PARIS — French President François Hollande on Sunday made an emotional mea culpa on behalf of his country for its part in the World War II roundup and deportation of more than 13,000 Jews from Paris.
At the 70th anniversary of what is known as the Vel d'Hiv Raids, Hollande admitted the operation carried out by Paris police in 1942 was a "crime committed in France, by France."
Hollande also praised former president and political rival Jacques Chirac who in 1995 became the first French leader to admit the roundup had been "France's fault."
Until then, French presidents including Hollande's Socialist mentor François Mitterrand had contended that the wartime collaborationist Vichy government led by Marshall Philippe Petain did not represent the French Republic.
On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police rounded up 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs as part of what they code-named Operation Spring Breeze. It was the first case in which women and children were included in the French arrests.
Entire families were ordered from their homes in dawn raids and taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver (the Winter Velodrome) in the French capital where they were kept for days without food and water before being deported to German concentration camps. These raids accounted for more than a quarter of the estimated 42,000 Jews sent from France to the Auschwitz camp in 1942. Jewish organizations say only 811 of them returned.
On Sunday, after laying a wreath at the site of the velodrome, demolished in 1959, Hollande spoke of "the dark hours of the collaboration, of our history and therefore of France's responsibility."
"The hard and cruel truth is that not one German soldier, not a single one, was mobilized for any of this operation. The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France," Hollande said.
"The great action of Jacques Chirac was to have recognized this truth."
Hollande added: "But the truth is also that the crime of Vel d'Hiv was committed against France, against its values, its principles, its ideals."
Sarah Lichtsztein-Montard, 84, one of the few French Vel d'Hiv deportees to return from Auschwitz, now gives talks to schoolchildren and college students. She told Liberation newspaper that in 1942, her mother refused to believe warnings from friends that the roundup was imminent.
"She told me, 'Arresting women and children in France ... it's not possible," Lichtsztein-Montard said.
At 6 a.m. the following day, she was awakened by hammering on the door of the family's Paris apartment. Two French police inspectors were outside. They ignored her mother's pleas to let the children stay: "She was almost on her knees; I was ashamed," Lichtsztein-Montard said.
In the street outside were scenes of "chaos" with Jewish families "surrounded by police as if they were criminals."
Hollande said the country had a duty to remember. A survey last week showed nearly two-thirds of those under 35 in France didn't know about Vel d'Hiv.
"There will be no forgetting in the Republic," Hollande said, adding that France would clamp down on anti-Semitism "with the greatest determination."
"Wherever it is found, it must be uncovered and punished. All ideologies of exclusion, all forms of intolerance, all fanaticisms; the xenophobia that attempts to develop the logic of hatred, will find the Republic in its way," he said.
[For the record, 7:57 a.m. July 23: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that a survey last week showed nearly two-thirds of those under 35 in France knew about Vel d'Hiv. The survey showed that two-thirds did not know about Vel d'Hiv.]
— Kim Willsher
Photo: French President François Hollande, center, pays respects Sunday after laying a wreath during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Vel d'Hiv roundup at the Jewish memorial in Paris. Credit: Jacques Brinon / AFP /Getty Images