Righteous of France

Sarah Gensburger, Les Justes de France. Politiques publiques de la mémoire, Paris, Presses de Sciences PoParis, Presses de Sciences Po, 2010.

Reviews :

Nicolas Offenstadt, Le Monde des livres, 18 juin 2010.

Anne Simonin, Revue française de science politique, 60, 6, 2010.

Simon Perego, Histoire@Politique. Politique, culture, société, mise en ligne 9 décembre 2010.

Renaud Hourcade, Revue française de science politique, 61, 2, 2011.

Pierre Birnbaum, Cahiers du Judaïsme, n°32, septembre 2011.

Gérard Cholvy, Historiens et Géographes, mai 2012.

Jean-Marc Dreyfus, La vie des idées, mise en ligne 25 janvier 2013.

In 2006, Sarah Gensburger defended her dissertation of sociology on “the process of remembrance through the title of Righteous among the Nations in the French case” at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, advisor : Marie-Claire Lavabre ; jury : Alon Confino, Daniel Hervieu-Léger, Pierre Muller, Jacques Revel, François de Singly).

In 2007, her dissertation was awarded a special prize by the Auschwitz Foundation (Bruxelles) and selected as the best dissertation on public policy by the French Political Science Association (Paris). In 2010, part of it was published by the Presses de Sciences Po under the title Les Justes de France. Politiques publiques de la mémoire. The book received significant attention by scholars, both historians and political scientists, in academic journals and newspapers.

Indeed, the book investigates the reason for the development of a policy of memory based on the celebration of the Righteous among the Nations in the French context. Although the title of “Righteous among the Nations” has been awarded in Israel since 1963, foreign governments did not show any interest in this commemoration until the late 1990s. Since then, however, a growing number of European governments have adopted the term. Of all the countries to which this commemoration has spread, the French government’s appropriation of the Israeli terminology may have gone the farthest, forging a new national commemorative expression : the “Justes de France.” This essay explores how the French lexical appropriation has taken place. In doing so, it seeks to introduce a new perspective into the current debate on the transnationalization of memory and to look into the interaction between personal narratives and public frames of memory.



Since 1963, the state of Israel and Yad Vashem have been honoring the “Righteous among the Nations,” the “high-minded Gentiles”who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, However, until recently foreign governments showed little interest in this recognition and its commemoration. Since the 1990s, a growing number of European states have adopted the term to celebrate their citizens who helped Jews during the Holocaust. The commemoration of the “Righteous” has now spread beyond the borders of the old continent and is also awarded for heroic actions in contexts other than that of the Holocaust. Of all the countries to which this commemoration has spread, the French government’s appropriation of the Israeli terminology has gone the farthest, forging a new national commemorative expression: the “Justes de France.” On 18 January 2007, President Jacques Chirac finally honored these “Righteous of France” in an official ceremony at the Pantheon, Paris’s most prestigious resting place. This fixing of a permanent honorific inscription turned these French people who had rescued Jews during the German Occupation into “great men.”


When the French government commemorates the ‘Righteous of France’, it is essentially an element of domestic policy with the intended purpose of fostering tolerance and peaceful coexistence among Jews and non-Jews within the French nation-state. When the commemoration of the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ was implemented in Israel in the 1960s, however, it was perceived as a diplomatic tool. It grew out of a foreign policy perspective as well as an early Israeli belief that it was impossible for Jews and non-Jews to live together in the same state. This book explains this radical shift in meaning associated with this specific commemoration. By analyzing the actors and institutions involved, and using both archival analysis and ethnographic methods, it explores how this French lexical appropriation has taken place. In so doing, Governing Memory ? The commemoration of the “Righteous” from Jerusalem to Paris introduces new perspectives into memory studies and sheds new light on  the transnationalization of memory that goes beyond this one empirical case study.[1] The book also examines the extent to which the different states interested in the commemoration of the ‘Righteous’; in this case Israel and France, speak the same language and whose language it is.


