Civilians vs French State and French Railroad Company (Société nationale des chemins de fer, SNCF): a justice awaited for 60 years

by Antoine Rappoport

Some 1,800 families are suing the French State and the French railroad company for the arrest, internment and transportation of civilians reported as Jews between 1941 to 1944, including the transportation of deported families to Eastern Europe death camps.

On June 6th 2006, the Administrative Tribunal of Toulouse found the French State and SNCF guilty of interning and deporting in concentration camps located in France individuals considered as jews. Whereas the French State agreed, according to the verdict, to pay 40.000 Euros (approximately US Dollars 52 000) to family LIPIETZ, the SNCF, condemned to pay 20.000 Euros (approximately US Dollars 26 000), appealed.

Procuror Didier PEANO spoke in favour of SNCF before the administrative Court of Appeal of Bordeaux. This action against SNCF cannot be received due to the 30 years prescription and to the fact that no specific fault of the Company in the transportation of the Lipietz family has been reported. He argues: “ The French State, who ordered and financed the transport, shall bear the sole responsibility and must bear the cost. Subsequently, the administrative court of appeal of BORDEAUX decided on an exceptional basis that the case should be examined again on March 2007, by the highest group of judges ever of the Court.

At the same time, attempts to clear the French railroad company from/of any responsibility in the transportation of civilians in cattle wagons are being made. To determine the level of responsibility of an enterprise is not an easy task. Time and research will be needed to assess the willingness senior management and technical services of the company to collaborate with the French and German Authorities, their ordinary work being cut off from the absolute brutality of convoys to death camps and from the courageous resistance of a minority of railroad employees.

One must recall that, since 1940, the SNCF agreed to the transportation of Jews from Baden and The Palatine, provided a planning was established with the German Authorities, as for any regular operation. SNCF senior management participated to all significative meetings dealing with deportation of the Jews of France, along with Nazi authorities and the French State. Let us recall that Pierre-Eugène Fournier, former President of the French National Bank and of the SCAP (entity dealing with the ‘aryanisation’ of Jews belongings) ( Service de Contrôle des Administrateurs Provisoires ), was president of the French national railroad company from 1940 to 1946.

Perfectly aware of the conditions of the internment, deportation and final destination of the cattle trucks, the company never officially protested against the transport of civilians according to BACHELIER Report ( report financed by the SNCF in 1998 to analyse the company behaviour during WWII). Hence, journeys were classified third class (despite transportation of humans in cattle trucks) and payment duly received even until after the end of the war. Léon Bronchart, the one and only employee to refuse to conduct such a train, was only deprived of his annual indemnities.

Legal action against the French State was not possible before 2002, when the supreme administrative Court (Conseil d’Etat) decided that the French State could be held responsible for its actions during WWII. Indeed, since 1946 (sentence Ganascia), the Conseil d’Etat rejected all actions aginst the French State, on the basis of the anti-jews laws enacted during the Vichy Regime. In doing so, the Conseil d’Etat breached the continuity of State and put forward a generalised non-liability of the state. It is as late as April 2002, with the Papon case, that the French Conseil d’Etat recognized that the French State had to be held responsible for its acts during the German occupation.

Why do victims or their legal successors sue the French State? In doing so, they express the need for a fair State and a fair Justice for all. By asking financial indemnity, they attempt to recover their trust in the French state. They do not forget that the Vichy Régime was a legal creation of the French IIIrd Republic, where a majority of representatives gave full powers to Marechal Petain. Citizens ask SNCF to face up its responsibilities in the deportation of Jews; they ask that the company opens up its archives to the public. One can regret that SNCF is forced to do so, whereas most German companies involved in deportation have willingly confronted their past, such an approach called Vergangenheitbewaltigung in German.

Antoine Rappoport