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Vichy law and the Holocaust in France

Foundation to mark wartime looting in France urged

Financial Times, Apr 18, 2000

A special commission on the expropriation of Jewish property in France under the Vichy and Nazi regimes yesterday recommended setting up a FFr2.35bn (£215m) foundation to perpetuate the memory of and learn the lessons from these events.

The Matteoli commission, which handed its 3,000-page report yesterday to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, said the foundation should be financed from FFr1.4bn of unclaimed funds held by the state.

The remaining FFr950m was to come from unclaimed assets held by financial institutions.

The commission was set up three years ago on the initiative of President Jacques Chirac in the first serious attempt to establish the extent of the looting of Jewish assets in Nazi-occupied France and under the collaborationist Vichy administration.

But it was also intended as a means of reconciling France with this aspect of its recent past.

As a result, the emphasis of yesterday's recommendations was more on the country's need to know the facts surrounding the systematic victimisation of French Jews and less on residual compensation of victims families' for the wrongs suffered.

The report pledged relatives would have every assistance in chasing claims. But the conclusions of former resistance fighter and deportee Jean Matteoli steered well clear of encouraging aggressive legal action as sought by some US-based Jewish organisations.

The task of the new foundation will be to "analyse history in greater detail and disseminate the history and memory of anti-Semitic persecution in France under Nazi occupation". In addition it will be able to research other genocides and crimes against humanity, while contributing to financing and implementing "solidarity measures and teaching".

This approach, according to Claire Andrieu, a prominent historian drafted on to the commission, underlines the strong view that amends cannot be made for what happened in exclusively financial terms.

Rather, the collaboration of Vichy in the persecution of Jews and the expropriation of their assets is an affair of state, and society as a whole must come to terms with what happened.

French Jewish associations have been supportive of the commission, one of whose members is Serge Klarsfeld, a lawyer who has championed the rights of deportees and their families.

"The main surprise in our research was to discover the sheer scale of the spoliation of Jewish property and assets, and the chilling small detail in which it was prescribed by the authorities," Ms Andrieu said yesterday.

The report made the first concrete valuation of Jewish assets seized in France - FFr5.2bn at 1940s prices, (worth FFr8.8bn today). The bulk of the 330,000-strong Jewish community was centred around Paris under direct German occupation.

Throughout France a total of 75,721 Jews were deported, with only 2,500 returning.

Of the assets taken, FFr2bn represented cash and securities in banks and policies with insurance companies. Some 80,000 bank accounts were examined as well as 66,000 savings accounts.

While the work on bank accounts is nearly finished, the report says insurance companies have been much slower in deterring their potential responsibilities.

Measures 'aryanising' Jews assets - removal of apartments and seizure of factories - accounted for a further FFr3bn. The commission also calculated FFr215m had been removed in cash and valuables from deportees in transit camps. Overall it estimated 90-95 per cent of assets had been restituted in kind or cash after the liberation of France either by the government or via German restitutions.

Apart from assets seized through administrative regulation, the commission looked into the looting of 40,000 apartments by German troops and the pillage of works of art.

Of 100,000 works of art stolen, 61,233 were returned after 1945. Some 45,441 items were returned to their owners or their heirs, but the rest were unclaimed.

Debate about Franco-German Cooperation in EMU