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It’s time for France to face its past and debate crimes against humanity

French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech acknowledging the ordeals of former French colonies. Yoan Valat/Reuters

As Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen continue their quest to secure the French presidency, it’s time to ask what they think about France’s troubled past.

French colonialism and related wars of independence and the country’s treatment of Jews and other persecuted peoples during the second world war are still very sensitive topics in modern France.

Macron and Le Pen hold opposing views on many issues, both domestic and foreign. But there’s one thing they share: both provoked outrage, each in their own way, when they tried to invoke certain divisive moments in French history to galvanise their constituencies.

They bumped up against the fact that when it comes to France’s colonial past public opinion remains profoundly divided.

Uncomfortable positions

Le Pen has somewhat distanced herself and her party, the far-right National Front, from some of the views expressed by her father, the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. He has been accused of torture in the Algerian war (which he has denied) and made revisionist statements about the Holocaust.

Still, Marine Le Pen has maintained a hegemonist, unapologetic stance on French colonies, which included in the mid-20th century not just Algeria but also other northwestern African nations, Tunisia and Morocco.

And on April 10 she was following in her father’s footsteps when she categorically stated that France as a nation was not officially responsible for the July 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, in which 13,000 Jews were seized by French authorities and sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Protests against Jean-Marie Le Pen’s statement about the Shoah being a ‘detail’ in history in 1998. acky Naegelen/Reuters

Her remarks outraged Israel, which refuses any contact with her. And Israeli commentators have warned French Jews not to give in to the temptation of seeing the National Front as less antisemitic than it was in her father’s era.

Her opponent has also made controversial statements about France’s past. In February, during a two-day visit to Algeria, Macron stirred up a hornet’s nest when he remarked that France should officially apologise for colonial atrocities committed there.

Macron stated that French colonisation itself was a crime against humanity, an international legal term for acts of violence directed against a specific, identifiable population as part of a widespread and systematic attack.

During the war of Algerian independence (1954-1962), numerous atrocities, including acts of torture, were committed by French soldiers. An estimated 300,000 Algerians died, in contrast to about 25,000 French soldiers.

Members of the French militia in 1944, which worked with the Vichy regime and the Germans. Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

This topic has only recently entered public debate in France. Over the past decade, several statements have recognised the brutalities of this war, and last year, President François Hollande honoured the memory of native Arab Harkis soldiers, who fought in the Algerian war only to be abandoned by the French army afterwards.

These gestures have done little to lift the taboo surrounding the French-Algerian war and other shameful “details” of French history.

Special commando V66 during the French-Algeria war, 1961. Wikimedia

Individuals charged, but not France

So, Macron caused an uproar by acknowledging French atrocities in the Algerian war, and Le Pen did the same when she denied French crimes during the second world war.

It would be difficult for either candidate, or any single politician for that matter, to reconcile France with its troubled past through such public declarations. The country remains profoundly unwilling to face its demons.

As a state and a nation, France has thus far denied any responsibility for crimes against humanity while, rightly, punishing guilty individuals.

France’s first formal encounter with crimes against humanity came in 1945 with the Nuremberg Tribunal in Germany. As an allied victor, France was on the right side of history and helped ensure that Nazis responsible for the Holocaust on French soil were punished.

The trials of Klaus Barbie, Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon shed light on France’s historical approach to this issue.

Marechal Petain of the Vichy regime with Hitler. Heinrich Hoffman/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

The court convicted Klaus Barbie of 177 charges, but it restricted the application of the law to those crimes committed on behalf of a “State practising a hegemonic political ideology”.

According to the Nuremberg judges, only Nazi Germany fit this definition. Barbie, acting on behalf of such a state, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

France, on the other hand, was granted immunity from legal liability. According to the judges, the law applied only to criminal acts committed in association with the Nazis.

On the same grounds, Paul Touvier, a notorious Nazi collaborator and a high-ranking member of the French militia (a kind of Vichy police that helped the Gestapo) in 1992 was acquitted of crimes against humanity. French legislation claimed that an individual acting under the orders of the Nazi regime was not criminally responsible.

The court later reversed its judgement on appeal. In 1994, based on the Nuremberg standards, Touvier was found guilty of perpetrating crimes against humanity in the “interests of the Axis powers”. He was the first French citizen to receive that sentence.

Some years later, he would be joined by Maurice Papon, a high-ranking French civil servant who was convicted in 1998 for his role in deporting Jews in the southwest of France. But the court determined that no deeper investigation into the country’s role was necessary.

Former Vichy official Maurice Papon was sentenced in 1998 to ten years imprisonment for helping deport Jews to Nazi death camps. Charles Platiau/Reuters

France as a nation has been repeatedly absolved of any responsibility in the second world war on the basis that all Europe was plagued by Nazi dominance, notwithstanding Vichy France’s widespread and well-acknowledged country collaboration.

Will France ever own up?

Collective and national responsibility is indeed an uncomfortable topic, for it questions every citizen’s complicity in atrocities.

But it does happen. It happened not just at Nuremberg but also today, as European governments demand that other countries, notably Syria, reckon with the violence they’ve perpetrated against their own people.

Can France ever face its own past?

Marine Le Pen is unlikely to broach the subject. If the National Front ever wins the Elysee Palace, she would not want to see her country answer for its own terrible crimes.

And if Macron were to reopen the debate when in power, he would most certainly be hounded again by the right-wing political establishment.

Still, France is the birthplace of the Enlightenment. If only in the interest of free inquiry and rationality, it’s time for the country to see the dawn of a new era: one of historical responsibility.

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