Seventy years ago, on July 17, 1942, the Velodrome d'hiver Roundup took place in Paris. It was the greatest mass arrest of Jews ever carried out on French soil, and one of the main mass-arrests of Jews in Europe during World War II .
It took fifty-one years before a commemoration was held in memory of this crime. And it took two more years for a President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, to acknowledge France's responsibility for this crime. The new French President, Francois Hollande, was even more explicit this year; he talked about a crime committed "in France, by France." He added, most pointedly, that anti-Semitism is not an opinion but "an abjection". At a time when anti-Semitism is in France again, and just four months ago in Toulouse the worst anti-Semitic crime to have been committed in France since World War II took place -- the murder of three Jewish children and the father of two of them, by a French Islamist -- these words are not enough. It is necessary to look deeper.
In fairness, France was not the only country in Europe to have been infected for centuries with anti-Semitism, but French authors have played a particularly important role in the formulation of racist theories and modern anti-Semitism.
Few other European countries have seen the publication of a major newspaper devoted almost entirely to inciting hatred against Jews. Before Der Stürmer was published by Julius Streicher in Germany under Adolf Hitler, France was where Edouard Drumont published La libre parole (the Free Speech), from November 1892 to June 1924; hardly any page of La libre parole was devoted to anything but inciting hatred against Jews.
No viscerally anti-Semitic book has enjoyed the success of La France juive (Jewish France); written by the same Edouard Drumont; published in 1886; continually reprinted until 1938, and since 1986, available again in bookshops.
Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, a French diplomat, played a founding role in the development of modern racism with his Essay on the Inequality of Races. His views (and those of his disciple, Houston Stewart Chamberlain), exerted a profound influence on writers such as Paul de Lagarde and Julius Langbehn, who played a crucial role in the development of German National Socialism.
At the time when Der Stürmer was published in Germany, Leon Daudet and Charles Maurras were the figureheads of the extremely anti-Semitic L'Action Francaise [The French Action]. It rivaled the ardor of the equally anti-Semitic Je suis partout [I Am Everywhere], overseen by French fascist writers Lucien Rebatet and Robert Brasillach, author of the famous sentence, "We must finish with the Jews as a whole, and not keep the small ones".
The Roundup took place in a context of pervasive anti-Semitism; the anti-Semitism was not limited to just a handful of people. And it did not magically disappear with the end of the war. The idea, long inculcated, that the crime was committed by a minority of bad apples that were "not France" has prevented a wider examination of conscience and allowed more easily the rebirth of anti-Semitism later, under more elegant packaging.
In France today, anti-Semitism in the manner of Edouard Drumont, Leon Daudet or Robert Brasillach has not disappeared, but it is minor. The main form of anti-Semitism is Muslim anti-Semitism. And since those who claim to fight anti-Semitism only recognize anti-Semitism when it speaks like Edouard Drumont, Leon Daudet or Robert Brasillach, anti-Semitism as it exists is not challenged.
In addition, France is not alone in having been occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. The difference is that while France was occupied, it adopted a political regime based on active collaboration with Nazi Germany, and this regime was largely composed of people from the Left.
Even though some French conducted themselves with dignity and courage during that period, the large majority acted with cowardice. Many French denounced Jews. France had forty million inhabitants then, including almost "forty million Pétainists," as the title of a book by historian Henri Amouroux states.
Most ministers of the collaborationist government of Vichy were socialists before the war. The two main collaborationist parties during the war were the Parti Populaire Français (French popular party), headed by Jacques Doriot, a former Communist mayor of Saint Denis near Paris, and the Rassemblement National Populaire (Popular National Gathering), headed by Marcel Deat, a former Socialist deputy of Paris. Until the failure of Nazi-Soviet Pact, the French Communists were among the most ardent collaborators.
In 2008, Israeli historian Simon Epstein published a book, Un paradoxe français [A French Paradox], explaining in detail how the pacifist left of the 1930s became the collaborators in the 1940's. Simon Epstein's book was totally ignored by the French media when it was published.
The Roundup was organized by a regime based on active collaboration with the Nazis. Moreover, that regime was composed mostly of people coming from the French left.
