deported. Sartre, in a memorable locution, celebrates “the workers, Jews [and] political prisoners” who had been sent to the camps. French society and state, whether in restitution policies or memorial politics, proved reluctant to recognize the special character of the Jewish catastrophe. Maud Mandel, in her account of the reconstruction of French Jewry, The Aftermath of Genocide, describes the attitude of the authorities, who feared exceptional remedies might perpetuate the Vichy regime’s racial classifications. France’s Interior Ministry, in this spirit, ordered the destruction of state documents denoting citizens’ ethnoracial features—an order ultimately reversed in the interest of Jewish restitution. French Jews, too, in the immediate postwar, rallied to the new republic and stressed membership in the national community.
The relative silence of the survivors must also be understood in the context of trauma and the near-inexpressible nature of the camp experience. Edith Davidovicci, in an oral history collected in the ’90s by France’s Association for the Memory of the Deportation, voiced this common sentiment. “I could say nothing, even to my parents, of what had happened. Nothing came out of my mouth,” she recalled. “How could I, out of a sense of modesty, describe the misfortunes that had befallen us.” French society, too, remained either incredulous or ignorant. Davidovicci encountered a fishmonger on the Paris metro, who, on hearing of her return from Auschwitz, commented: “Oh my! You are looking good. You must have had the good life over there.”
French media reported little on the return of the few thousands of Jewish deportees who had managed to survive the camps. Authorities made the same relief provisions for all deportees, even though Jewish returnees usually had lost property and family. Officials often refused to restore Jewish property, contending with new associations representing the owners of looted real estate, businesses, and other goods. France was not exceptional, but rather typical in this respect: The voices of survivors remained almost inaudible in the immediate postwar. Most of the great memoirs of the Holocaust (e.g., Elie Wiesel’s Night, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man) only appeared in the ’50s and ’60s.
Artists, not academics, would awaken Holocaust memory in France. The cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, Marcel Ophuls, and Joseph Losey proved crucial in this respect.
Melville’s cinematography portended a shift from the Resistance legend to a more balanced picture of the time. Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach and exiled in London as a member of Free France, exalted the spirit of the Resistance in the first film he produced on the occupation, La silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea). The film, released in 1947 and based on Vercors’ novella, serves as a parable of French resilience in the face of Nazi oppression. An old man and his niece see a German soldier billeted in their home, and respond to the intrusion with a flat refusal to acknowledge the officer’s presence. France, disarmed and violated, repudiates the enemy through a determined mutism.
Melville anticipated a shift in the national discourse on the Holocaust in France with Leon Morin, Pretre (1961). The film is set in a small alpine town during the occupation, the action centering on the title character’s role as directeur de conscience to the widow of a Jewish communist, Barny. Morin cuts a benevolent figure, aiding local Jews and preaching the Gospel. But most of the characters are drawn in shades of gray. Barny’s colleague, Christine, reveres Pétain and evinces great ardor for collaboration. Christine voices antisemitic sentiments and seems ready to denounce Barny to the occupation authorities for sheltering Jews. She proves to be a more complex figure, however, and the two women ultimately become confidantes. Christine sees collaboration as “the only way France will pull through” and resistance as futile, “drawing retaliation, nothing more.” Barny, in a powerful retort, counters: “In other words, you, a Catholic, consent to my daughter being deported so that yours can have her milk?” Christine responds that one must condone the deportation of Jews in order to prevent “the sacrifice” of one’s own people. Christine does not belong to the nation of 40 million resisters, nor does she loom as a sanguinary fury selling out the nation to the occupiers. Melville has cast aside the easy antinomies of the immediate postwar in conceiving her character and others.
French cinema’s critical reassessment of the wartime past reached a peak in the ’60s and ’70s. Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), a four-hour documentary originally commissioned for French public television, slashed the memorial consensus. Ophuls, the son of a German Jewish director who had settled in the United States after a passage in France, used interviews, newsreels, and other visual media to demonstrate how some French had actively supported the Vichy regime and even Nazi Germany. French authorities banned the documentary from television for more than a decade, but it nonetheless penetrated the public consciousness via limited screenings. M. Klein (1975) marshaled the star power of Alain Delon and the production values of a multimillion-dollar budget to reinforce the central message of The Sorrow and the Pity. M. Klein (Mr. Klein in English) places France and the French in the dock for the Final Solution. Mr. Klein is a Parisian art dealer of the beau-monde who exploits the position of Jewish clients to procure masterpieces on the cheap. The French star as the primary villains in the film: Spectators see a French doctor performing an “anthropometric” exam on a Jewish woman, groping her breasts as she sits in terror; French police planning and executing the Vel d’Hiv roundup; French authorities despoiling Jewish property for their own benefit.
