Sarkozy to stage first major conference in town since days of Pétain regime
By Angelique Chrisafis
In his house overlooking Vichy’s famous thermal spas, Bertrand de Solliers poured a glass of Vichy mineral water, extolling its digestive benefits. But beyond the water, thermal baths and mineral sweets promoted by the picturesque spa town, the local film-maker’s chief concern was the weight of history.
Vichy is best known for being chosen after the German occupation in 1940 to house Marshal Pétain’s puppet regime that collaborated with the Nazis and ensured the deportation of one quarter of France’s Jewish population. Sixty years after the war, De Solliers fought to record the accounts of locals who lived in Vichy during the war. “There’s an absence, a silence here that has made this place a town full of ghosts,” he said.
But Vichy is hoping to free itself from its past. Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen the town to host an international conference during France’s presidency of the EU – its first time gathering of world politicians since the second world war. No post-war government had dared host a major international event there, fearing the town’s name was forever associated with the collaborationists.
Locals are overjoyed to see the end of “ostracisation” and scapegoating. After all, historians agree that Vichy’s inhabitants were not responsible for the regime. Many in Vichy were its victims, hundreds of local Jews were deported.
But as the autumn conference draws nearer, controversy is brewing. The event’s theme is the “integration” of immigrants in Europe. Vichy was chosen by the local politician Brice Hortefeux, minister for immigration, integration and national identity. Since Sarkozy’s election and Hortefeux’s appointment, France’s immigration policy and its round-ups of illegal immigrants have been compared to the round-ups and authoritarianism of the Vichy regime.
One protester was fined €800 (£640) this year for insulting Sarkozy by comparing his policies to those of the Vichy regime. Some commentators fear that dealing with issues of immigration and integration in Vichy could be seen as provocative. One minister, Laurent Wauquiez, was quoted as saying the decision was in bad taste. He immediately denied making the comment.
Henry Rousso, a leading historian and author of The Vichy Syndrome, said today’s immigration problems had nothing to do with events under the occupation, but some might wrongly see the conference as a provocation.
A spokesman for RESF, which campaigns against deportations of illegal immigrant families, said: “You can’t blame the town of Vichy for its long-held rancour and desire to rehabilitate its spa town. But should that really start with a conference about the politics of hostility towards foreigners proposed to Europe by Mr Hortefeux?”
He said the minister hadn’t properly weighed up the symbolism and that “far from rehabilitating Vichy” it would send it back to debates about the past.
The mayor, Claude Malhuret, from Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party, said the topic of the conference was irrelevant. He hailed the end of a long struggle to free the name of Vichy from its association with the regime. Vichy’s architecture, casinos and belle époque landmarks remained unchanged since the days of the regime, but now at last they could be enjoyed without taboo.
“The association of our town’s name with a whole era of Nazi occupation is an injustice we have been fighting for years,” he said. “The people of Vichy never sought the regime. The regime chose Vichy because it was a summer holiday capital for the rich and famous with lots of hotel rooms and the only international telephone exchange outside Paris. Many Vichy residents suffered terribly under the regime. No one blames the current inhabitants of Berlin for the policies of Hitler.”
France is still coming to terms with its past. In 1995 Jacques Chirac for the first time acknowledged French responsibility in the deportation of Jews to death camps. Marking himself apart, Sarkozy pledged last year to end the rush of “repentance” which he called “a form of self-hatred”. But he has since championed the memory of the 17-year-old Resistance hero Guy Môquet.
Vichy is at the centre of France’s troubled relationship with memory. Films continue to be set there, most recently the docu-drama of François Mitterrand’s time in Vichy as a young politician. “Vichy is like a traumatised woman. It needs to express its past and talk about it freely,” said Paule Muxel, who made Last Year in Vichy with De Solliers. The documentary, recently shown on French TV, was the first time Vichy residents had ever been interviewed about memories of life during Pétain’s regime. Muxel and De Solliers had to battle to secure funding from local authorities.
“It’s important we preserve older people’s memories,” said Jean Marielle, a resident who fought in the Resistance. “I’m glad a major conference here will allow us to reclaim the word Vichy and the name of our town, to rid ourselves once and for all of the taboo.”
In 1940, after the military defeat of France by Nazi Germany and the occupation of Paris, Marshal Pétain proclaimed power setting up an authoritarian French regime in the south, which was nominally “free”. He based his administration in Vichy, a picturesque town whose hot springs and stunning architecture had made it the star-studded, spa capital of Europe. The reactionary puppet regime, whose motto was “work, family, fatherland”, issued its own decrees and collaborated with the Nazis in mass deportations and repression. After the liberation in 1944, many of the key figures in the regime were tried, and some were executed. Pétain was sentenced to death for treason, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.