Nazi Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, and on June 22, 1940, Nazi Germany and France entered into an Armistice Agreement. Germany annexed Alsace and Lorraine, while 80 percent of the country, including Northern France and the entire Atlantic Coast, came under German military occupation. Beginning in July 1940, the so-called “Vichy” government under Philippe Pétain in theory governed France, but in practice, it was only able to govern freely in unoccupied (Southern and Eastern) France.
Laws enacted in both occupied and unoccupied France curtailed the civil rights of Jews and expropriated their property. In October 1940, the Vichy government enacted the first Law on the Status of the Jews, which defined who was Jewish and precluded Jews from civil and military service and from the education, media, and cinema sectors. The Nazi German military command in occupied France began a process of economic “Aryanization,” including confiscating Jewish‑owned assets. An October 1940 military decree defined Jewish-owned firms and established the appointment of provisional administrators for those firms. A February 1941 French law allowed the administrators to sell firms without the permission of the Jewish owners. A further German decree in April 1941 and corresponding French law further restricted occupations available to Jews (prohibiting trade and banking, among others) and expanded the scope of confiscation. A series of French laws from June to December of 1941, including a second Jewish Status Law, expanded many of these restrictions to unoccupied France.
At least 75,670 Jews were deported from France to concentration and extermination camps; of the 69,000 sent to Auschwitz, 2,570 survived. Some of those deported passed through multiple camps. Another 3,000 Jews died in French internment camps. Most of the deportation trains left from the Drancy Camp, carrying at least 64,000 Jews. Included in that number were 13,000 Jews (4,000 of whom were children) arrested in July 1942 by French police and held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver sporting arena before their deportation. At least 6,000 French Roma were interned, and 200 were deported and killed during the war.
The Allied landing in Normandy in June 1944 began the liberation of France, but deportations continued. At least another 2,686 Jews were deported before German forces surrendered Paris on August 25, 1944. The European Jewish Congress estimates that approximately 500,000 Jews currently reside in France.
In 1995, the French government recognized for the first time France’s responsibility for the deportations when President Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged the Vichy government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany and apologized to the Jewish people on behalf of the French Republic.
France endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. The government has laws and mechanisms in place for property restitution, and NGOs and advocacy groups reported the government made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust‑era claims in recent years, including for foreign citizens.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
France has restitution and reparation measures in place covering all three types of immovable property: private, communal, and heirless. These measures were put in place in two phases. The first occurred in the immediate post-war years and ceased around 1954; the second commenced in the late 1990s and is ongoing.
In 2014, France and the United States signed the bilateral Agreement on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs. The agreement provides an exclusive mechanism to compensate persons who survived deportation from France (or their spouses or other designees) but were not eligible for the 1948 pension program established by the government for French nationals or from international agreements concluded by the government to address Holocaust deportation claims. Pursuant to the agreement, which entered into force on November 1, 2015, France provided a lump sum of $60 million to the United States.
France’s initial restitution measures came into force through a number of decrees issued between 1944 and 1945. In addition, in early 1945, the government established two new authorities – one to examine complaints against provisional administrators of property and another to administer restitution. The 1946 French War Damages Act also provided compensation for material damage caused by acts of war to movable and immovable property. Early restitution measures ceased around 1954 after the French government passed laws granting amnesty to various Vichy government officials in 1951 and 1953.
In the 1990s, the French government convened the Mattéoli Commission to examine the conditions under which the occupying forces and Vichy authorities had confiscated property. Among other findings, the Mattéoli Commission determined that French banks froze accounts or seized assets of approximately 56,400 people holding about 80,000 bank accounts, with assets worth approximately $1.9 billion in 2019 dollars. French banks worked in cooperation with the Mattéoli Commission to establish a fund, initially capitalized at $50 million, to compensate victims of French banks under the Vichy government.
In 1999, the French government established the Commission for the Compensation for Victims of Spoliation (CIVS, or the “Drai Commission”) as a separate administrative body under the authority of the prime minister. CIVS helps manage the French bank fund and recommends and examines reparations to individual victims (or their heirs) who had not been compensated previously for damages resulting from confiscation of their material or financial property carried out under anti-Semitic decrees issued either by the Vichy government or by the occupying Nazi Germans. Non-bank related compensation is publicly funded and is paid through several different organizations, including the Unified Jewish Social Fund (FSJU) and the National Office of Veterans and Combat Victims. As of June 2019, CIVS had recommended compensation totaling approximately $600 million. The commission does not publish reports on actual compensation awarded due to privacy restrictions on individual claimants’ information. However, on average, victims or their heirs receive compensation six to eight months after CIVS makes a recommendation. CIVS activities are ongoing.
Although the Nazi occupying forces did not have an explicit plan to destroy all synagogues, the advancing German army or Nazi German bombing destroyed at least 20, and German forces and Nazi sympathizers looted and/or partially destroyed many others. Under the 1905 French law on separation of church and state, places of worship, including synagogues, became property of the French government. The French government in turn made them available to worshippers. The European Shoah Legacy Institute’s 2012 review of immovable property restitution found that because of this ownership structure, compensation for destroyed communal property was based upon laws relating to war damages, such as the 1946 French War Damages Act.
A 1950 law permitted Jewish persons or organizations to be appointed as custodians of Jewish heirless property in France. In 2000, shortly after the Mattéoli Commission issued a report that estimated the maximum value of remaining unclaimed property at approximately $395 million, the French government established the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and endowed it with approximately $443 million.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
About 100,000 works of art were stolen from French Jews or Jews who had fled to France before the German occupation, according to estimates by French authorities. From 1945 to 1949, roughly 60,000 of the artworks were returned to France, of which about 45,000 were then claimed by their owners. Additional works of art have been found at a slow pace after that time, and the location of the remaining 40,000 works of art is unclear. Of the recovered works, most of the unclaimed pieces were sold at auction. The French state kept about 2,100 of the highest quality paintings and entrusted them to museums, particularly the Louvre, but specially designated them “Musées nationaux recuperation,” or MNR (National Museums Recovery). Experts say it is unclear how those pieces were chosen and how many might have been looted or sold under duress.
