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François Hollande and French Jewish Memory

Paris marks its liberation, pays tribute to deported Jews

Adam Chandler
August 27, 2012
Commemoration of the Liberation of Paris(Adam Chandler)
Commemoration of the Liberation of Paris(Adam Chandler)

The very idea of a muscular commemoration in honor of French military prowess defies many of the stereotypes that people tend to heap upon the French. But over the weekend in Paris, muscular is what the city got as it marked the 68th anniversary of its victory over the forces of Nazi occupation in the Battle of Paris.

Outside the Hôtel de Ville, the site of the city’s municipality since the mid-14th century, a series of speakers told the history of the occupation of Paris to a huge crowd including a number of tourists, children, and pensioners–some of whom were among the last remaining veterans of the battle and were dressed in the mothballed uniforms of the famous resistance. A chorus sang battle hymns! The whole of the 4th arrondissement quaked as three fighter jets swooped in low from the Seine in a military flyover. (A gripe: Very little credit was given to the assisting Americans.)

French President François Hollande used his speech as an opportunity to make the parallel between the French struggle against Nazi Germany and the Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime. (A few blocks away from the event, a raucous anti-Assad rally was taking place in a square beside the Châtelet metro stop.)

“I am thinking at this instant of the Syrian people, oppressed by a regime which is only motivated by the fear of disappearing. This regime will disappear–which is a lesson we give to the world–because when freedom is on the move, nothing or nobody can stop it.”

Considering how deep the misgivings were about the election of Hollande, the center-left Socialist, in the French Jewish community and beyond, this rhetorical swagger–or “walking” in the words of George W. Bush, who could have cried that Saturday’s speech was cribbed from one of his–might have been expected on the topic of Israeli occupation and Palestinian resistance. Back in April, Richard Prasquier, head of France’s official umbrella group of Jewish organizations, warned that electing Hollande would bring about “a surge in leftist and Communist manifestations of anti-Zionism.”

But governing does a strange thing. While it’s still very early, Hollande has made efforts to showcase his bravado in the fight against anti-Semitism and to lead the responsible transmission of historical memory in France. Just last week, Hollande stripped John Galliano–disgraced French designer from the House of Dior–of his decoration as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in the protracted wake of Galliano’s vitriolic and drunken anti-Semitic outbursts caught on video at a Paris cafe.

Saturday’s commemoration incorporated the history of the Vel d’Hiv, the infamous 1942 round-up (and eventual deportation) of 13,000 Parisian Jews (of which less than 900 returned). Last month at the 70th anniversary of the event, Hollande went as far as to condemn the French for their historical complicity in the matter, calling the round-up “a crime committed in France by France.”

This is a welcome note bearing in mind that a poll released earlier this year cited that 42% of French people don’t know what the Vel d’Hiv round-up was and that 60% of the 18-to-24 French demographic had never heard of it.

Another poll, which I hope has more to do with the economy than Hollande’s early efforts in the domain of French memory, that was released on Saturday revealed that Hollande’s approval rating had dropped from 61% to 54% since he took office in May.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.