French railroad regrets role in WWII deportations

France's state-run railroad has for the first time expressed "sorrow and regret" for its role in the deportation of Jews during World War II. But the mea culpa is confined to its English language Web site and part of a bid to secure a lucrative U.S. rail contract.

The railroad, known as the SNCF, won an appeal in 2007 of a French lawsuit over its role in the Nazi deportation, and now is trying to convince Floridians of its good faith.

The SNCF is bidding on a $2.6 billion high-speed rail project that would connect Tampa and Orlando, but has run into resistance from Holocaust survivors there. The project would be the first high-speed tracks in the United States.

SNCF Chairman Guillaume Pepy said in a statement posted Nov. 4 on an English-language Web site that the railroad "wants to convey its profound sorrow and regret for the consequences of its acts" during World War II, when France's Vichy government collaborated with the occupying Nazis.

The statement concedes that the SNCF's equipment and staff were used to haul 76,000 French and other European Jews to Germany, where they were sent on to death camps. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive.

However, the railroad reiterated its contention that it was requisitioned for the Nazi war effort and therefore had no choice.

"The Nazis the their French (Vichy) collaborators directed these terrible actions, determining the composition of the trains, the types of wagons, and even the train schedules," Pepy's lengthy statement said.

The SNCF's World War II role could also complicate any bid for California's $45 billion high-speed rail project. California lawmakers passed a bill this year that forces companies hoping to compete to disclose whether they transported Holocaust victims.

It was only in 1995 that France acknowledged a direct role in the tragedy, when then-President Jacques Chirac said the French state bore responsibility. That was a dramatic break with France's long-held position that its Vichy regime was not synonymous with the French state.

That stance was bolstered last year by the first legal acknowledgment of the French role, by the nation's highest administrative body, the Council of State, which said the state "allowed or facilitated" deportations.

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, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld said at the time.

The SNCF chief said the railroad "fully embraces" Chirac's stance. However, the company had argued in a court case in France that it, too, was a victim of the state, unable to resist state orders to transport Jews. In 2007, a Bordeaux appeals court overturned a ruling that the railroad should compensate families of deportees. The SNCF had argued it was acting under requisition orders.

Some U.S. Jews are seeking reparations for their families and some in Florida oppose giving a contract to a railroad company with a role in the deportations.

Pepy said, as part of its outreach program, the company would help entitled U.S. citizens and residents seeking reparations from existing state programs.

"As a French company new to America, we understand there will be questions about us," Pepy's statement said. As part of its effort to win over Americans, the SNCF has created a "heritage" site on the Internet explaining the circumstances surrounding its actions in World War II.