The silence that is kept in France until today on the reality of the collaborationist regime at the time of the Roundup has helped build the legend that collaborators were not just a minority of bad apples, but a minority composed of people coming from the "far right."
The idea that the crime had been committed by the "far right" -- and the automatic association of anti-Semitism with the "far right" -- has prevented a full understanding of what collaboration with the Nazis really was, and how members of the Left could have become Nazi Collaborators and anti-Semitic criminals.
In France today, Muslim anti-Semitism is spreading, but because it is not coming from the "far right," and because it is Muslim, those who claim to fight anti-Semitism refuse to see it as anti-Semitic. It is members of the left who have become the fellow travellers of the Muslim anti-Semites; it is they who speak of Israeli Jews with the words used by anti-Semites when they spoke of Jews seventy years ago.
To understand the Roundup, pervasive anti-Semitism in France, the Collaborationist regime, and members of the Left becoming "collaborators" and anti-Semitic criminals, one has to understand the meaning of July 14, the French national holiday of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution was fraught with consequences significantly different from the American Revolution.
The American Revolution was imbued with the thought of John Locke, and English Whig ideas about civic virtue, corruption, ancient rights and liberty. It led to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the rule of law, and the American ideas of liberty and freedom, as they have existed for over two centuries,
The French Revolution was primarily influenced by thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the totalitarian idea of "general will" that allows the legislator to claim embodying the will of the people, and the equally totalitarian idea that an absolute and perfect political truth exists that can be used to reshape a society. It led to the Reign of Terror, and to a political and judicial instability that has not stopped to this day. Since July 1789, France has had five republics, two empires, a return to absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy and an authoritarian regime. The four republics that preceded the present one ended either in coups or in the vote of full powers to a "Providential Man".
The Reign of Terror, 1793 to1794, could be considered the first totalitarian experience in modern times. It allowed Robespierre to be the first dictator actually to try to mold a whole society according ti his vision. It implied the physical elimination of "counter-revolutionaries" and of all those who could be considered as non-integrable to the future society. Thousands of innocent people were hastily sentenced to death and sent to the guillotine until the moment when Robespierre himself was executed. More than three hundred thousand people were massacred in Vendée: the first totalitarian experience in modern times included the first genocidal action in modern times.
The French Revolution was an inspiration to modern dictators. Robespierre was admired by Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot.
Robespierre spoke of "revolution," those inspired by him spoke of "proletarian revolution," Hitler spoke of the "National Socialist revolution," and the French collaborators during World War II spoke of "national revolution."
At the time of Robespierre, those who had to be eliminated were defined as "enemies of the people," just as Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot also defined those they decided to eliminate as "enemies of the people."
Just as Hitler intended to eliminate those he considered "enemies of the German people," and who, as such, could not be part of Germany's future, so too, the French collaborators during World War II said they intended to eliminate "enemies of the people", who, as such, could not be part of France's future.
And just as the Collaborationist regime in France was no accident, so the Velodrome d'hiver Roundup was no accident. How members of the French left, who had never stopped admiring Robespierre, could become collaborators and then anti-Semitic criminals is explainable: When groups of human beings are defined by totalitarians as "enemies of the people," their elimination becomes logical.
In the context of widespread anti-Semitism, Jews could easily be defined as "enemies of the people." The collaborators were not a minority composed of people from the "far right," and anti-Semitism in France before World War II and during the nineteenth century was not a phenomenon from the far-right. Edouard Drumont, the author of La France Juive, defined himself as a "socialist." Jules Guesde, the main French Socialist leader in the late nineteenth century, regularly attacked "Jewish finance." Jean Jaures openly criticized the "stranglehold of Jewry" on the economy.
Could it get worse? Muslim anti-Semites who speak and act in today's France are close to Islamist movements; people can easily find excuses for those who use these words. Without a second thought, they may be open to the definition Muslims anti-Semites give of their enemies.
Political speeches, especially speeches coming from a left in which admirers of the French Revolution are still many, cannot change the situation.
The lessons of the Velodrome d'hiver Roundup still have not been learned in France. And clearly they involve much more than France.