France’s memorial pact had already been ruptured by the time Mr. Klein appeared at the box office. The swirling currents of social disruption characteristic of the ’60s had carried off the pieties of an earlier generation. Demonstrators compared the French state’s police to the SS and likened the elderly de Gaulle to Hitler. Jewish consciousness also burst forth amid the Eichmann trial and the Six-Day War; the code of omertà weakened and the survivors began to recount the war experience to family and the public. France was experiencing, to borrow historian Henry Rousso’s Freudian nomenclature, “the return of the repressed.”
A more critical academic literature also emerged in the ’60s. Olga Wormser-Migot published a series of landmark works beginning in that decade. In 1968, Olga Wormser-Migot published her Systeme concentrationnaire nazi, 1933-1945. The historian pored over documents in French and German to produce a chronicle of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. Wormser-Migot was more concerned with the overall conception and implementation of the concentration camp regime than with French collaboration, but she devoted one subsection of the volume to the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the occupation authorities. Another subsection refers to the French train authority SNCF’s involvement in deportations. The scene had been set for Robert Paxton’s momentous entry into the debate.
Robert Paxton, the Columbia University historian, rooted the new memorial consensus of the ’70s in empirical evidence. He not only repudiated the old legend of innocence, but founded a new approach to the history of the period in his two landmark studies, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order and (with Michael Marrus) Vichy France and the Jews.
Paxton’s historiographical revolution rested on novel methods. Most accounts of the Vichy regime and the Holocaust in France had hitherto drawn exclusively on French-language sources: official regime documents, witness from resisters, testimony at postwar trials, the later memoirs of survivors and perpetrators. Paxton added a new and crucial mine of information: the Nazi regime’s documents. The American military had seized much of the Third Reich’s archives at the war’s end, and had deposited the bulk of these papers at the Library of Congress. Paxton was thus able to examine, among other documents, files from the military administration of occupied France, diplomatic communications between Paris and Berlin, and the proceedings of the Franco-German armistice commission set up in Wiesbaden. These documents helped overturn decades of conventional wisdom on the nature of the Vichy regime and the official policy of collaboration. Paxton, in the introduction to Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972), frontally attacked Aron’s theses and the tale of “the shield and the sword.”
Paxton objected that this tale, which he dubbed the theory of “the double game,” was refracted through the later events of the Liberation. No one could have known when the Battle of France was lost that the Allies would one day emerge victorious. The theory of the double game was constructed as a legal defense, shorn of historical context, at the postwar purge trials.
The historian had to return to the chaotic days of the summer of 1940 in order to understand the spirit of the Vichy regime as it came into being. The regime, in the first instance, appeared to have more legitimacy than the Gaullist resistance in London, a ragtag bunch of marginal men. Vichy’s momentary legitimacy rested on the legal sanctioning of the new order by a vote of the parliament. French authorities assumed that the war would soon end as Great Britain was forced to its knees, and that only collaboration could secure a tolerable peace from the new German masters of Europe. As such, economic and political and economic cooperation were policies that the Vichy regime sought out, rather than merely acquiescing to. Petain’s circle was not engaged in some stealthy geostrategic balancing act, but rather combining assessments of the war’s outcome with a desire to inflict revenge on left-wing enemies. Worse still, for the proponents of the shield defense, argued Paxton, was that Frenchmen do not seem to have reaped many benefits from collaboration. French average caloric intake was among some of the lowest in Europe, as the Germans requisitioned raw materials, food, and industrial capacity. Vichy’s claim to softening the blow of the occupation on the normal citizen had very little purchase indeed.
Paxton’s career as a maverick historian continued in the next decade, as he simultaneously published in French and English Vichy France and the Jews (1981). The volume, prepared in concert with Canadian scholar Michael Marrus, eviscerated a foundational assertion of “the shield and sword” tale, i.e., the Vichy regime’s role as protector of France’s Jews.
Vichy France and the Jews maintained that the regime’s program of antisemitic persecution had been undertaken at the new authorities’ own volition and not at German behest. Marrus and Paxton argue that, at the start of the occupation, the victors left great room for the Vichy regime on Jewish questions. French authorities, in their words, opted for “a home-grown program that rivaled what the Germans were doing in the occupied north and even, in some respects, went beyond it.” Vichy’s measures arose from two impulses, the first a reflection of a native tradition of French antisemitism finding its moment in the fall of the republic and the second from a pragmatic desire to assert French sovereignty in the occupied north through the application of anti-Jewish measures.
