Some years ago, my best friend from childhood visited me for the first time in Israel. The son of a French Jewish mother who had moved to America early in World War II, he’d been raised Jewish and hated every aspect of it. Completing our tour of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, I asked him whether any of his French family had perished in the Holocaust. He didn’t know but agreed to submit the question to the database. The printout he received showed that not only had his grandfather, who had supposedly died of natural causes in Paris, been deported to Auschwitz, but so, too, had an uncle whom my friend never knew existed. From the lobby, he called his mother. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” he said, weeping. “Bad enough I had to live with it,” she replied. “Why should you?”
Her response was not unusual for French survivors. For the roughly one-half of French Jews who, in 1940, were not recent immigrants but long-established in the country, the trauma was twofold. Not only had their beloved homeland, the first to emancipate European Jews, betrayed them, but it had done so with unparalleled swiftness—a veritable volte-face. True, this was the France of the Dreyfus trial, of anti-Semitic writers like Edouard Drumont and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and of the ultra-rightist Action Française. But it was also the France of Adolphe Crémieux, Marcel Proust, and Henri Bergson. It was the republic in which, on the eve of WWII, Leon Blum, Pierre Mendes-France, and other Jews could rise to the highest offices.
That enlightened France disappeared abruptly in June 1940 with the Nazi occupation of two-thirds of its territory and the installment of a puppet regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain in the ostensibly free southern third. From his capital in the resort town of Vichy, the Lion of Verdun insisted that he represented the real France and directed a campaign to purify the country of those elements—communists, feminists, and Jews—he blamed for its defeat.
Against Pétain, General Charles de Gaulle, commander of Free French forces, broadcast his own claims to represent France, as did Resistance fighters belonging to multiple—and often mutually antagonistic—factions. Torn between these conflicting allegiances was the French people—demoralized, frightened, and bitter. The clash of those claims, and how they played out in the lives of ordinary people, is the subject of Un Village Francais, the most extraordinary television series ever to address the occupation. It has much to say about France and human frailty, and an astonishing amount of commentary about Jews.
Aired in France for seven seasons starting in 2009, and now available for coronavirus-era binge-watching on Amazon, A French Village tells the story of Villeneuve, a picturesque Provençal town. Its inhabitants lead unexceptional lives as teachers, merchants, housewives, politicians, and cops, until the day the Germans storm in. Suddenly, each inhabitant is confronted with no-win moral decisions—whether to do business with the occupiers or kill them, to remain loyal to Pétain or side with de Gaulle, to assist refugees in distress or turn them in, and, most vexingly, whether to act as if nothing at all had happened. “You made your symbolic attacks, for which we paid with deportations and executions,” one woman complains to a Resistance fighter. “All we had to do was sit quietly and wait for the Americans to come.” Throughout, there are the vicissitudes of life—the jealousies, intrigues, squabbles, and, since this is still France, extramarital romance.
The characters range from the rakish sawmill owner and his sociopathic wife, to a well-meaning doctor who also serves as Villeneuve’s mayor and his libertine wife, to a schoolteacher’s wife who has an affair with a German soldier, and the wife of a French POW who sleeps around and may or may not be a traitor. Clearly, women do not fare well in the series—the sole heroine, the aptly named Marie, is also an adulteress and a murderer—but neither do most of the other protagonists. There are sinister Nazis, of course, but scarcely less sadistic policemen, rapacious politicians, and townspeople devoid of moral backbone. And then there are Jews.
Ruthlessly, relentlessly, ‘Un Village Français’ makes the hopelessness of the Jewish condition, and French culpability for it, its centerpiece.
Though most of the show’s Jewish characters are physically identifiable as Jews, few fit the stereotype. No bankers or peddlers here but rather educators, hat makers, and even a maid. The only wealthy figure, with the laden name of Crémieux, is modest. Indeed, relative to the rest of Villeneuve’s misanthropes, the Jews are practically saints.
Jews drive much of the drama but so do the show’s anti-Semites, who run the gamut from low-level Jew-haters to perpetrators of the Final Solution. They are passive while the Jews are expelled from the schools and the professions, their property confiscated, and their businesses “Aryanized.” The villagers happily sing the Vichy anthem, its melody stolen from a Jewish composer who died in Auschwitz. They do nothing as their Jewish neighbors are rounded up, separated from their children, and deported to France’s notorious concentration camp in Drancy. Ruthlessly, relentlessly, Un Village Français makes the hopelessness of the Jewish condition, and French culpability for it, its centerpiece.