An original empirical work


While, generally speaking, commemorations of the Holocaust have inspired a wealth of literature, the establishment of the title of ‘Righteous’ in Israel and the international diffusion of their commemoration have, on the contrary, aroused little interest. Only the American historian Peter Novick spoke of the creation of the title in few pages of his Holocaust in American life.[2] Moreover, based on some rare sources subjected to anachronistic analysis, his conclusions are strongly questionable. Therefore the empirical case study presented here is totally original and based on diverse materials from in-depth interviews to extensive archival research and ethnographic fieldwork and uses both qualitative and quantitative methods. Finally, this work transcends existing areas of analysis. The research topic of institutionalization of the ‘Righteous’ of France” as a category is indeed constructed at the junction of the private and public spheres, or rather the point of passage from one to the other. Originally the expression of individuals bearing witness, evocation and recognition of the Righteous has become a matter of state, and adheres to a variety of agendas and trajectories. This dual interaction at the very heart of the object of study between individuals, social actors, political actors, public authorities and institutions, on one hand, and local, national, international and transnational scales on the other, is conducive to undertaking a sociological study of the transnationalization of both public policies and memory.


Remembrance policies and political sociology


In addition, by studying the passage from the Israeli term ‘Righteous among the Nations’ to the expression ‘Righteous’ of France, this book first sets out to advance a new subject for political sociology: remembrance policies. Strangely enough considering the recent development and institutionalization of ‘memory studies’ and aside from a very few studies, political scientists and specialists in political sociology have so far shown little interest in these public actions that have to do with evoking the past.[3] Works on political sociology are absent from all the readers and handbooks which have been published this past years.[4] Therefore the term ‘politics of memory’ is used mainly and almost exclusively by historians.[5] It oscillates between two meanings: referring either to the political exploitation of the past in order to promote official memory through speeches and commemorations or to a diffuse memory of which speeches and commemorations are indications. These approaches do not really concern themselves with the complex social processes behind a remembrance policy that they from the start, sometimes implicitly, disqualify.


This study therefore sets out precisely to open up the black box of the evocation of the past by public authorities. The political nature of exploitation of memory narratives by representatives of the state is not founded per se on the misrepresentation of factual truth as established by the work of historians. It flows, like any public policy, from the status of the actors and institutions concerned, as well as the objectives pursued and resources used. In other words, this book aims to demystify ‘memory ‘issues and make them a mainstream theme of political sociology. This study of a specific remembrance policy also points to the types of motivations actors can have. Much research has underscored the way in which the links between politics and memory are situated at the junction of symbolic and strategic practices. Seeking to understand the institutionalization of the category of ‘Righteous’ of France offers a way to work empirically on the articulation of frames of meaning and a logic of power at the heart of public action, as well as the way in which institutions orient both. In particular, it raises the question of the relationship the actors have with memory, and especially the borderline between its instrumentalization and instrumentation.







Chapter 1:  Remembrance policy as a tool of foreign policy


This first chapter demonstrates that Israel’s institutionalization of the commemoration of the Righteous among the Nations stretched over the period between 1942 and 1986. It was used by the successive governments as a means of defining relations, and by the same token, the boundaries between the Hebrew state and the rest of the world. It wavered between recourse to a formal title and mobilization of a symbolic category, between foreign policy and remembrance policy, between the quest for a harmonious relationship between Israel and non-Jewish states and the emphasis on exceptions to the supposed hostility of non-Jews toward Israel. Contrary to Peter Novick’s remarks, the decisions made by the Hebrew state, being part of a process over time, cannot be tied to one or more discrete intentions. It was a complex process driven by interactions between political strategies, cognitive categories and institutional configurations. This initial chapter takes stock of Israel’s territorialisation and appropriation of the Righteous that seem radically incompatible with any public policy transfer in this regard.