Marrus and Paxton acknowledge that the regime’s legislation was not intended to lead to murder, but state that this counts for little, both in relative and absolute terms. France, in addition to Bulgaria, was the only country to hand over Jews from territories that were not directly held by the Germans. The regime also implemented measures that would aid the Germans in the business of extermination, such as organizing a census of Jews in the southern half of the country and compelling French Jews to receive special stamps on their documents. Vichy’s shield was less protective armor than the first salvo in a campaign of annihilation. And the regime’s record was worse than a number of other German client states or allied powers, such as Hungary, from which mass deportations began only with direct German occupation.
The decades since Paxton’s paradigm shift have seen an explosion of interest in the Vichy regime’s persecution of the Jews and the French state’s hand in the Final Solution. This interest, for Rousso bordering on “an obsession,” has spurred reams of studies on varied topics, including the involvement of French rail workers in deportations, prewar precedents for the internment of Jews and other minorities, and French Jewish strategies to cope with discrimination and avoid death. Paxton’s research, which has come to constitute the core of the current of the new memorial consensus, has contributed to French authorities’ recognition of the state’s responsibility for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews.
Former President Jacques Chirac’s apology for the French state’s role in the Holocaust marked the triumph of this new consensus—a vindication not merely of academic work, but also of the labor of activists like Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, and survivors’ brave choice to bear witness. Chirac, speaking at a 1995 commemoration of the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which French policemen tracked down thousands of Jews for eventual deportation, pronounced these historic words: “The criminal mania of the occupier was reinforced by Frenchmen, by the French state.” He regretted that France, “this land of the rights of man,” had reneged on its word, “delivering its protectees into the hands of their executioners.” Chirac’s admission seemed to close the public debate over the nature of the Vichy regime’s treatment of the Jews. Paxton’s conclusions, however, are now once again drawing detractors, many from unexpected places.
Few mainstream scholars dispute the basic findings of Marrus and Paxton. Much historical debate rages over France’s wartime experience and the French role in the Holocaust. But research tends to occur within the confines of the paradigm that Marrus and Paxton set out. Public opinion has tracked historical consensus, but it might not remain so.
France’s continued woes around immigration, integration, and identity have breathed new life into the political extremes. Holocaust memory represents a challenge for the ultras of left and right. The rise of postcolonial critique on the left has produced what some call “a memorial competition”; the centrality of the Holocaust as the genocide par excellence is said to distract from atrocities committed in the Third World. An excessive focus on the Holocaust obscures Europe’s imperialist crimes and provides cover to the state of Israel, which finds itself accused of presiding over a violent colonial enterprise. This revisionism has manifested most clearly in Europe, and notably in Germany, where there has erupted, in the words of French philosopher Julia Christ, “a new historians’ quarrel.” The polemic turns on the attempt of some left intellectuals to situate the Holocaust in the line of a series of European imperialist atrocities, the last of which is said to be Israel’s own treatment of the Palestinians.
French teachers since the Second Intifada have observed a similar phenomenon in schools located in Paris’ Arab Muslim suburbs. Students in “the lost territories of the republic” sometimes react angrily to the teaching of the Holocaust. Jews are the perpetrators, not the victims of genocide, some pupils claim. A teacher related in an article published in the left-wing daily Liberation at the time of the Second Intifada that some of his students had begun to praise Hitler. “Hitler is my cousin,” said one pupil. “What he did to the Jews was good!” His classmates laughed at an image of a Jewish child wearing the yellow star during the occupation. Holocaust memory, in the imagination of the aforementioned postcolonial intellectuals and students, amounts to nothing more than elite imposition and state favoritism of Jews.
Now Zemmour, on the far right, fears that acknowledgement of past wrongs saps the nation’s vitality, leaving France vulnerable to the dual menaces of “grand remplacement” (demographic transition) and “grand déclassement” (loss of great power status). He extols the works of prewar nationalist historians, such as Jacques Bainville. The historian is not so much for him a scholar but as the creator of a usable past. And indeed across Europe, Jewish memory and Holocaust history are seen as impediments to national mythos.
