Paris: France's state-owned rail company SNCF has expressed remorse for hauling thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi camps, after US lawmakers threatened its chances of winning lucrative contracts.
Until recently, the company has insisted it had been forced by France's World War II German occupiers to help deport 75,000 French Jews to the gas chambers, and noted that 2,000 of its own rail workers were executed.
But, with SNCF and its main train-builder Alstom seeking work in the United States, the company's chairman Guillaume Pepy earlier this month met in Florida with elected representatives and Jewish community groups to express his regret.
Pepy told them he wished to express "his profound pain and regret for the consequences of acts ... carried out under order".
But this time, according to a copy of his statement issued by SNCF, Pepy appeared to go further.
He quoted a speech made by France's then president Jacques Chirac at a 1995 memorial.
"These dark hours will stain our history forever, and are an insult to our history and tradition. Yes, the criminal insanity of the occupier was seconded by the French, by the French state," Chirac said then.
"As an arm of the French state, SNCF adopts these words as its own and accepts the pain that they reflect for the victims, survivors and their families, who suffered because of our role in the war," Pepy added.
SNCF also has an English-language website, which seeks to explain its role in the Holocaust: http://www.sncfhighspeedrail.com/heritage. SNCF archives were opened to Americans in 1996.
As recently as August, Pepy said that he took concerns over the company's role "very seriously" -- but stuck to the company line that it had been "acting under the Nazi yoke".
But the issue has been taken up by US lawmakers, and with big contracts like that of Florida's proposed Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line in the balance, SNCF has now apparently decided to go a little further.
Had it not, it might have found itself excluded from the US market.
In California, where SNCF is eyeing another high-speed project, state assemblyman Bob Blumenfield sought to pass a law requiring companies bidding on the contract to reveal their role in prisoner transport between 1942 and 1944. But Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the legislation.
Florida's Congressman Ron Klein, another Democrat, has proposed a similar law at the federal level. Neither text mentions SNCF by name, but both clearly target the firm seeking to export France's world class TGV technology.
With deals worth tens of billions of euros (dollars) at stake, former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, chairman of the French Senate's Franco-US friendship committee, has sought to defuse the row.
He told his US colleagues that French rail workers had no choice but to collaborate.
Some listeners have been unimpressed however.
"If they want to issue an apology, they should issue an apology directly to the survivors," said Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Florida.
"Who are they issuing the apology to?" she asked.
"They are spending so much money coming here, paying a PR campaign, they are talking with everybody except the people directly involved. I don't understand."
Even in France, campaigners for Holocaust remembrance have criticised the timing of these statements.
"It's an obvious step towards establishing historical truth," said Alain Lipietz, a former member of the European parliament who sued SNCF on behalf of four family members hauled to their deaths on board French trains.
"But what's regrettable is the fact that he did what he did in the United States solely to improve his position in a contract negotiation, and not in order to ensure that it doesn't happen again one day," he said.
On the other hand, France's senior human rights official Francois Zimeray has accused protectionist politicians in the United States of exploiting the issue to exclude French products from US markets.
"I encourage SNCF to face up to this page in its history, and to break down any myths," he added, while insisting that France had acted in an exemplary way in terms of Holocaust remembrance and reparations.
First Published: Saturday, November 13, 2010, 09:43