The big talking point in France this week, dominating the front pages of the newspapers, has been a controversial television film called "Terrorists in Retirement."
With a title like that at a time like this, one might think it had something to do with airplane hijackers. In fact -- and herein lies one of the peculiarities of public debate in France -- it is about a band of foreign-born French resistance fighters who were betrayed to the Germans in the final months of Nazi occupation.
Four decades after the end of World War II, the activities of these long-forgotten guerrilla fighters and the still-mysterious reasons for their betrayal have become political dynamite. At stake are two of the most enduring myths of France's wartime resistance movement: the heroic role played by the French Communist Party and the notion, fostered by Charles de Gaulle, that most French people were actively opposed to Hitler.
The film reconstructs the story of Communist resistance fighters led by an Armenian Jew, Missak Manouchian, who carried out terrorist acts in Paris including the assassination of German officers and the bombing of troop trains. Manouchian and 22 companions were shot by the Germans in February 1944 just four months before the Normandy landings by the western allies.
The documentary, based on interviews with surviving members of the Manouchian band, suggests that the brunt of the most dangerous resistance work fell to foreigners and Jews. It also accuses the Communist Party of cynically conniving in the elimination of Manouchian and his friends in order to project a more French image of itself after the war, when it competed against the Gaullists for political power.
The charges have been denounced as "slander" by the French Communist Party, which succeeded in holding up distribution of the film for months before it was screened Tuesday night. This has stirred up renewed controversy about the "censoring of history" -- a delicate issue in the light of an earlier 10-year ban on "The Sorrow and the Pity," a film depicting French collaboration with the Germans during the war.
On Tuesday, the Communist Party newspaper L'Humanite devoted practically its entire issue to defending the party's role in the French resistance, relegating such subjects as the leadership changes in Moscow and the release of the TWA hostages to inside pages. An editorial accused the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand of allowing the broadcast to go ahead as a way of weakening the Communist Party's electoral appeal.
French political commentators pointed out that the Communist Party, whose popularity has been declining steadily during the past decade, stands to lose even more support if its wartime record is tarnished.
"The Communist Party has presented itself as the party of the resistance," noted the weekly magazine Le Point. "The party, which already has lost so much, is now in danger of losing this, too -- and it is defending itself tooth and nail."
The charge that Manouchian was betrayed by his own comrades was endorsed in the film by his widow, Melinee, who cited a passage in his last letter from prison before his execution. "I forgive everyone with the exception of the one who betrayed me and those who sold us out," Manouchian wrote.
The phrase "the one who betrayed me" is generally accepted to refer to Joseph Davidowicz, a resistance fighter who was arrested and then released by the Gestapo. He was later condemned to death and killed by fellow resistance members, who accused him of spying for the Germans.
Manouchian's widow believes that the words "those who sold us out" refer to a Communist Party official. There is no conclusive evidence to back up her claim, but it is noteworthy that the phrase was censored out of a collection of letters from Manouchian and his colleagues that was published by the party immediately after the war.
A slightly more charitable explanation favored by some historians is that Communist resistance leaders did nothing to save the Manouchian group once it became clear that the Germans were closing in on them in Paris. A request by some Communist Jews to be transferred to safer regions of France was refused by the party hierarchy.
The controversy over Manouchian's fate appears to have embarrassed leading members of the non-Communist resistance who want to protect the legends of a "fighting France" fostered by de Gaulle. In a discussion that followed the screening of the documentary, former prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas reminded viewers that the wartime resistance movement had saved "the honor of France."