Zemmour’s actions follow this logic of nationalistic rejections of war guilt. His allies in Hungary and Poland, where national populist governments are firmly ensconced, have adopted a similar tack. These nations, too, maintain their innocence in the drama of the Holocaust, the handiwork of Germans alone. Poland’s government has implemented memorial policies, including the construction of museums dedicated to Polish “saviors” of Jews, the outlawing of forms of research that might implicate Poles in the perpetration of the Final Solution, and a consequent rash of torts filed against Polish historians of the war and the extermination. Hungary’s government, headed by Viktor Orban, has driven down the same path. These choices recall, in part, communist remembrance of the Holocaust and war atrocities, in which the offenses of “the people” en bloc were depicted as victims in indiscriminate and uniform manner of “the fascists.”
Historians in France confronted Zemmour’s Holocaust distortion head on. A profusion of rebuttals ran in the mainstream press; senior scholars entered the arena to combat the return of “the shield and the sword.” France Culture, one of the nation’s public radio broadcasters, published a long dossier titled “The Falsehoods of Eric Zemmour on Pétain and Vichy.” Robert Paxton, a nonagenarian now retired from Columbia, exited retirement to debunk Zemmour, giving a rare interview in December 2021 to Le Monde. Paxton, in a video conversation with a reporter, reaffirmed his findings of the ’70s and ’80s. He insisted that the Vichy regime showed alacrity in formulating and enforcing its own antisemitic legislation. He credited the survival of three-quarters of France’s Jews more to the relatively scarce means of the German occupiers than to Vichy’s salutary neglect. At the end of the video interview, Le Monde pointed readers to reference works from respected historians on the Holocaust in France.
Zemmour proved to be an electoral supernova; he entered the presidential race at 15% in the polls, but garnered a mere 7% at the ballot box. He merited scorn for his blithe denials of historical fact and repetition of ancient calumnies. But we live in an age rife with mendacity. What is it about the Holocaust that led France’s political, academic, and media honchos to close ranks and train fire on the far-right polemicist?
The answer lies in elites’ use of Holocaust memory to their own ends. The “lessons of the Holocaust” have become an article of faith among the continent’s elites. The political center mobilizes Holocaust memory against adversaries to the right and left. The far right’s program of tighter borders and national reassertion draws condemnation as a form of neo-fascism. Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour are said not to have learned the putative lessons of the Holocaust; in this case, the necessity to welcome the stranger. Their election could spell a repeat of the most gruesome episodes of the 20th century. The center intones about the dangers of the far left, too: Radical politics can degenerate into mass violence and genocide.
Europe’s grandees often use charges of antisemitism and Holocaust denial to stifle dissent and discredit opponents. President Macron has done this on several occasions, most recently with last summer’s protests against the health pass. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to denounce the invasive tool, in which each person had to scan a QR code attesting to their vaccination status to access restaurants, theaters, long-distance trains, and other public accommodations. A few demonstrators, affixing yellow stars reading “nonvaccinated” to their shirts, drew an offensive comparison between the French state and the Nazi regime. Macron’s aides seized on the occasion to paint the entire movement as fringe and antisemitic, encouraging Holocaust survivors to denounce the anti-health pass protesters as well. French Jewry’s umbrella body, CRIF, in addition to the antisemitism watchdog LICRA, obliged with their own denunciations. The same sequence unfolded during the gilets jaunes protests at the start of Macron’s presidency; the presence of a few antisemites in the crowd allowed elites to dismiss the entire movement.
French Jews must not allow themselves to be the pawns of power. Macron’s use of antisemitism and Holocaust memory is self-serving and dangerous. Jewish communities should avoid binding themselves to a political class now reviled by huge swaths of Western opinion. Mainstream politicians’ conflation of antisemitism and disaffection could boomerang on European Jews. Protesters might sooner embrace antisemitism than overcome discontent. Europe would thus see the return of a prewar politics, in which hostility toward Jews and the liberal state became stand-ins for one another.
Jewish institutions must thread the needle: No one should accept historical falsification. Holocaust denial must be combatted with due force. But French society’s acceptance of its own role in the Holocaust was late in coming, radiating from the top down and resting on the work of artists and academics. Insisting on the facts of the past cannot mean imposing a reading of them that forecloses political debate.
French Jewish organizations too often take the bait of the mainstream, condemning parties at the extreme right and left, namely Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. Francis Kalifat, in 2018, warned RN and FI representatives not to attend a march in honor of Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor murdered in her 80s for being Jewish. Melenchon and Le Pen give CRIF pause, and rightly so. But herem is not a viable strategy for handling parties that drew 45% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections. French Jews must be nimble. One faces a choice between adapting to radical politics or being consumed by them.
Daniel Solomon is a doctoral student in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the English-language editor of K., the European Jewish Review. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @DanielJSolomon