Chapter 2:  Actors of memory and French social figuration


In 1988, only two years after the law conferring Israeli citizenship on the Righteous was passed, the number of annual recognitions of French citizens underwent a significant and lasting increase to the point of ushering in a new commemoration regime. Who in France first spoke of these new heroes? What words did they use and why did they begin to speak out? This second chapter answers these questions and in so doing discusses the very notions of ‘memory entrepreneurs’, ‘agents’, and other so-called ‘actors’ of ‘memory’ frequently referred to in the memory studies literature.[6] During the reunions of former Jewish resistance fighters in the 1980s — many of whom had been involved in the rescue of Jews — they realized they had not paid tribute to the non-Jews who had assisted them in their rescue missions. They decided to mobilize to remedy the situation, and they called themselves the ‘Volontaires francophones pour le Département des Justes de Yad Vashem’. Through the commemoration of the French Righteous they hoped to improve not only the image of Israel in France but also the image of France in Israel. If the Volontaires francophones continued to pursue some diplomatic goals, they were interested only in bilateral foreign relations. So, while the numbers of French Righteous began to increase, the meaning of their commemoration encountered its first change.


Chapter 3: Memory policy and international transfer


More importantly, this collective mobilization had unexpected outcomes. Through the work done to publicize the award ceremonies and the efforts made to hold them in public places, such as city halls, the Volontaires’ initiative led to the acknowledgment by representatives of the French republic of the importance of commemorating the French Righteous. Between 1985 and 1995 a process of synthesis and hybridization began to take place. If the title had originally been linked exclusively to the state of Israel, it now began to assume some of the symbols and attributes of the French state. These shifts allowed the commemoration to acquire both new audiences and new meanings. It transcended the goals of its initial promoters. In return, the French state mobilization for this commemoration legitimized new initiatives, created a new field of interests, and also gave birth to new social actors investing in this form of commemorative activity.


Chapter 4: National day as policy instrument


During this first period, however, French state participation in the commemoration of the ‘Righteous’ relied primarily on public discourses, mainly by the President of the Republic, which still referred to the Israeli expression of ‘Righteous among the Nations‘. Eventually, in July 2000, the French parliament passed a law establishing the concept of ‘Righteous of France’. The date 16 July 1942, the anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, became a national day of commemoration ‘in honour of the victims of the racist and anti-Semitic crimes of the French state and in honour of the ‘Righteous’ of France’. In sponsoring a memorial day for thousands of Jews who had been victims of the Vichy government, the parliament also intended to commemorate the brave actions of the French Righteous who were responsible for saving the lives of many Jews. Since none of the actors originally asked for the implementation of a new national day at the beginning, why was such a decision made? How did the use of this policy instrument play a role in the shift in the original meaning given to the commemoration of the ‘Righteous’? These questions are at the core of this chapter which enlarges the discussion to try to understand the multiplication of commemorative National days in France, a multiplication which began with the enactment of this law.


Chapter 5: Social norms and frameworks of memory


Of course, the process described above is a strategic one. It is undoubtedly useful for the French governments to insist on the Righteous in order to exonerate the responsibility of the rest of the population for the deportation and the extermination of the Jews in France. However, the strategic factors do not explain everything. Cognitive and institutional factors also played an important role in the process. In this chapter, the institutionalization of the category of ‘Righteous of France’ is put in perspective with comparable phenomena in other countries, primarily Poland and Belgium. Particular attention is paid to the mechanisms of appropriation and hybridization and the roles played by political institutions and the institutional matrixes specific to each national configuration. This chapter scrutinizes how the actors’ logics are articulated with the institutions that structure them and that they

in turn modify. In that regard it meets ‘the institutionalist challenge’[7] : to explain the emergence of new institutions and, in this case, a new memorial category, from its creation and codification down to its shaping into a policy instrument.


Chapter 6: Memory policy, social appropriation and polysemy


While in France, the public debate regularly denounces the diverse ‘uses’ of the historical past by the government, in the present case, however, the State use of the term ‘Righteous’ was neither criticized nor even put into perspective. It seemed to rest on a social consensus. What kind of social appropriations – from support to rejection – did the French government’s use of the Israeli title provoke? How did people react to the shift in the meaning accorded to the commemoration of the French Righteous? The interviews, the archives, and the questioning of participants all reveal that the apparent consensus was therefore mainly an illusion, and rested precisely on the polysemy of the term. Actually, the involvement of the French government in a commemoration initially recognized only by Israel has complemented the complex and increasingly hybrid identity of most French Jews, based on the intersection of their French, Jewish and Israeli identities. Paradoxically, the impact of memory policy, so often linked to propaganda, depends here on the diversity of the social appropriations it enables.


