In 1987, Klaus Barbie was being tried in France for crimes against humanity, crimes committed while he was in charge of the Gestapo in Lyon, between 1942 and 1944. That same year, I was living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and working as an au pair. I looked after a three-year-old girl named Raphaelle, whose parents were physics teachers at a Parisian lycee. They were about as warm as one might expect physics teachers to be, but at least they left me to my own devices most of the time. They considered me debrouillarde, meaning they believed I could figure things out on my own. They complained to me a good deal about their previous jeune fille, who was British and not so debrouillarde. She cried a lot, they said with a snort of derision. I cried a lot too, but not in front of them.
When not in class I was ironing (while watching either the Barbie trial or Charlie’s Angels in French), or vacuuming or picking Raphaelle up from school and giving her her goutee, an after school snack. It usually consisted of baguette and nutella. Yum. And to think – French people were forever trashing Americans for eating too much junk.
When not studying French poetry or grammar, or doing my jeune fille au pair duties – I had never ironed so much in my life, but at least I had learned how to make a decent vinaigrette (indeed, I learned what a vinaigrette was) — I was enjoying my flat near the rue Mouffetard and the surrounding pleasures. I lucked out with Raphaelle’s family; they owned a small apartment in a trendy area in Paris’ fifth arrondissement which they used for their foreign nannies. They themselves lived a few streets and a couple of metro stops away.
Previously, I had worked for a family who had stuck me in the more traditional chambre de bonne, or maid’s room. Chambres de bonnes in Parisian apartment buildings are usually on the 6th of 7th floor and can’t be reached by elevator, meaning your thighs and glutes get a great workout, off-setting (up to a point) all the brie, baguette, wine and Lindt bars you are taking in your first time in Paris. They are also small — only a chambre, not a flat — often cockroach-ridden and their inhabitants have to share a bathroom with others on the same floor. Not all inhabitants of these rooms are foreign girls eager to fall in love in France. Some are men going through a divorce, immigrant workers, derelicts or the general down-and-outers in Paris. When you are 20 or so and sharing a bathroom with an underpaid Tunisian or an alcoholic Brit, it can be frightening.
So life near the rue Mouffetard was a joy, a respite amidst my Parisian heartaches and the horrors of history. And speaking of, by mid-June of 1987, I was fixated on the Klaus Barbie trial. It was being televised – a rarity for French television – and it was not only the talk of all media, but the talk of the town. Few French failed to have an opinion on the matter, usually as passionately held as their views on wine, cheese or the moral, cultural and intellectual inferiority of Americans. Every French school child could (and can still, I imagine) recite General de Gaulle’s Appel a la Resistance of June 18, 1940, and Barbie was responsible, after all, for the death of France’s resistance hero, Jean Moulin.
But he represented something more than that – a schism from way back. I knew a bit, at that point in my life, about l’affaire Dreyfus, about the great divide it had caused (or perhaps revealed and entrenched) in French society, and about how that schism had never truly healed, manifesting itself again under Vichy. France was a country where the respected documentary about the Nazi occupation of France, The Sorrow and the Pity (Le Chagrin et la Pitie), was not permitted to be shown on French television until the 1980s (it had been made in 1969). To say the topic was “touchy” among the French was one of life’s great understatements; to say that French memories of the era seemed to be either creative or selective (or both) was to state the obvious.
This is near as true now as it was two decades ago. In her 2011 book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, Elaine Sciolino writes, “An example of France’s amnesia is a plaque affixed to the wall of the Hotel Lutetia, an Art Deco landmark on the Left Bank in Paris. It identifies the hotel as the reception center for returning deportees and prisoners of war in 1945; it says nothing about its sinister role between 1940 and 1944 as the Paris headquarters of the German Army’s intelligence operations during the Occupation.”
On an anecdotal level, I know that virtually every adult I met in Paris claimed to have a parent or grandparent who hid Jews from June 1940 to August 1944, or claimed to have done so themselves. It made me wonder how any French Jew of the time managed to get deported, since apparently, virtually the entire population was engaged in helping them escape persecution. How on earth did the Vel D’Hiv round-up ever happen? Where on earth did the French police find the Jews they rounded up that day, since the latter were all hidden, tucked away safely under the wing of French courage?
Still, I could not have imagined that some people, after nodding sagely and agreeing that Barbie was a bad man, would add that, “mais les Juifs ne sont pas comme nous.” But Jews are not like us. This was also what French people often said to me about the many Muslims who lived in France. Whether that were true or not, what on earth had that to do with anything? I was also astonished at the number of people who felt the intervening years and Barbie’s age somehow mitigated if not the crimes themselves then the need to prosecute. (In the late 1990s, French collaborator Maurice Papon was allowed out of prison due to his age and ill health, a kindness Papon did not allow his victims.)
During this time I also became aware of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who referred to the Holocaust as a “detail” of history; who wanted to put AIDS patients in sidatoriums. (The French acronym for AIDS is SIDA; sidatorium sounds creepily like crematorium, something that did not escape notice at the time.) When his daughter came onto the political scene she cut her father off from the National Front, making many wonder if she was doing it for reasons of political expediency or because she really disagreed with him about sensitive issues. Well, one didn’t need long to suss things out: during this campaign, she has denied France’s role in the war-time deportation of Jews. She has denied facts of history.
This is my winding way of saying that I hope that Macron wins today — I suspect he will, but one must never be too sure. People are saying that he will be a bit of a Chirac, which would be ok, I guess. Chirac was the first French president to state in so many words that France was guilty in the fate of its Jews. This was not a position that was going to get him many votes, so while there is much I didn’t like about him — the oiliness, the reflexive anti-Americanism — I will always credit him for that.
Of Macron I know little, but I like that he appears to be free-market friendly (by French standards) and also that he has ruled out unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.
My thoughts, of course, are of no import to the French. They will do as they wish and I wish them well. I lived in Paris for nearly five years and I have visited France several times since. I have an uncle buried in a Canadian War Cemetery there. For me, France will always be a slice of home, of family.