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 the background to every question of the day. Loyalty is imperative. For this crucial job Laval chose Alexandre Jardin’s grandfather, Jean Jardin.
For years the French government had been trying to persuade the Germans to take back their Jewish refugees, popularly considered as immigrant spongers, and in the spring of 1942 the Germans obliged—telling Laval’s new government to round up 28,000 Jews aged between 16 and 50. In July Pétain and Laval agreed to deport their “stateless” Jews, insisting that children go as well. They then organised the enormous police operation, arresting 13,000 Jews and holding them in a camp near Paris for onward transportation to Germany. It is inconceivable that the directeur of Laval’s cabinet, Jardin, should not know about this. Indeed it is entirely possible the civil servant played an active part in the tough negotiations with the Germans and in the enormous organisation required to mobilise 9,000 French policemen. Yet 68 years later some of the man’s close family still insist that even though he was Laval’s right-hand man, Jardin never collaborated. After the war Laval himself was tried for collaboration and shot.
In effect Alexandre Jardin is wrestling with a problem familiar to many novelists: how to depict a character who is sympathetic (decent, honest, kind) but who also commits horrifying acts? Conventional culture insists that fictional characters (supposedly like real people) are either all good or all bad—we don’t believe the woman claiming the husband who beats her is at heart a good man. Jardin grandpère certainly had good sides—he helped individual Jews escape—but well after the July ’42 deportations. Jardin’s book is about the enormous difficulty and pain of coming to terms with what his grandfather must have done, or at the very least allowed to happen during his watch.
Why should any of this matter to France today? Why are Jardin’s family and the establishment literary critics hurling abuse at the “liar” author? Because for many French people that dark period is still shrouded in secrecy and suppressed shame. And rather than go through the painful process of coming to terms with that, as the Spanish are doing at the moment with their past under General Franco, most French people still prefer to hide behind De Gaulle’s very partial version of the second world war: that Laval’s government was not really French, that the real, the eternal France never capitulated, never collaborated. 30 years after his death De Gaulle is surprisingly present in France, his legend deliberately kept alive by today’s politicians—led by President Sarkozy. Only a few weeks ago Sarkozy took the media circus to film him praying at De Gaulle’s grave, apparently gathering strength from the dead man’s spirit. Everyone knows the truth, of course, but as the General discovered, the myth is easier to live with.