The furor that enveloped Swiss banks over their failure to restore dormant accounts to heirs of Holocaust victims is spreading to French banks.
Two parallel class action suits in New York are demanding restitution and costs from seven French banks that froze and confiscated Jewish-owned accounts during the wartime occupation of France. Similar suits against Swiss banks, plus the threat of economic sanctions, forced them to agree to a $1.25 billion settlement for victims.
A hearing of the House Banking Committee in Washington Tuesday is seen here as a way to pressure French banks to settle the lawsuits, as is a state hearing in New York later in the week.
The French government and the banks are fighting the suits, contending they violate France's sovereignty. The government and banks also have a surprising ally: French Jewish organizations, which resent what they say is U.S. interference in French affairs, including what they see as meddling by U.S. Jewish groups.
"Our concern is to have [French] society revisit its history and accept its responsibility. That's much more important than receiving a billion francs," said Henri Hajdenberg, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. "We are revisiting the history of the last 50 years. All that is not entirely understood by the American Jewish community."
The episode has opened a deep and painful rift between the French Jewish community and such organizations as the World Jewish Congress.
To the Jewish groups outside France, the French are protecting their own at the expense of other Holocaust victims. "There are differences of opinion," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "On the core issues, our view is that the French banks and government have to relate both to the French Jewish community and the world Jewish community."
In France, all sides place their trust in a blue-ribbon commission established two years ago to account for assets taken from the rightful owners of wartime bank accounts, stocks, artworks and businesses.
The nine-member commission and its hundreds of staffers are examining wartime records of 100 banks, 20 insurance companies and numerous government ministries.
Its goal is to find what was taken, what was restored and what was not, but it is not designed to make reparations. Another panel will be created to do that.
Historian Claire Andrieu, a commission member who will testify before the banking committee Tuesday, said France is different from Switzerland, which was officially neutral during World War II and was not invaded by the Nazis.
When French banks were ordered to turn over names and account balances of Jewish clients, they complied--uncomplainingly, but with the knowledge that they had no choice, according to the banks' defenders. And when they were told to freeze and then confiscate those 68,000 accounts, they did that too.