France Churns in War Legacy Of Defeat Amid Allied Victory
PARIS — FOR both France and its most important colony, Algeria, May 8, 1945, marked a sharp break with the past -- and with each other.
Thanks to Charles de Gaulle and his Free French forces, France ended World War II on the side of the victors. But its defeat by the Nazis in 1940 -- and its legacy of collaboration with them -- forced postwar reform.
''Defeat for France was so total after World War II that change had to come,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.
Those changes are still rippling across France and Algeria. For many Algerians, Victory Day in Europe sparked their war of independence and set the terms for that ongoing civil conflict.
Especially jarring was the realization that France alone among the occupied nations of Europe collaborated with the Nazis. While May 8 newspapers in the United States and Britain celebrated Allied victory, headlines in Paris noted German defeat.
''I used my power as a shield to protect the French people,'' argued Marshal Petain during his trial in 1945.
Petain was head of state in France's wartime government in the southern city of Vichy. ''Every day, a dagger at my throat, I struggled against the enemy's demands,'' he said.
''While General de Gaulle carried on the struggle outside our frontiers, I prepared the way for liberation by preserving France, suffering but alive,'' Petain added.
But in May 1945, all that seemed left of promises by the Vichy government was suffering.
That month, some 2 million surviving French deportees, including forced laborers and prisoners of war, began to return home. Many others did not: The Vichy regime oversaw the deportation of some 60,000 to 65,000 Jews from France, most of them foreigners who had fled to France for refuge. Of the 6,000 French citizens sent to extermination camps, only 2,800 returned.
A wave of summary executions, and especially the trials of Petain (who escaped a death sentence) and his head of government, Pierre Laval (who did not), seemed to settle the question of collaboration. But in the 1970s, Robert Paxton's book, ''Vichy France,'' and Marcel Ophuls's film, ''The Sorrow and the Pity,'' (which was initially banned in France) reopened the question of how deeply collaboration reached into French society.
Public recriminations about collaboration continue. Allegations go as far as to French President Francois Mitterrand, who last month published a response to revelations that he had maintained a friendship with Rene Bousquet, convicted in 1989 of organizing the wartime deportation of 13,000 Jews to German death camps.
''I didn't know Rene Bousquet during the war,'' he wrote.
The most permanent legacy of French wartime experience may be how thoroughly it discredited what went before. The weakness of the military, the corruption of political elites, all seemed part of the old France that needed to be purged and remade.
The establishment of a National School of Administration produced a new generation of ''technocrats'' to lead that national revival, including both candidates for France's presidential elections this Sunday. The ''30 glorious years'' of the postwar period changed the face of France from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy to an industrial power.
For many Algerians, the clearest memory of V-E Day is not of victory, but of bloodshed. Some 80,000 to 100,000 Algerians fought with the Allies in Europe. Many expected that victory in Europe would lead to independence for Algeria.
But for France, losing its most important colony on top of all the other wartime humiliations was not an option.
In V-E Day celebrations in the Muslim market town of Setif, Algerians marched for first time calling for independence. Accounts of the 1945 demonstration vary, including who fired first, but by the end, after a police crackdown, hundreds of Europeans had been killed by Muslims.
French historians say 6,000 Algierians were killed by retaliating French troops, while Algerian historians put the figure at 15,000 to 40,000. Forty villages were bombed in the month of ''pacification'' that followed. ''For Algerians, the end of the war in Europe had a double signification: the end of the battle against Nazism and the massacre of Setif, which didn't end until the end of May,'' says Benjamin Stora of the Paris-based Maghreb-Europe Institute.
''Ali'' was doing odd jobs for French shopkeepers in Oran, Algeria, during the war when the call came to join the Allies. ''I agreed to fight in Europe because I thought that at the end of the war, we'd be free,'' he said in an interview in Paris, on condition that his name not be used. ''May 8 changed everything. After that, we realized we had to have independence. For me, May 8 was the end of believing in France.''