PARIS, France—Last week, a mostly white-haired crowd of academics and expatriates piled into the American Library in Paris to hear the retired Columbia University historian Robert O. Paxton discuss the research that culminated in his 1972 groundbreaking book on the Vichy government, in which he argued that Vichy—the administrative body that governed Occupied France after the 1940 Nazi invasion—acted as it did not because of intimidating Nazi pressure but because of a willingness—and, at times, an eagerness—to collaborate.
Given the debate Paxton’s book inspired first in the early 1970s but that still continues today, it seems fair to say that his work kindled a large portion of the impetus to remember Vichy and its crimes—specifically, the utter indifference with which the French state handed over its Jewish citizens between 1940 and 1945. Paxton, however, leaning over a malfunctioning microphone, said that his work no longer carries with it the same level of controversy it did, say, 35 years ago.
“It’s old news now,” he said.
But given some portions of the French response to Israel’s recent attack on a Gaza-bound flotilla, can the lessons of Vichy and its crimes really be considered “old news?”
In order to protest the violence of the Israeli Navy, for instance, a small French cinema chain cancelled all scheduled screenings of an Israeli-made romantic comedy called “Five Hours from Paris.” Instead, the cinema planned on showing a documentary about the death of Rachel Corrie, an American killed by Israeli force in Gaza in 2003.
Obviously, it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, and the staff members of the cinema, like many others, seem to have been motivated by the understandable desire to voice legitimate concerns about the larger question of Gaza. But the logic they employed in banning "Five Hours From Paris" is deeply problematic. In fact, if we push it a little bit, the cinema chain's logic seems to hint at some rather harrowing things about the way these individuals view both Israelis and art-making.
After all, Anne-Marie Faucon, the co-founder of the cinema chain, told The New York Times on Saturday that there was nothing specific about “Five Hours From Paris” itself that caused the protest; rather, she said that her chain merely cancelled its screenings of the Israeli film “because it was there.”
Regardless of the criticism Israel may legitimately deserve for the attack, the banning of “Five Hours From Paris” nevertheless suggests that, in at least some French minds, the perception still exists that all Israelis, as Jews living the Zionist dream, subjugate every aspect of their existence—even their capacity for artistic expression—to maintaining the Zionist enterprise above all else. But there is also the assumption that all Israelis, even the directors of romantic comedies, must think alike, i.e., in support of their government. After all, in what other perspective could “Five Hours From Paris”—an innocuous romantic comedy about a taxi driver and a French-Israeli teacher—be considered a favorable treatment of the Israeli government’s actions toward Gaza?
Whatever the political statement Faucon and her staff intended to make through their protest, the implications of their boycott seem to consider Israelis in much the same way that Vichy regarded French Jews—as agents who are concerned first and foremost with advancing the Jewish cause in every way, even in art unrelated to questions of Jewish identity or politics. It is no secret that once the first laws discriminating against Jews in France appeared in 1940, academics and artists were among the first banned from public institutions in which it was believed that they could influence students with what were seen as their insidious “Jewish” ways. In wishing to ban a romantic comedy whose only connection to Israel is its setting, is Faucon's chain thus implying that audiences who viewed the film would be similarly influenced by an Israeli ideology? And, if that is true, is the chain then passing a value judgment on the legitimacy of what it believes (misguidedly) to characterize the Zionist cause?
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem an overstatement to say that, given its justification, the act of banning “Five Hours From Paris” relies on a logic that would probably have seemed reasonable in the intellectual context of Vichy, which, as foreign minister Paul Baudoin told a group of American journalists in 1940, considered French Jews as “an empire within an empire,” outside the French social fabric. Despite any progressive statement the cinema chain may have hoped to accomplish in banning the film, does it not also seem to have relied on a similar current of thought by maintaining that even an Israeli-made love story is a means of strengthening an equally undesirable Zionist "empire?"
In other words, the film was banned because it was an "Israeli" film, which—in the cinema staff's imagination—made it into some sort of commentary in support of the Israeli navy’s attack on the flotilla. In a sense, as Faucon seems to have confirmed in her interview with The Times, all that her staff saw in “Five Hours From Paris” was that it was Israeli-made, which appeared to them as grounds enough to ban it. That view is about as reasonable as assuming that, say, "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days," as an "American" movie, clearly supports the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And therein lies what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this entire affair, no matter how small or local an issue it may seem—the prolonged insistence to interpret art solely through the lens of the national context in which it was born. Banning a film such as "Five Hours From Paris" has the potential both to constrain the artistic expression of individuals within the confines of a collective whose government—or whose borders—they may or may not support, and also to suggest that some art, because of its origin, is still unwelcome in France, just as it was 70 years ago.
From that perspective, 37 years after Paxton’s groundbreaking book about Vichy was translated into French, “old news” hardly seems the best way to describe the thought processes that gave rise to the infamous regime and its crimes.
James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.