Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sins of the Father, and the forgetfulness of Monsieur Minc

SPRING BREEZE at the Winter Stadium. Paris 1942

NEVER thought I'd write anything in defence of the Pope. Especially not this pope, with his evidently soft spot for 'integrists' and reaction in general. But the Catholics' Holy Father has himself come under a reactionary attack, from an odd quarter, and it is one that deserves an answer.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy announced this month that his government was closing unauthorised Gypsy camps, which he claimed were centres of drugs, crime and prostitution, and was sending Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania. Hundreds of people are being flown back. So much for free movement of European Union citizens and the advantages for poor countries in eastern Europe of obtaining EU membership.

Incidentally, the Tory government in Britain is swinging its weight behind councils to shut down traveller sites and deny facilities, while the media have discovered that many Poles and other migrants who came here to work in the prosperous West are sleeping rough on the streets. I haven't checked whether the Beeb property programmes are still encouraging Brits to buy places in eastern Europe.

Anyway, Sarkozy was speaking at his first cabinet meeting after the summer break, amid growing questions over his leadership. Human rights organisations and of course Roma people themselves have criticised what is happening, and Sarkozy's political opponents accuse him of using the Roma immigrant issue to boost his flagging support.

The French government wants to cut public spending and debt, but is facing public resistance to its policies. Trade unions are warning of strike action against the move to attack pensions, and there could be a European general strike affecting France on September 29.

France already expelled 10,000 Roma last year, but this time it appears to be stepping up the operations, with over 100 "illegal" camps broken up and 635 people deported. Besides scapegoating the Roma for the country's social problems, the government is making sure people know about it. Immigration Minister Eric Besson said on Europe 1 radio last week that "around 950" Roma will have been repatriated by the end of this month.

Romania has questioned whether the repatriations comply with European law and the EU Commission has said it is concerned about them. From Bulgaria it is reported that the first batch of people to be flown back were not Roma, as expected, but ethnic Turks. The French government claims it is acting in accordance with European law by deporting people if they have not found work within a month.

The Pope, Benedict XVI, expressed his concern by urging, in French, that countries should "know how to accept legitimate human differences". The Catholic Church in France also condemned the mass deportations.

These criticisms were apparently too much for one of Sarkozy's top advisers, M.Alain Minc, who demanded to know by what right "This German pope" could speak as he did, in French? Minc told radio France Inter that by virtue of his nationality, the pope was "an inheriter" of the Third Reich. He considered the pope disqualified by "His insensitivity, as shown when he reinstated a revisionist bishop, his insensibility of the history, of which he is like all Germans an inheritor, not culpable but an inheritor",

Evidently Minc was referring to the Nazi Holocaust, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti gypsies in the Nazi death camps. But if the leader of millions of Catholics, and for that matter anyone else who is German, is considered an "inheritor" of the Nazi crimes, what should we say about other European nations who provided perpetrators, as well as victims, of genocide?

Let us consider a just-passed 70th anniversary. On 20 August 1941, French police conducted raids throughout the 11th District of Paris and arrested more than 4,000 Jews, mainly foreign or stateless Jews. French authorities interned these Jews in Drancy, marking its official opening. French police enclosed the barracks and courtyard with barbed-wire fencing and provided guards for the camp. Drancy fell under the command of the Gestapo Office of Jewish Affairs in France and German SS Captain Theodor Dannecker. Five subcamps of Drancy were located throughout Paris (three of which were the Austerlitz, Lévitan and Bassano camps)

On July 16, 1942 there took place Operation Spring Breeze, one of several aimed at reducing the Jewish population. More than 4,900 of the 13,152 victims of the mass arrest were sent directly to the camp at Drancy before their deportation to Auschwitz. Few survived. Children taken from their parents by the Vichy police often did not make it to the camps, being starved and ill-treated so they died without even leaving Paris.

Pétain and the Vichy regime willfully collaborated with the German occupation, and the police and the state Milice (militia) organized raids to capture Jews and others considered “undesirables” by the Germans in both the northern and southern zones. The collaborationist regime of Vichy France interned 30,000 Gypsies, many of whom were later deported to Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald, and other camps. About 16,000 French Gypsies died in the camps.

Other victims of French collaboration - apart from resistors of course - included refugee German communists, and Spanish Republicans, thousands of whom had been interned after Franco's victory, and were handed over to the Nazis when they arrived.

The Vichy regime was smashed with its German protectors, of course,. But by way of continuity, the Vel d'Hiver, winter stadium in which Jews had been rounded up for deportation was used again two decades later to hold Algerians, and the Vichy police chief turned Gaullist minister Maurice Papon gave the police their orders to kill Algerians.

On 16 July 1995, the President, Jacques Chirac, ruled it was time that France faced up to its past and he acknowledged the role that the state had played in the persecution of Jews and other victims of the German occupation. Three years later Maurice Papon was found guilty of crimes against humanity.

I would have thought that M.Alain Minc, whose original family name was Minkowski, did not need Chirac to remind him of these unpleasant pages of history. Nor will he need telling, as an economist, that while many French people suffered under the occupation, and from bombing, some did well from collaboration, from contracts for detention camps and other rackets, much more profitable than the petty crime and street begging of which the Roma are accused.

L'Oreal is a well-known brand name in the news lately, not for the first time. Here's an earlier report from Forbes business magazuine:

Paris-resident Edith Rosenfelder, 76, filed a $30 million criminal suit against L'Oréal and German insurance company Badischer Gemeinde Versicherungs-Verband (BGV) in Paris in 2001 and is still awaiting her day in court. According to the suit, the Rosenfelder home in Karlsruhe, Germany was illegally seized in 1938 by BGV, before the transport of Rosenfelder's parents to Auschwitz. (Her mother died there. Her father died in Geneva in 1945.) According to the complaint, in 1954, BGV sold the plot of land once housing the Rosenfelder family's Victorian estate (the house was bombed during the war) to Schueller--Bettencourt was 31 at the time--though he knew it had been confiscated from its Jewish owners. By that time, German restitution laws mandated that property seized from Jews during the Nazi era must be returned to their rightful owners.

In France it is commonly believed that Schueller had close ties to the Nazi regime. During the 1930s, he is said to have hosted meetings of La Cagoule, a fascist group with Nazi sympathies, at L'Oréal's headquarters on rue Royale in Paris. Schueller eventually transformed the Rosenfelder land into L'Oréal's German headquarters. The site also stood behind the Gestapo and La Cagoule's headquarters. In 1991, he sold the property for $3.8 million to a German governmental agency.

But the sins of the father did not stop L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt becoming France's richest woman, only to become centre of a legal tangle and scandal involving tax evasion and illegal political donations. Apparently it did not even deter Sarkozy's party from accepting 150,000 euros from this tainted source towards its election fund.

Perhaps Monsieur Minc, the President's economic adviser, who has had his own problems over intellectual property, was looking the other way.

Or perhaps he chooses when to to forgive and forget.

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