Letter from France

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.

Gov. signs, vetoes Holocaust-related bills

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced with two bills rooted in the Nazi era, has signed one and vetoed the other.

With hundreds of legislative bills on his desk and a looming deadline, Schwarzenegger on Thursday night signed into law a bill benefiting descendants of Jewish art collectors, whose paintings were taken by the Hitler regime.

The law, which applies to art, cultural, historical and scientific artifacts looted during the last 100 years, extends the statue of limitations for initiating recovery lawsuits from three years to six.

In addition, the countdown doesn’t begin until the former owner or his heirs first discover in what museum, gallery or private collection the disputed art is located.

Likely to be affected immediately by the new law is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which is being sued by the daughter-in-law of a Dutch-Jewish art collector for the return of the diptych “Adam and Eve.”

Painted by the German artist Cranach the Elder in 1530, the work is valued at $24 million.

At the same time, the outgoing California governor vetoed a bill that would have required companies bidding for a piece of the state’s lucrative high-speed rail contract to disclose their roles in transporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

The legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the state’s assembly and senate, did not name a specific company. However, the bill’s chief sponsor, Woodland Hills Democratic Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, made it clear that the main target was the French national railway SNCF, or Societe Nationale du Chemins de Fer Francais.

In vetoing the Holocaust Survivors Responsibility Act, Schwarzenegger said he sympathized with victims of the Nazi deportations, but that the legislation “needlessly places the state in a position of acknowledging the activities of companies during that time.”

SNCF is now expected to bid for a major role in the $45 billion project, which is expected to zip passengers by 2020 from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento at speeds of 220 miles per hour.

Blumenfield had charged earlier that SNCF had profited from its wartime collaboration, had never admitted its actions, disclosed its record, or be held accountable to victims.

In their defense, SNCF officials asserted that the French railway system was under German control during most of the war and that the Nazis executed about 800 railroad workers and deported another 1,200 for disobeying orders.

Following Schwarzenegger’s veto, the railroad company released a statement that “The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during WWII were so horrific that we can never forget, nor should we. That’s why SCNF will continue its commitment to complete transparency of its WWII history, and will voluntarily comply , and even exceed, the requirements [the bill] would have mandated.”

Blumenfield pledged that he would hold SCNF officials to their promise.