PARIS — Jewish leaders here and abroad are hailing French President Jacques Chirac, who this week became the first French leader to recognize publicly France's responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to their deaths) during World War II.
French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld described Chirac's speech as a "historic statement" that clearly separated Chirac from his immediate predecessor, Francois Mitterrand.
"This is what we always wanted to hear," Klarsfeld said of the speech. "Chirac's predecessor came twice to the commemoration of the Vel d'Hiv roundups, but he never spoke, and he always refused to recognize the responsibility of France in the arrests and the deportations. President Chirac just did that."
The speech also drew praise from European Jewish Congress President Jean Kahn, who said Jews and everyone who fought against the Nazis "must have been delighted to hear these words."
In Germany, Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called on other European leaders to follow Chirac's example and acknowledge their countries' collaboration with the Nazis.
"This collaboration actually took place in all countries occupied by Hitler Germany, with the exception of Denmark and Bulgaria," Bubis said in a radio interview.
"But such a clear admission as that from Jacques Chirac has otherwise come only from the Dutch Queen [Beatrix]. So I am surprised," added Bubis.
The plaudits for the French president followed a speech Chirac made Sunday at ceremonies marking the 53rd anniversary of the first mass arrests of Jews in Paris. The deportations were undertaken by the Vichy collaborationist government in power during the war.
"There are moments in the life of a nation that hurt the memory and the idea one has of his country," Chirac said at a monument located near the Velodrome d'Hiver, the now-demolished cycling stadium where French police held some 13,000 Jews during the infamous July 16-17, 1942 roundups.
About 4,000 of the Jews, those without families, were sent to the Drancy internment camp near Paris. They were then deported to Auschwitz. The remaining 9,000, which included 4,000 children, were kept at the Vel d'Hiv for a week and then sent directly to the Auschwitz death camp.
"It is difficult to evoke them, because those dark hours tarnish forever our history, and are an insult to our past and our traditions," said Chirac.
He then added the words Jewish leaders had never been able to elicit from his predecessor: "Yes, the criminal folly of the occupier was assisted by French, by the French state."
"France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum, France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable," he said. "Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers."
The comments by Chirac, who was elected to the French presidency less than two months ago, stand in stark contrast to the position of his predecessor regarding France's wartime past.
During a television interview last year, Mitterrand sought to distance the actions of the collaborationist Vichy regime from the French Republic. Mitterrand was an officer in the Vichy regime in 1942, but later worked with the Resistance.
"The republic had nothing to do with all that. I do think that France is not responsible," he said. "Those who are accountable for those crimes belong to an active minority who exploited the [French] defeat. Not the republic and not France. I'll never ask for forgiveness in the name of France."
Mitterrand also drew the ire of many for failing to apologize for his postwar friendship with Rene Bousquet, the Vichy regime's chief of police who ordered the infamous Vel d'Hiv roundups.
In his speech Sunday, Chirac attacked "the spirit of hatred" that not only marked the Nazi era, but could be found in present-day France in the form of the extreme right-wing National Front, headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The "racist crimes" by such groups as the National Front, Chirac said, "stem from the same sources" as Nazism.
The anti-immigrant National Front scored surprise victories in France's nationwide municipal elections last month, winning mayoral races in several cities.
In the southern city of Toulon, the Jewish community boycotted the local commemoration of the wartime Jewish deportations because they were presided over by the newly elected National Front mayor, Jean-Marie Le Chevalier. To show their defiance, members of the French Union of Jewish Students replaced a wreath laid by the mayor with one of their own.