Millions of books were taken from France by the Nazis. Most that were in the zones of the western Allies after the war were returned to France, and many of these books were returned to their original owners – 172,812 to 1,660 individual owners, mostly Jews, and 103,517 to 392 mostly Jewish institutions.
France endorsed the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and is one of only five of the 42 countries that attended the Washington Conference to set up a commission to address the restitution of and/or compensation for art objects looted and displaced during the Nazi years. CIVS has responsibility for both restitution and compensation, primarily providing compensation to individual victims or their heirs.
For reparation measures, if a specific work of art cannot be found, compensation is provided based on the estimated financial value of the work at the time it was looted. Through the end of 2018, CIVS had recommended compensation totaling approximately $55 million.
Few artworks have been returned, in part because France has not yet passed a law permitting state museums to deaccession objects in their collections. In cases where the property in question is included on the list of MNR works that were returned from Germany after the war, restitution is easier, and such property must be returned to its rightful owners. Claims must be filed with the archives departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Museums.
Critics contend that restitution has been haphazard and that French museums have been slow or even loath to return Nazi-looted artwork. An April 2018 Ministry of Culture public report identified 2,008 cultural works (primarily MNR) with no identified owner and acknowledged that the current policy of art restitution was inefficient and lacking ambition, coordination, leadership, and visibility. In April 2019, the office La Mission de recherche et de restitution des biens culturels spoliés (the Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property) was officially created within the Ministry of Culture. The five-person staff, with an annual budget of approximately $225,000, is engaged in seeking out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation (not only those that are MNR).
In the spring of 2019, the French government transferred the authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to CIVS to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork. The Ministry of Culture also said it would take a more active role in the search and restitution of stolen property.
On April 1, 2019, Foreign Minister Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre‑WWII owners at the French consulate in New York. During his remarks, he reiterated that the French government had committed to “accelerate and intensify the work of identifying and restituting to their owners” looted works of art.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
France received 8,193 books and 125 museum and 219 synagogue pieces from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) after World War II. Specifically, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, the successor museum to the Musée d’art juif de Paris, established in 1948 by a private association to pay homage to a culture that had been destroyed by the Holocaust, received Judaica objects from the JCR, and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine received books. Although provenance research on art objects is partially carried out in France, so far as is known, no provenance research is being conducted on Judaica holdings in France’s cultural institutions.
Most archives of French Jewish organizations that were plundered by the Nazis and subsequently taken to Moscow by the Soviets have been returned to France. Library collections of French Jews that were taken by the Soviet Trophy Brigades remain in Minsk, Belarus.
Access to Archival Documents
France maintains archives relevant to Holocaust research and has measures in place to guarantee access to researchers and relatives of victims, while also including provisions on privacy and data protection. Most Holocaust research in France takes place at the Documentation Center of the Shoah Memorial, a private institution that receives funding from national and local French government bodies, the European Commission, and private institutions and individuals. The center contains a fully digitized and archived collection of 30 million documents related to the Holocaust from a variety of sources. These include the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center, a database of victims of anti-Semitic persecution in France, a database of Jewish Resistance members, and the Righteous of France database. Access to the complete collection is available to all persons who can prove they are doing research on the Holocaust. Individuals must fill out a registration form, valid for one year, and present identification. An abridged version of this catalogue, without personal data of the persons mentioned, is available through the memorial’s website.
The Paris-based Shoah Memorial does not have framework agreements with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). However, the French Memorial Shoah Foundation signed specific conventions related to archives with USHMM in 2014, and USHMM has enjoyed strong cooperation with French archives for decades.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
France is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The government holds several annual ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration. These include Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, French Judaism Day on June 1, and a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 16-17, 1942. Government leaders, including the president and prime minister, regularly attend these commemorations. The government also preserves several memorial sites throughout France. These include the Natzweiler-Struthof Camp, the Shoah Memorial on the site of the Drancy camp, and the Montluc Prison National Memorial in Lyon, where political opponents, members of the resistance, and victims of anti-Semitic legislation were detained. The government also provides education on human rights and on preventing all forms of racial, religious, or ethnic discrimination, including education about the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes, within the national education curriculum. Teaching about the Holocaust is mandatory. It is taught in history class at three levels: at ages 10 and 11, age 15, and ages 17 and 18. Schools frequently arrange visits to sites of remembrance, such as Jewish cemeteries, sites of deportation, and the Shoah Memorial, for educational opportunities.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
The government-run Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah provides social welfare services in addition to compensation and coordinates closely with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The FSJU, an umbrella organization for private Jewish organizations in France, provides emergency assistance for elderly victims, particularly for medical and dental assistance, as well as home modifications to help keep the elderly in their houses and apartments. Since 2002, the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah has donated more than €3 million to the Shoah Survivors Emergency Fund managed by the FSJU’s Passerelles service, a national call center that provides social support and guidance for Holocaust survivors and their children. In 2018, 262 people received assistance from the emergency fund.
The Aid Association for Elderly and Sick Israelites provides homecare services for survivors residing in Paris and the surrounding area, as well as a guardianship program for mentally impaired elderly survivors that provides legal and financial management services. The CASIP‑COJASOR Foundation of Paris and the Israelite Social Action Committee of Marseille provide homecare, case management and guardianship services, and home-delivered meals.