Thursday, 20 January 2011

Letter from France

Jan 5th 2011

Are some influential people in America using the memory of the Holocaust to beat France out of business deals? Many people here in Paris seem to think so. The controversy was all over the papers a few weeks ago. After a decade of negotiations on the sale of the high-speed train to the United States, the French national railway company (SNCF) is now being held accountable for transferring Jews to Germany during World War II.

To Paris, this looks like a cheap trick to favor its main competitors, the Chinese railways and German company Siemens. And since losing the Florida and California projects would be a massive blow for France, its government decided to take action, or “wet its shirt,” as the French would say.

Both former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his successor, Michele Alliot-Marie, met with U.S. officials and American Jewish leaders in New York and Paris.

In fact, Alliot-Marie met with an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation on the evening she took office.

They have tried to persuade U.S. Jews that France is a world champion of Shoah commemorations.

The foreign ministry also reached out to The Jewish Journal and The New York Times so it could explain its position.

“France has done so much to commemorate the Holocaust,” Francois Zimeray, the French ambassador for human rights said, citing more than a dozen measures, including the creation of the Holocaust memorial, a “world-leading think tank” for commemoration, financial compensation for victims and emboldened school programs on the Shoah. “Perhaps we haven’t spoken out enough to let people know how much we have done. Had they been aware, they wouldn’t have reacted this way.”

When asked if he was accusing someone of attacking the SNCF for business purposes, Zimeray replied, “I have no concrete proof that this is favoritism, but if there had been favoritism, it would have been done in the exact same way.”

He went on to say that France had had similar concerns about previous deals.

“In the past, U.S. lawmakers barred the high-speed plane Concorde from entering the U.S. That was for environmental reasons supposedly. Of course, we all know how important the environment is for Americans.”

“History and business shouldn’t be intertwined,” Zimeray, a former member of the European Parliament, added. “Competitiveness should be the only criteria for business deals.”

“Unfortunately for France, Chinese companies have turned more competitive by now,” a businessman who works for the SNCF and the Chinese railways and who wishes to remain unnamed said. “They pay their employees much less than their French or German competitors, and the Chinese government funds many of their investments.”

Yet those who accuse the SNCF of not taking full responsibility quickly enough may not be entirely wrong. Until the latest accusations came from the United States, officials had never issued a proper statement of regret, such as the one they’ve now sent to America. In fact, the foreign ministry said it pushed the company to write that statement so that the deal would be sealed.

In fact, the company’s American Web site offers explanations of what happened during World War II, but they don’t appear on its French site.

Therefore, to Alain Lipietz, a former member of the European Parliament who sued the SNCF because it had transported his father to the camp of Drancy, the SNCF statement of regret has just one goal: “closing a business deal” and “is not sincere.” Lipietz said he and his family have been repeatedly criticized for suing the company.

Meanwhile, historians are still divided on the case. Is it true that the SNCF was requisitioned and had no choice but to follow the orders of the Vichy regime? Serge Klarsfeld, one of France’s leading experts on the Shoah, perhaps its No. 1 expert, said the SNCF appeared to have had no choice and that it earned no money from transferring Jews, Gypsies, communists and others to the Nazis. The money it received covered its expenses alone, according to Klarsfeld.

Other historians are less definitive. They say that no document ordering a requisition has been ever found.


The French government said it is battling anti-Semitism in the Arab world; that is what Zimeray also said. According to Zimeray, French ambassadors across the world have formed a network, organizing conferences on the Holocaust, handing out Primo Levi’s books and Anne Frank’s diary.

“In some countries, “Mein Kampf” is widely spread, while Anne Frank’s diary is banned,” Zimeray said. “We met with Arab League leader Amr Moussa about six weeks ago and told him, ‘Enough is enough!’ ”

I have great respect for Zimeray. When he was in the Parliament, he battled to get reports on how Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority was using European funds, and his party, the Socialist Party, has made him pay for that. However, I doubt that the measured diplomat addressed Moussa in those exact words.


The daughter of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is likely to replace him at the head of the National Front, France’s far-right nationalist political party, in mid-January. The elder Le Pen is retiring and his daughter Marine Le Pen seems best placed to win the party’s internal election this month. She has battled to boost her party’s approval rates and is starting to get results. According to some recent polls, Marine Le Pen is now getting support rates of more than 30 percent, almost as much as President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Her strategy: giving her party a more acceptable image by dropping the anti-Semitic attitude of her father. In order to surpass her father’s score of 17.79 percent in the 2002 presidential election, she started, right after that vote, to woo the Jewish and Israeli media. The goal wasn’t necessarily to attract Jews so much as mainstream voters who might associate her with her father’s anti-Semitic reputation. Jean-Marie Le Pen had been known and condemned for saying that gas chambers were a “detail of history” in World War II.

The French Jewish media has declined all Marine Le Pen’s invitations. And when she tried to visit Israel as a member of the European Parliament, Israel told her she wasn’t welcome.

However, her strategy is bearing fruit. Unfortunately for Le Pen, many in her own party are annoyed by her “liberal” approach, and this could make the upcoming election more difficult for her.

Now she is trying to get those far-right voters back. In a recent radio interview, she made a controversial comment on Muslims, saying that those who pray on the street (because they don’t have enough space in mosques) are “occupying” French territory, like the Nazis occupied France “but without tanks.” She added that being a Jew, a homosexual, a white person or French can be very complicated in certain neighborhoods because of fundamentalists.

All political parties criticized her remark and said she was walking in her father’s footsteps. But Marine Le Pen appears more ambitious. She is not only trying to win back far-right voters for the internal vote, she’s also trying to keep her so-called tolerant image by pretending to defend Jews and homosexuals.

The Socialist Party may inadvertently have assisted her. Reacting to Le Pen’s comment, Socialist spokesperson Benoit Hamon said that praying in the street “cannot be tolerated much longer. … We need to find solutions so Muslims would have enough areas to pray in and at the same time liberate public spaces.” It’s the first time any party other than the National Front has issued such a statement.

Many Socialists say more mosques should be built, but they don’t know where to get the money. Some political leaders suggest a reform of the law separating state and church so that public funds could be used to build new mosques.