Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The legacy of collaboration in a French university

from Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006)

"Le dossier Lyon III" by Henri Rousso, Reviewed by Michelle Mazel

For decades France has been struggling with the legacy of the war years and its responsibility for the fate of its Jews, who were first victims of racist legislation and then deported en masse with the active participation of French authorities and police. It took nearly fifty years before a French president, Jacques Chirac, formally acknowledged responsibility in the name of the Republic. Many high-ranking civil servants managed successfully for many years to avoid being brought to justice for crimes committed at that time. Coincidentally or not, a significant number of right- wing politicians and academics kept openly expressing doubts about the Holocaust and the existence of the gas chambers and are still doing so today.

From 1980 to 2000, one academic institution, Jean Moulin - the third university of the Lyon academic district, thus known as Lyon III - found itself repeatedly in the limelight following a number of scandals involving staff members and students, such as the Notin and Plantin affairs.

Academic Negationists

Bernard Notin, an associate professor, published in August 1989 a long article in which he questioned the reality of the gas chambers and expressed clearly anti-Semitic views. Jean Plantin received a master's degree cum laude in history in 1990 for a thesis devoted to glorifying a known Holocaust denier. A second work by Plantin on the subject of typhus in concentration camps - negationists regularly assert that typhus, not gas chambers, was the main cause of death in these camps - subsequently disappeared and the professors who graded it "did not remember" what it said.

In both cases, university authorities took action belatedly and reluctantly. Halfhearted disciplinary measures were taken against Notin. However, because of unabating public outcry and protest by students, a temporary posting was eventually found for him in a foreign university. As for Plantin, a civil court condemned him, but when university authorities at last decided to revoke his degree the statute of limitations on civil actions had expired.

Because of these and other affairs, the university was accused of fostering racism and Holocaust denial. In November 2001, the Socialist education minister 1 Jack Lang set up a commission whose undertaking, according to the letter defining its scope, was "to shed light on racism and negationism that might have found expression within Lyon III University." 2

The facts had already been more or less established and discussed exhaustively in academic forums, and some of the affairs had led to prosecutions under the tough French laws on racism and anti-Semitism. The commission was tasked to form an opinion on two main issues. First, was there indeed a right-wing group within the university that was openly disseminating forbidden racist or negationist theories - through teaching, encouraging students with the same views and awarding unwarranted grades, and working to recruit like-minded colleagues? Second, had the university dealt promptly and properly with these problems?

Finding the right person to head the commission was not easy. Few were eager to enter the minefield, and many refused. However, Lang found a candidate with outstanding academic credentials and a long list of publications: Prof. Henry Rousso, a historian who specialized in the Vichy regime. By appointing a historian, the minister emphasized that the commission was primarily to "conduct an investigation of a scientific nature and not an investigation with any sort of normative dimension." 3

The Commission's Findings

Many saw in the commission's work a threat to academic freedom and were not eager to cooperate with its members, which may explain why it took nearly two years to publish its report. It is, however, a remarkable work, which includes an extensive description of the evolution of French universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a detailed history of the events that led to the establishment of Lyon III. It also carefully scrutinizes the Notin and Plantin affairs. Yet, after lengthy discussion of the political atmosphere at Lyon III, the commission delivered a curiously bland verdict, seemingly intent on giving the university a clean bill of health.

The report acknowledges that there is an extreme-Right group active at the university, but claims its members do not preach or proselytize, and that in no way can Lyon III be described as a fascist campus. It acknowledges that university authorities resorted to a legalistic approach, and did not sufficiently condemn or combat reprehensible behaviors and publications, but asserts that neither constituted a substantial problem and much was made of some isolated incidents. Perhaps crucially, there are no recommendations for actions or changes.

It seems clear that the commission could have been bolder in its conclusions and taken a stronger stand. However, by openly condemning acts of individuals it may have invited libel suits. After all, the report was not supposed to have a "normative dimension."

The document is, however, an important tool for future historians, and delivers, albeit in an understated fashion, an unmistakable warning to all parties concerned. The facts are there, well documented in an orderly manner, and will not go away.


1. Although French universities enjoy a large measure of academic freedom, they are under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry, which appoints their rectors and provides much of their budget since higher education in state institutions is free.

2. Letter of intent issued by the Education Ministry (reviewer's translation).

3. Ibid.

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