Chapter 7: Final epilogue. Looking back at the 2007 Pantheon ceremony


This last chapter goes back to the 2007 Panthéon ceremony as a way of drawing out the final conclusions. Indeed, the Pantheon ceremony advanced one step further the national, legal, and lexical appropriation of the expression of ‘Righteous’ and the reinterpretation of this term. A live television broadcast covered this national event, and more than 42,000 people visited the Pantheon the following week. The ceremony was extensively commented on and acclaimed in the media by journalists, witnesses, and historians. Beyond constituting an exploration into the ‘memory of rescue’ or into the ‘French Jews’ Identity’, this book therefore invites us to put into perspective both the literature on commemorations as well as the literature on the universalisation of memory.


First, it appears that commemorations do not progress in a linear fashion; rather they follow a circular and dialectical route and emerge out of complex processes of social appropriation which they themselves in turn help to shape. It is only when individuals begin to recognize themselves, at least partly, in the reference point offered by these commemorations that the proposed narrative of the past can ‘take hold’ in their memory, while retaining a polysemous character.


Second, while several scholars have interpreted the current worldwide globalization of the memory of the Holocaust as an indication of the emergence of a shared vision of the past, the fact that the diffusion of the Israeli commemorative category of ‘Righteous among the Nations’” underwent a radical shift in meaning in the French case challenges this perspective. This conclusion calls for a genuine political sociology of memory and a diversification of both the sources and methodologies for ‘memory studies’.


[1]Ulrich Bech, Daniel Levy, and Natan Sznaider, “Cosmopolitanization of Memory: The Politics of Forgiveness and Restitution,” in Cosmopolitanism in Practice, ed. M. Nowicka and M. Rovisco, (Ashgate, 2009), 111–28.

[2]Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000), p. 180.

[3]Romain Bertrand, Mémoires d’empireLa controverse autour du “fait colonial, (Bellecombes-en-Bauge: Éditions du Croquant, 2006) and Will Jennings. Public Policy, Implementation and Public Opinion: The Case of Public Celebrations (Canada 1967, U.S.A. 1976, Australia 1988 and the U.K. 2000), University of Oxford, D.Phil. Thesis, 2004. For some intuitions of this perspective see, Lynn Spillman, Nation and Commemoration. Creating national identities in the United States and Australia, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997) and John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1992).

[4] Rossington, M. et Whitehead, A. (eds.), Theories of Memory. A Reader, (Crawley, W.A. : University of Western Australia Press, 2007); Erll, A. & Nunning A. (eds.), A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies. An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook. (Berlin/New York, 2008); Harvey Wood, H. et Byatt, A.S., Memory, (London : Chatto & Windus, 2008); Walter de Gruyter; Gudehus, C., Eichenberg, A. & Welzer, H.(eds.), Gedächtnis und Erinnerung. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch, (Stuttgart, J.B. Metzler, 2010); Radstone, S. (ed.), Memory : Histories, Theories, Debates, (Fordham University Press, 2010); Levy, D., Olick, J.K. et al. (eds.), The Collective Memory Reader, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5]For one of the recent examples on the American case, Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History : Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachussets, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010) and for a classical work Martha Norkunas, The Politics of Public Memory : Tourism, History and Ethnicity in Monterey, (New York: State University of New York Press).

[6] From R. Wagner-Pacifici and B. Schwartz, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial : Commemorating a Difficult Past “, The American Journal of Sociology, 97(2), 1991, 376 à 420 to R.S. Jansen, “Resurrection and Appropriation : Reputational Trajectories, Memory Work, and the Political Use of Historical Figures “, American Journal of Sociology, 112(4), 2007, 853-1007.

[7]Alec Stone Sweet, Neil Fligstein and Wayne Sandholtz, The Institutionalization of Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 3.



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