By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
PARIS, Feb. 16 -- France's highest administrative tribunal ruled Monday that the French government was responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.
The ruling, by the Council of State, marked the clearest and most authoritative official admission of responsibility for the still-controversial role of the collaborationist Vichy government in the treatment of Jews during four years of German occupation. It said French authorities helped deport Jews even without being forced to by the occupying German army, rejecting an interpretation still clung to by some French people unwilling to confront the history of what happened.
The declaration's practical effect for French Jews seemed likely to be limited, however, as the council also ruled that reparations paid to deportees and their survivors by the French government since 1945 "have repaired, as much as this is possible, all the wrongs suffered." The reparations were decided in accordance with the norms of human rights, it added, and were similar to reparations paid by other European governments.
The council was responding to a request for a ruling from a lower administrative tribunal hearing a claim from the daughter of a Jew deported from France who perished at the notorious Auschwitz camp. She demanded about $250,000 in reparations for the death of her father and for the hardships she herself suffered during and after the war.
The council's judgment, although significant for its sweeping admission of responsibility, appeared to signal a dismissal of her claim in the lower court and of a number of similar such claims before various French courts. The council, a sort of supreme jurisdiction for France's administrative tribunals, is widely respected as the last word in interpreting administrative law.
"The various measures taken since the end of World War II, by way of indemnities as well as symbolic, have repaired, as far as this is possible, all the wrongs suffered," the ruling said.
There was no immediate response from the claimant or any of the several organizations that represent France's half-million Jews.
The role of the French government under Nazi occupation has long been a tender subject in France. Collaboration was widespread, including the government based in Vichy that openly cooperated with Berlin.
Charles de Gaulle, taking power at the war's end, chose to emphasize those who resisted German authorities as a way to enhance national unity as the country sought to recover from its defeat. Since then, however, new generations have arisen and the subject of France's conduct during the war has been widely examined by French historians, writers and filmmakers.
Then-President Jacques Chirac in 1995 formally acknowledged the betrayal of French Jews during the war, saying the country was guilty of a "collective fault." Olivier de Berranger, bishop of Drancy, two years later asked forgiveness for the silence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as thousands of Jews were deported to camps via a railway staging point at Drancy, in the Paris suburbs.
In the same vein, the tribunal's ruling Monday said Marshal Philippe Pétain's collaborationist government, using French police, carried out "arrests, internments and transports whose destination was transit camps that were, during World War II, the first station of the deportation of these people toward the camps in which most of them were exterminated."