Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2011
The history of French collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II is still a very sensitive subject in Gallic literary and political circles. Bestselling novelist Alexandre Jardin has learned this the hard way with the publication of "Des Gens Très Bien" (or "Very Nice People"), a startling exposé of his famous family's association with Nazism under the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Pétain.
Mr. Jardin's new book, published in January by Grasset and available only in French, mixes the confessional genre with biography, history and narrative, and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its release. The author now finds himself accosted daily by perturbed readers desperate to unburden themselves about their own "collabos" ancestors. Yet critical reactions in the Parisian press have veered from occasional plaudits to often vicious attacks from across the ideological spectrum. The trouble for these academics and baby boomers alike is that in his work, Mr. Jardin not only denounces his respected paternal grandfather, but by extension all the other "very nice people" of wartime France.
The book centers around Jean Jardin, who was chief of staff to Vichy Prime Minister Pierre Laval in 1942 and 1943. Dismissing what he deems a "whitewash" perpetrated by his own family and accepted by a nation afflicted with Vichy-era "blindness," Mr. Jardin insists that grand-père was a key collaborator. He claims that by virtue of his post, Jean had full foreknowledge of the notorious July 1942 roundup of 12,884 Jews, including 4,051 children, who were deported to Auschwitz and nearly all died there. Mr. Jardin is now accused of settling intergenerational clan scores in public, but his real sin appears to be his implication of still-upstanding French citizens in the Holocaust.
"After 70 years I thought we could start to recognize the reality of our families and how they behaved during the war," Mr. Jardin tells me in an interview from Paris. "The core of the problem is that I have not spoken about monsters. My grandfather was not a monster. I have spoken about what 'very nice people' did in France when they accepted collaboration with Nazism. I did not realize I would provoke such anger. So long as we were putting authentic monsters on trial—like Maurice Papon for example—no one was worried. But to lift the lid on the question of the responsibility of people who were 'moral' during the collaboration has totally panicked French society."
Panic seems to be the accurate word. French literary reviews have been awash with outrage that Mr. Jardin would besmirch the reputation of his grandfather. Unlike Papon, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 1998, Jean Jardin was pardoned after the war and held a slew of public and private posts until his death in 1976. He has heretofore been remembered as a charming and talented Vichy official who tried his best to save Jews. In 1978 his son Pascal, our author's late father, penned an idolizing portrait of the Jardin patriarch in the well-known "Le Nain Jaune" (or "The Yellow Gnome").
"The French read my father's book massively in the hundreds of thousands because they needed to be able to love their parents and grandparents regardless of what they did during the war," Mr. Jardin says."But my grandfather did not save Jews. He saved some friends who were Jews . . . there were almost no French collaborators who did not save a Jewish friend."
Unrepentant until the end, Jean always kept a photograph of Laval on his office desk, and one of Pétain on his wall. As the family lore had it, he was simply "a loyal man, not a turncoat." But Mr. Jardin's new account also contradicts "Une Eminence Grise," the 1986 biography of Jean penned by Pierre Assouline, a prominent Jewish figure in French letters. According to Mr. Jardin, Mr. Assouline's work is fatally flawed for not even mentioning Jean's possible role in the round-up known as the Rafle du Vél d'Hiv, for the Vélodrome d'Hiver where Jewish prisoners were taken before being transported to Auschwitz. When "Des Gens Très Bien" was published, Mr. Assouline returned to defend his own work, penning the first review of Mr. Jardin's book in France's Le Monde, which Mr. Jardin describes as "unacceptable."
"Le Monde had no business defending the honor of the right-hand man of Pierre Laval," he says.
The author has also found himself attacked by his own family. Le Figaro invited Mr. Jardin's estranged uncle Gabriel ("part of the branch of the family that remains utterly loyal to the memory of Vichy," according to Mr. Jardin) to pronounce on his nephew's book. Meanwhile, on the left, Liberation carried hostile assaults on the book and its author, something Mr. Jardin attributes to visceral devotion to former President François Mitterrand, who Mr. Jardin says kept long associations with his Vichy pals.
Mr. Jardin's defenders have so far been few, though they include philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who has scorned the "torrent of venom" spewed by "right-thinking conformists" dishing out their "warmed-over couplet about the Pétainist-Resistant who with one hand sent Jews to the gas chamber and with the other, claimed to have saved a few."
The reaction to Mr. Jardin's book tells us as much about France as does the work itself. As Mr. Jardin observes, "It expressed something very powerful inside French society: the desire to protect the honor of our families, while in reality the large majority in France were behind Pétain during the Second World War. . . . With the liberation, France threw herself behind Gaullism with such fervor because we were ashamed of our behavior. He [de Gaulle] offered us his glory. . . it seemed to me that 70 years on we could tear up this pact and come to terms with reality. But this has provoked incredible emotion."
Most historians, and renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, remain unmoved, pointing to Mr. Jardin's lack of archival proof. But Mr. Jardin has at least one powerful supporter for his claim that Jean was fully aware of the atrocity of July 1942.
"A few weeks ago I found myself around a table at the Elysée with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, at a lunch with three writers and a journalist and a historian," Mr. Jardin recounts. "The historian suddenly said to me: 'But you don't have a lot of proof against your grandfather; [Mr.] Sarkozy got up out of his chair, cut her off and said 'Madame, I have had a lot of chiefs of staff.' He gave her a lesson explaining that a chief of staff was nothing like a government departmental head. It was evident listening to [Mr.] Sarkozy that the prime minister's chief of staff could not but be intimately associated with the decision.
All the same, in Mr. Jardin's telling, the historian insisted that "'that did not constitute proof.'" Then, "[Mr.] Sarkozy's temperature rose and he said something incredible which came from his gut: 'Madame if I asked [French Interior Minister and Mr. Sarkozy's former chief of staff] Claude Guéant to organize a round-up of 13,000 Jews next week in Paris, whatever the circumstances, I know Claude would resign. His [Mr. Jardin's] grandfather did not resign.' Then [Mr.] Sarkozy turned to me and said: 'I don't understand why there is a polemic.'"
As Mr. Jardin sees it, a certain moral code, exemplified by his "loyal" grandfather, was crucial to the Vichy machine. "In the end it was not at all necessary to be a monster to participate in the worst. There was an anti-Semitism of the state. Men like my grandfather were prepared to do absolutely anything to preserve a little fragment of national sovereignty," Mr. Jardin observes. "They preferred that the French police came to arrest Jewish families rather than let the German police do it. It is disturbing. In any case in my family there has not been any [feeling of] guilt after the war. My grandfather had the feeling of having done good. It is incredible."