PARIS – President Jacques Chirac honored nearly 3,000 French people who rescued Jews from the Nazis, in a ceremony at the Pantheon in central Paris on Thursday.
It is the first such formal tribute to the group, known as the "Righteous of France." Chirac — who 12 years ago became France's first president to recognize the French government's role in the mass deportation of Jews during the Holocaust — also extended the tribute to those anonymous French nationals who risked their lives to save Jews.
"Thousands of French men and women, from all social classes and professions, and from throughout the political spectrum, made — without questioning it — the right choice," Chirac said at the ceremony in the hallowed Pantheon, Paris' most prestigious resting place.
"They all know the risk they were running: Arrest by the Gestapo, interrogations, torture, and sometimes even deportation and death," he said.
Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial has inducted more than 21,000 worldwide — including 2,725 French citizens — into its "Righteous Among the Nations" group for non-Jews who saved Jews. Only 240 of the French inductees are still alive. Seventy-four of them attended Thursday's ceremony.
Families of deceased inductees and some of the Jews they rescued also attended, as did the governing UMP party's presidential candidate, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Chirac praised the "Righteous," saying that thanks to them "we can look our history in the face, sometimes seeing profoundly dark moments but also the best and most glorious" moments.
Thanks to them, "we can be proud to be French," Chirac said.
Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, part of the Nazi "final solution" aimed at wiping out the Jews of Europe. One-quarter of France's Jewish community perished during the Holocaust, compared with 90 percent in Poland and 75 percent in the Netherlands.
Thursday's ceremony came just hours after a court in the central French city of Lyon convicted a far right leader for questioning the Holocaust — a crime in France.
Bruno Gollnisch, the No. 2 in France's National Front party, was sentenced Thursday to a three-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay a euro5,000 (US$6,450) fine for of "disputing a crime against humanity."
At an October 2004 news conference, Gollnisch questioned whether the Nazis used gas chambers in the Holocaust and suggested that the number of Jews killed during World War II might have been exaggerated.
Earlier this week, Gollnisch assumed the leadership of a new political grouping in the European Parliament that brings together some of Europe's most prominent extreme-right politicians.
Speaking at the Pantheon, Chirac urged the French people to be "merciless" in the fight against Holocaust denial, which he called a "crime against truth, an absolute perversion of the soul and the spirit."