The initial post-war period was marked by various arguments that built the role of resistance. The textbooks spoke of the fact that the French were resistance fighters rather than collaborators. An argument developed that Vichy played the role of a shield while De Gaulle and the resistance played the role of the sword: in other words, there was a kind of complementarity between the two.
Mentalities changed in the aftermath of 1968. This was partly because there was a general questioning of the establishment, and partly because of the release of films like Sorrow and pity or books like Robert Paxton’s study on Vichy France. Along with stories of Jewish occupation survivors, they exposed the Vichy regime’s complicity in occupation crimes, showing that Vichy adopted its own measures against Jews as a willing collaborator of Nazi Germany.
A number of pivotal events then brought the question of Vichy and the crimes of the occupation back to the fore. One was the emergence of the Front National, a major political party whose leadership, certainly for most of the 1970s, included former members of the Vichy militia and the Waffen-SS. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s political past includes leading a presidential campaign for a former Vichy minister. This drew attention to the continuities between the present and the past.
There has been a series of high-profile essays, or attempted essays, by collaborators. Paul Touvier was a member of the Vichy militia in Lyon who served under Klaus Barbie and managed to evade charges of crimes against humanity for several years. Georges Pompidou granted him a presidential pardon.
There have been delays in police investigations. The Catholic clergy provided him with safe houses. All of this means that Touvier was not arrested until the late 1980s, and then there were further delays in bringing him to justice before he was finally convicted in 1994. Touvier’s individual case, in in other words, shed light on the role of several institutions in French society.
The case of René Bousquet was similar. Bousquet became the police chief under Vichy and organized the roundup of the Jews at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in 1942. He supervised more than sixty thousand deportations to the death camps. The total number of deportations was seventy-six thousand.
Bousquet was not just protected – he continued to have a successful career in the postwar period. He was friends with François Mitterrand. It took nearly fifty years for his role in the deportation of the Jews to be revealed, and he was assassinated before being brought to justice.
The Bousquet affair shed light on Mitterrand’s role, which raised a number of uncomfortable questions, not only about Mitterrand himself, but over the entire period of occupation. Mitterrand gave a series of denominational talks towards the end of his second term as president. It brought back memories of Vichy and underlined the element of continuity between Vichy and the periods that preceded and followed it.
Mitterrand had flirted with the extreme right before the war, and he was honored by the Vichy regime. He later played a role in the resistance, but he continued to cultivate his friendship with Bousquet in the post-war period. He refused as president to apologize for the crimes of the Vichy regime, as he maintained that the French Republic had nothing to do with it and that France was not responsible. It was only his successor Jacques Chirac who apologized on behalf of the French nation for his complicity in the Shoah, while stressing that there was another France at the time, represented by the resistance.
The trial of Maurice Papon in 1997-98 once again highlighted the role of officials complicit in the crimes of the occupation and then served in post-war administrations under the Fourth and Fifth Republic. There was another element with Papon. Having played a role in the deportation of Jews from the Bordeaux region during the war, after liberation, he also played a role in French colonial measures of repression.
He was the Prefect of Police in Paris. In October 1961, police officers under his command participated in the arrest of tens of thousands of Algerians, many of whom were beaten to death, their bodies thrown into the Seine. He was forced to step down after the kidnapping of Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan opposition politician, in 1965, but he was still director of Sud Aviation.
In other words, not only did the Papon trial expose the continuities between the Vichy regime and the post-war civil service, it also exposed the continuities between the crimes of the occupation and the crimes. from the colonial period. He shed light on the two dominant post-war political taboos, one of which, Vichy, began to be addressed, while the other was not properly addressed at all.