PARIS – France's top judicial body on Monday formally recognized the nation's role in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust — but effectively ruled out any more reparations for the deportees or their families.
Jewish groups welcomed the ruling by the Council of State, the clearest legal acknowledgment to date of France's role in the Holocaust.
Nearly 70 years ago, the Vichy government helped deport some 76,000 people — including 11,000 children — from Nazi-occupied France to concentration camps during the war. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.
The council said that the French government of the time "allowed or facilitated the deportation from France of victims of anti-Semitic persecution."
"In an absolute rupture with the values and principles notably of the dignity of the human person ... these anti-Semitic persecutions provoked exceptional damage of extreme gravity," it said.
The statement legally formalized a historic gesture by then-President Jacques Chirac in 1995, when he became the first French leader to say the nation bore responsibility for the deportation of Jews in wartime France. Chirac broke with the official position that France's Vichy regime was not synonymous with the French state.
"For us, it was France. The uniforms were French. The Germans did not always ask the Vichy government to do what it did," said Serge Klarsfeld, a renowned French Nazi hunter and Holocaust historian.
Since Chirac's speech, deportees and their families have won special state pensions and other compensation for their suffering. Some euro500 million has been paid out by a state commission established in 2000, according to Klarsfeld.
Monday's decision could put an end to the quest for such reparations.
A Paris court had sought the Council of State's opinion on a request by the daughter of a deportee who died at Auschwitz for reparations from the French state. She also was asking for material and moral damages for her own personal suffering during and after the occupation.
The council left it up to the Paris court to rule on her request.
But the council said in its decision that it "considers that because the acts and actions by the state led to the deportation of people considered Jews by the Vichy regime, (they) constituted errors and became its responsibility."
The council used the opportunity of the ruling to make a "solemn recognition of the collective prejudice suffered (by the deportees), of the role played by the state in their deportation as well as the memory that should remain forever ... of their suffering and that of their families."
Today, France has western Europe's largest Jewish community of approximately 500,000.
"This is an important and courageous decision that unambiguously confronts French actions during the Holocaust," said Estee Yaari, spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial authority.
"This has moral significance that will hopefully serve to deepen awareness about the Holocaust in French society, something that is important both for grappling with the events of the past, and their repercussions today," she said.
France today sees scattered anti-Semitic incidents such as attacks on synagogues, often linked to tensions in the Middle East. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in France rose sharply during the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza. France's Muslim minority is the largest in western Europe.