Memory and the Vel d’Hiv
Monday marked the seventieth anniversary of the rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the mass arrest and deportation of Jewry from France, conducted by Nazi and some 9,000 Vichy police officers, on July 16 and 17, 1942. 12,884 Jews were penned into the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the majority including 4,000 children for five days in the heat of summer with little sustenance, before movement onto Drancy and then Auschwitz. An official act of commemoration in the presence of President François Hollande will take place on Sunday, July 22.
A poll conducted by CSA for the French Union of Jewish Students has revealed that 67% of those aged between 15 and 17, 60% between 18 and 24, and 57% between 25 and 34 did not know of the round up of Jews into and out of the Vél d’Hiv. Across the entire population, 42% possessed no knowledge of the one of the most important events in the history of twentieth century France, indicitive of the nation’s struggle and oftentimes failure to face up to the hand it played in the Holocaust.
It was not until 1995 that the French government officially acknowledged that it had played any part in this most heinous of acts. “These dark hours soil our history forever and are an insult to our past and our traditions. The French and the French state seconded the occupying powers in their criminal folly”, Jacques Chirac proclaimed on Vél d’Hiv day in 1995. “France committed the irreparable”.
Nicolas Sarkozy, appearing on national television last night, attempted to solidify his elderly, right-wing base and appeal to wavering Front National supporters by raising the subject of immigration.
Sarkozy did not go as far as previous Gaullist leaders in his rhetoric — nowhere near as far, in fact, as Jacques Chirac, who referred in one awful address to a straw-man Maghrebi with a handful of wives and a dozen children living in a council-run tenement on benefits (…the noise and the smell…).
But, such language is disappointing from a leader of which I expect a lot more. There is enough material on Hollande (Monsieur 75%), Bayrou, and Le Pen to conduct a thorough and fair campaign, using their own policies and rhetoric against them, without going slumming or using godawful dog-whistles.
Sarkozy and the “Jewish vote”
Statistics released by the SPCJ in France present a mixed picture for the country’s Jewish community. 2011 witnessed a 16.5% drop in the number of reported anti-Semitic incidences from 466 to 389, the lowest figure in ten years. But the number of violent attacks levelled out, and there was in fact an upturn in terms of the severity of the violence exhibited.
With the presidential election two months away, the progress and concerns displayed in the SPCJ report ought to play into the hands of Nicolas Sarkozy. And, if he is to be re-elected, given recent polling data demonstrates he is some 15 points behind his main rival François Hollande, he will need to re-enliven France’s Jewish community, one of the constituencies which helped elevate Sarkozy into office in the first place.
Of course, the French do not vote in blocs by race, religion, or creed, and there is no ‘Jewish vote’ to speak of. Nevertheless proportionally, France’s Jewish community is more conservative when compared to the nation as a whole. 40% claim to identify with the values of the UMP – the party of Nicolas Sarkozy – whilst only 26% of Frenchmen nationwide feel able to say the same. After Roman Catholics, Jews have proven over time to be the second most reliable constituency for the French right.
Le Meilleur Homme: Sarkozy in Light and Shade
There is no perfect candidate running for the French presidency. Then again, putting it mildly, since the inculcation of the Fifth Republic France has never had a perfect President.
The first, Charles de Gaulle, was a quasi-fascist military ruler with a nasty prejudice towards the non-French and Anglo-Saxons in particular. He took power under the cloud of a coup d’etat led by Jacques Massu and other fifth columnists in Algeria, and clung to power by bullying other nations and over-egging the narrative of French resistance during the Second World War. De Gaulle, it should be noted, led this so-called effort from a palatial structure on Carlton Terrace in St. James’s, and subsequently spent the better part of his presidency deriding the very peoples and nations who liberated France not once but twice from foreign aggression during the twentieth century — he was, then, the very epitome of an armchair general.
Those who followed de Gaulle could hardly be as pompous, but the French hardly witnessed a great deal of improvement in the calibre or moral fortitude of their leaders. François Mitterrand was a Petainist sympathiser who laid flowers annually on Armistice Day on the grave of the leader of the Vichy government, a puppet regime which collaborated with the Nazis and was complicit in the Shoah. Mitterrand also hid a secret daughter whom he had fathered with his long-time mistress, opposed German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and presided over such disasters as the genocide in Rwanda (a former French colony and the most Catholic country in Africa), the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and the HIV contaminated blood scandal.
He was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist race-baiter with ideas above his station, who lead the effort in by-proxy support of Saddam Hussein, in opposition to the long-postponed liberation of Iraq. A French court convicted him late last year of “diverting public funds and abusing public trust” during his tenure as Mayor of Paris — Chirac used the city government as a platform to construct a powerful political and electoral organisation with himself at the centre, using public funds to pay members of his party for jobs which did not exist.
I say all this not just out of a combination of glee and disgust, but to put into some sort of context the competency which marked the Sarkozy presidency above all others, relatively speaking of course. This is not say to that he hasn’t been a little embarrassing, at times seeming as if he was stumbling from one comedic incident to the next: from his drunken post-lunch press conference after meeting Vladimir Putin, to a contretemps out on the stump where he castigated a citizen for neglecting to shake his hand.
The problem for Sarkozy is that these moments which should be considered trifling and ethereal have been blown up, as to make seem more monumental than they truly are, and paint a portrait of Sarkozy as an aloof, bumbling fool, not fit to inhabit the Élysée Palace. This goes some way to explaining why, based upon the most recent survey conducted by French polling organisation CSA, Sarkozy would lose in a runoff with the PS candidate François Hollande by 20 points.