Using hindsight is an infallibly bad way of looking at history—yet regrettably most of us do it all the time. It is remarkably difficult to step into the skin of someone alive even 70 years ago, to understand how they arrived at decisions which today seem utterly unthinkable. The French as a nation have that difficulty with the period June 1940 through to June 1944 and, as Alexandre Jardin’s article in the Guardian shows, the problem remains more than 60 years later.
At 46 Jardin is the successful author of “smiley, sentimental novels” (his own words)—gushing, hopelessly romantic bestsellers. A week ago he published a very different kind of book, Des Gens Très Bien (Worthy, Well Brought-Up People), which has polarised opinion in France and caused convulsions in the French press. In essence Jardin’s 300 page book simply puts two statements together—that his grandfather Jean Jardin was a good, decent, honest man and that he was also one of the prime organisers of the arrest and deportation of 13,000 Jews from French soil to German camps in July 1942. Neither statement is disputed by historians, yet, for reasons which many British people find hard to understand, in France saying them in the same breath is considered national blasphemy.
“An odious, puerile and hateful reasoning” says the author’s uncle, son of Jean Jardin. Le Figaro‘s literary critic calls the writer “A Pinocchio of our times.” “Reinventing daily life is his thing,” says another critic, referring to the romantic novelist’s highly unlikely plots and implying he has taken the same licence with history. “Complete madness,” is how the author’s cousin describes the book. “Now he’s lying more than ever.” If being burnt at the stake were still an option, many French people, particularly in his own family, would be keen to see Alexandre Jardin thrown to the flames immediately.
The facts about Jardin grandpère are simple: in April 1942 he was appointed directeur de cabinet to Pierre Laval when the pro-German Laval stormed back to power as undisputed head of the French government. A directeur de cabinet is a senior politician’s key man. He runs the inner cabinet of advisers and staff, he organises the politician’s life, supplies…