World War II still casts shadow over France amid campaigning

AP News
Posted: Apr 28, 2017 8:57 AM
World War II still casts shadow over France amid campaigning

PARIS (AP) — The darkest moment in France's modern history ended seven decades ago with the Nazis' defeat, yet still casts a lingering shadow of shame — one now clouding the race to elect a new president.


Hitler's forces marched into France in 1940 and had taken over a swath of the country within days. It was a massive blow to France, which fought off foreign invasions for centuries and helped defeat Germany during World War I.

For the next four years, France was governed by a collaborationist regime led by World War I hero Philippe Petain and based in the central city of Vichy. More than 75,000 French Jews and others were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Just 2,500 survived.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle refused to collaborate, and launched the French Resistance from a base in London, and along with the Allies liberated France from the Nazis in 1944.



While Germans quickly tried Nazi commanders and reconciled themselves with their role in Hitler's horrors, France took decades to come to terms with its wartime role.

De Gaulle and other subsequent French leaders didn't consider the Vichy regime to represent the French state, so there was no national atonement. Families across France still have troubling, complex histories of collaboration that are never told to children and grandchildren.

It wasn't until 1995 — a half-century after the war's end — that then-President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state's role in the Holocaust for the first time, in a moving speech at a cycling stadium where thousands of Jews were rounded up in 1942.



Despite Chirac's gesture, many French still don't like to associate their nation with the Nazis, and prefer to see the Vichy regime as a historical anomaly.

Nationalist leader Marine Le Pen — now one step away from the French presidency — voiced that position recently, denying that the French state was responsible for Nazi-era roundups after all.

Voices on the far right have long held ambiguous views toward the Nazis, views that have gained new attention with the surge of support for Le Pen. Her father Jean-Marie has been convicted for calling Nazi gas chambers "a detail" of history, and her interim party leader stepped down Friday amid uproar over allegedly questioning whether the gas chambers ever existed.

Le Pen's rival in the May 7 presidential runoff, centrist Emmanuel Macron, is visiting the site of France's worst Nazi massacre to remind voters of this cruel chapter in the country's past.