The French are perfectionist--mainly about themselves. They carry self-criticism to extremes but anyone else attempting to criticise them will suffer from French refusal to accept that they can be perceived as imperfect. The most popular TV programmes are those depicting the Resistance in their heroic fight against the Nazis, but anything as shameful as French collaboration with the Nazis or as ugly as anti Semitism is unpopular. The popularity of a new book by Eric Zemmour is due to its claims that deportation of Jews by the Vichy regime is not so nasty as history would have us believe.
The French endured much in WW2 and Resistance fighters were not the only heroes: private citizens sheltered Jewish families. De Gaulle was also a hero. But his is the stern mask that fits over the face of an earlier history, of those who refused to understand and listen to his warnings so that when war came, France was unprepared. As was England, thanks to Chamberlain's pacifist policies and his failure to understand Hitler's intentions.
When Germany invaded France, Antoine St Exupery, another hero of French legend, then flying with fighter squadrons against German air attacks, wrote, "We were throwing a glass of water on a forest fire." France had no chance. De Gaulle fled. The failure to arm was not only that of France: only the English Channel helped Britain buy time.
In February 2004, sixtieth year since the Allied invasion, I stayed in a friend's Normandy farmhouse and walked among tiny hamlets scattered throughout nearby farmland. Each had its tragic war memorial where long lists of WW1 casualties told of the loss of young manhood in the trenches. When WW2 threatened, there had to be avoidance of repetition. The French, with Germans already rolling their tanks towards Paris, bought time by compromise. There would not be war on French soil.
The Vichy regime was a typically French compromise. To avoid war, the destruction of historic Paris, the loss of young manhood, surrender was given an acceptable face. The Vichy Regime preserved the illusion that there was a France still in control of its own destiny. That suited the German occupiers perfectly.
Atrocities could be perpetrated under the guise of being lawful enactments by French government. Officials in French uniforms knocked on doors of Jewish houses, or did Nazi dirty work of loading Jews into trains, and German perfectionism, an even more potent weapon than that of French perfectionism, preserved the Nazi self-image of a purifying and perfecting force.
Now that history, and historic guilt, are being revised by Zemmour, in a climate where anti-Semitism is rife again and openly so at bourgeois dinner parties, that dirty work is presented as not being so dirty, nor so French. And it suits French perfectionist mentality. It is a strain that runs through French society, that denial of anything that besmirches the notion of French civilization. Elegant clothes, exquisite food, beautiful architecture, gracious manners, mistresses hidden under the correct choreography of la famille, that is part of French civilization, and it is indeed beautiful. But as Carl Jung described in his works on the human psyche, the more one pretends that all is perfect, the more the dark forces of the psyche accumulate below ground and the more likely they are to burst forth in violent expression of hideous barbarity.A French best seller that white washes the Vichy regime is not only a distortion of history but a warning of historical repetition. The Thirties brought just such a violent expression of repressed dark forces of the Collective Unconscious, and conditions are building to be just right for a repetition. While liberal organs such as Le Monde find his views unacceptable, Eric Zemour's denials of French anti-Semitic crimes and their enthusiastic embrace by the French public may be the warning of danger around the corner.