Whatever you do in France … don’t mention the War

It is World War Two I am talking about now, and not the Gulf War. President Sarkozy has, however, dared to do so and for this he is a rather unpopular man today. The French state, as you will know, had collaborated with Nazi Germany. It is something – a period of their history – […]

It is World War Two I am talking about now, and not the Gulf War.

President Sarkozy has, however, dared to do so and for this he is a rather unpopular man today.

The French state, as you will know, had collaborated with Nazi Germany. It is something – a period of their history – that they cannot come to terms with. They speak of those years as “les annèes noires” – the dark years – and they are better forgotten. Now President Sarkozy has gone and reminded his compatriots that WW2 had indeed happened and that it was best to face it.

President Sarkozy’s way of reconciling his compatriots with “les annèes noires” was to request that all France’s teachers read a certain letter to their pupils on this day, Monday, October 22. This was a request he had made right at the start of his 5-year mandate in May.

The letter in question was written by a 17-year-old boy, Guy Môquet, shot by the German Nazis on this day 66 years ago.

“I have never been able to read Guy Môquet’s letter without being profoundly moved,” President Sarkozy had said.

“Guy who …?” many – most – French had asked.

“You know … the Metro station …,” some had replied.

Yes, a Metro station has been named after Guy Môquet and thousands pass through it every day without knowing the human drama behind the name.

Guy Môquet was a Second World War Resistant. The son of a Communist Member of Parliament, Prosper Môquet, who had been sent in 1938 by the then French government into penal servitude (“la bagne”) in French-ruled Algeria, Guy, a communist himself, had, at the outbreak of the war, opted to join the French Resistance rather than become a collaborator (a “collabo”). He was arrested in 1941 in Paris by French police because he had been denounced in an anonymous letter as a distributor of anti-German leaflets. He was tried and acquitted but, because he was a Communist, he was interned all the same. When three Communists assassinated a German officer in the town of Nantes, Hitler ordered the execution, by firing squad, of 50 French detainees, to be followed by another 50, and to continue shooting groups of 50, until the assassins handed themselves over. Vichy France had then made a deal with the Germans. Vichy would give the Germans the names of French detainees they could execute rather than them shooting 50 “bons Français” (good French). The name Guy Môquet was on Vichy’s list.

On the eve of his execution, Guy Môquet wrote the letter that President Sarkozy asked teachers to read to their pupils today.

The letter was addressed to, “My darling little Mom, my adored little brother, my loved little Dad”.

It began: “I am going to die! What I am asking you, especially you my little Mom, is to be brave.”

He then continued to write how he preferred to live, but that he was going to try to be as brave as all those who had been executed before him. He also wrote that he wanted nothing more than for his death to serve a purpose.

He signed off, “Be brave! Your Guy who loves you,” but then he added a footnote. He wrote: “Last thoughts: You who stay behind, make us proud of you, the 27 of us who are going to die”.

Now – I’m writing about this, because there is surely nothing wrong with President Sarkozy’s request that this brave teenager’s letter be read today. But, Mr. Sarkozy’s request is causing even a bigger storm here than last week’s news of his divorce from his wife, Cècilia.

The reason is that President Sarkozy is being accused of using Guy Môquet to advance his own political career by making himself appear a great patriot.

But as President Sarkozy’s political allies point out, he is only trying to show French youth how they should behave and what is expected of them.

In October and November 2005 when youths, a majority of them the children of immigrant parents, rioted in Paris’ northern suburbs, President Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, had said: “If you want to live in France, then you ‘love’ her.”

This is what French teachers will do today by reading Guy Môquet’s letter to their pupils.

Before I sign off, I will quickly sum up France’s position during WW2. In September 1939, Great Britain and France had declared war on Adolf Hitler’s Germany, but within eight months France had been invaded and Wehrmacht tanks, unstoppable, rolled south to Paris. Quickly the capital fell and the government fled (so too did thousands of Parisians). Hitler then annexed that part of France that bordered Germany, and handed the area bordering Italy over to Benito Mussolini, his ally in Rome, while he divided what was left of the country into a northern occupied zone and a southern theoretically free zone, named Vichy-France after the new capital, the spa-town, Vichy. The northern zone became known as Occupied France. The defeated French army was reduced to peace-keeping under German control, while the police and the gendarmerie (militarized police) abandoned their autonomy to take orders from the Gestapo; in fact, the entire French legal machine abandoned its autonomy with judges swearing allegiance to Hitler. Only one judge had refused and he was arrested and sent to a labour camp in Germany.

I do hope you found this interesting. Vive la France! And I mean it!

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

One Response

10-22-2007 at 18:29:00

It is quite obvious that the French want to forget that they had collaborated with the Nazis. They also want everyone else to forget about it too. I found your article very interesting.

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