VIENNA, Austria — Jacques Chirac, the former French president who died on Sept. 26 at age 86, had only been in office two months when, on July 16, 1995, he delivered a speech that began a vital reckoning with one of the darkest aspects of France’s recent history.
Breaking a 50-year taboo on acknowledging France’s role in the Holocaust, Chirac said that “the criminal folly of the occupiers” — including the July 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, during which 4,500 French police arrested nearly 13,000 Parisian Jews, confining them in crowded, unsanitary conditions prior to their deportation to Auschwitz — “was seconded by the French, by the French state.”
“France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable,” Chirac said of the roundup. “Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.” France owes the victims “an everlasting debt.”
With these words, Chirac shattered the myth of French innocence his predecessors on the left and right of French politics, from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand, had, in the name of national unity, created and nurtured for decades.
When the Nazis occupied France in June 1940, so the story went, the Republic ceased to exist. All the crimes committed on French soil — the anti-Jewish laws, the arrests, the deportations, the near-75,000 dead French Jews — were therefore the responsibility of Nazi Germany and the puppet Vichy regime, not France.
To quote former French President François Mitterrand, “In 1940, there was a French state, this was the Vichy regime, it was not the Republic.”
Far from cultivating a culture of remembrance, the leaders who rebuilt France after World War II and presided over it in subsequent decades sanctioned an official culture of denial and forgetting. As late as 1992 — 50 years after the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup and long after Germany had begun its own process of coming to terms with the past — Mitterrand pointedly avoided acknowledging France’s role in a major speech marking the event. “The dead hear you,” Mitterrand was warned by his longtime friend Robert Badinter, the president of the Constitutional Council.
The Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld condemned Mitterrand as someone who was only “faithful to himself.” Prior to joining the French resistance in 1943, Mitterrand had been a civil servant in the Vichy regime. The urge not to remember was therefore in part self-serving.
Chirac, on the other hand, was only 11 at the time of France’s liberation in 1944. He was the first of a new generation of French leaders unencumbered by the experience of World War II. His 1995 address, Klarsfeld would say, “contained everything we hoped to hear one day.”
Chirac in general was far from an honorable man. He was a political chameleon and a hypocrite.
The same politician who gave the notoriously racist “le bruit et l’odeur” speech in 1991 was the anti-racist option when he campaigned for the presidency against the far-right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. And he was corrupt, as a French court found in 2011 when it found him guilty of embezzling public funds to illegally finance his neo-Gaullist political party.
But when successive French presidents, from François Hollande (“The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France”) to Emmanuel Macron (“It was indeed France that organized this”), speak so openly of France’s complicity in the Holocaust, they do so because of Chirac.
“To recognize the errors of the past and the errors committed by the state and not to hide the dark hours of our history, that is plainly the way to defend a vision of man, of his freedom and dignity,” he said in 1995.
A complicated figure, to say the least, this aspect of his legacy cannot be negated.