That focus is remarkable in view of the history of France’s belated reckoning with the Holocaust. For decades after the war, French governments from both the left and the right insisted that the true France had resided with de Gaulle in London and not with Pétain in Vichy, and that all anti-Jewish measures were imposed on them by the Germans. But beginning in 1969 with Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, followed by Columbia professor Robert Paxton’s 1972 classic, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, and then Louis Malle’s Oscar-nominated 1973 film Lacombe Lucien, the myth steadily collapsed. These works portrayed a France that willingly collaborated with the occupation, disdained the Resistance, and sometimes surpassed the Germans in its persecution of the Jews.
Still, it took years before French authorities agreed to assist the efforts of Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld to try former Vichy officials for war crimes. Not until 1995 did President Jacques Chirac finally acknowledge France’s role in the deportation of more than 75,000 Jews, most of whom didn’t return. Only in July 2017 did President Emmanuel Macron state unequivocally that “It was indeed France that organized the roundup, the deportation, and thus [the] deaths.”
Un Village Français continues this process of self-reckoning yet takes it a giant step further. The Holocaust is no longer peripheral to the occupation, but its essence. The Germans did not bring anti-Semitism to France; they gave the French license for its pursuit. Jews, according to many of the series’ characters, are dishonest, conniving, treacherous, and cheap. One of them observes, “Of course, one cannot be Jewish and French.”
This bold and still-controversial statement was the work of the series’ creator, Frédéric Krivine. He is the son of radical left-wing parents and the nephew of Alain Krivine, who was jailed by de Gaulle for leading the 1968 protests. As chief consultant for his production, the writer chose Jean-Pierre Azéma, a noted leftist historian. This no doubt explains the sentimental portrayal of the communists and the brutal depiction of every American GI. But Krivine is also Jewish and has described Un Village Français as “a good Jewish story.” But good in what way?
Clearly it cannot be in France, where the survivors see no future. For two of them, the answer is Palestine. “A land without a people for a people without a land,” one of them says, unknowingly quoting a 19th-century Christian Zionist. “I just want to live in a place without fighting.” All of this is meant ironically, though, as we see in the final season in which the now-married pair—the woman is played by Krivine’s wife, Axelle Maricq—is driving a Haganah ambulance. Ambushed by Arabs shouting “Deir Yassin! Deir Yassin!” the husband explains that this was a Palestinian village in which “our people killed two hundred innocent men, women, and children”—curiously echoing the Palestinian narrative of that event, which is strongly disputed by most Israeli historians. His wife cries, “We’re no better than those who oppressed us in France!”
Voilà. So, this, after 72 episodes, is what Un Village Français is ultimately about. Yes, we were horrible to the Jews, but look—they’re no better toward the Arabs than we were toward them. French guilt for the Holocaust can be conveniently cleansed by the invocation of supposedly equivalent Israeli wrongdoing—which must be monstrously magnified and exaggerated in order to make the equation work. Interviewed by The Nation, Frédéric Krivine compared French indifference to the plight of Jews during WWII to the Israeli public’s lack of response to the IDF’s killing of Gazans.
Far from indicting France for its Holocaust crimes, Krivine has in fact forgiven it. That message was conveyed to the 3.4 million French viewers who, on average, watched every hour of Un Village Français and to the many millions more in the 40 countries that rebroadcast it. They received first-class drama and acting, a courageous reexamination of French history—and a not-too-subliminal message about Israel being the ultimate guilty party, whose Nazi-like actions perversely cleanse the French of their own crimes in a bath of invented equivalence.
This libel corresponds with the unremitting rise of anti-Semitism in France. From the Front National on the right and Islamic extremists often backed by the left, as well as from “yellow vest” protesters, Jews are once again the target—so much so that 77% of French Jews now see anti-Semitism as a major threat. As a result, increasing numbers of Jews are leaving France for Israel. The signs in my Jaffa neighborhood are all in French and there are numerous Francophonic synagogues. Starting in 2014, French immigration to Israel surpassed that from the United States, and tens of thousands more are expected. Contrary to the conclusion of Un Village Français that Jews are physically threatened no matter where they go, and morally imperiled by Israel, these immigrants see the Jewish state as safer than France—for good reason.
As for my friend, learning about the fate of his French family at Yad Vashem changed him fundamentally. Rather than rejecting his Jewish identity, he began to embrace it and is today strictly observant. He is proud of his French roots but knows that in the terroirs de France they could never flower.
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, a Member of the Knesset, and Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).