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France has agreed to pay $60 million in compensation to American and foreign Holocaust victims who were deported to Nazi concentration camps on French trains during WWII.French and US officials signed the agreement on Monday, following three years of negotiations. The arrangement marks the first time that foreign deportation victims have been included in a French government compensation program.In unveiling the deal, Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay, France's ambassador at large for human rights, and Stuart Eizenstat, the US State Department's special adviser on Holocaust issues, said that France would pay the $60 million in a lump sum to a US government-administered fund.
The exact number of the fund's beneficiaries is still unknown, but it is expected that every survivor will be granted up to $100,000, with relatives and spouses receiving several thousand dollars each.
Abraham Foxman, director of the US-based Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, welcomed France's decision Monday in a statement, saying: "There is no amount of money that could ever make up for the horrific injustice done to these victims and their families, but agreements like this provide some modest redress; an important recognition of their pain."Up to an estimated 76,000 Jews were deported from France to Germany between 1942 and 1944 when the French government willfully collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Vichy régime. At this time, Jews were routinely rounded up and sent to concentration camps on trains operated by the French National Railway Company (SNCF).The state-owned SNCF has repeatedly voiced its regret over the deportations, but refused to accept responsibility, arguing that it cannot be held accountable for its operations during the Nazi occupation of France. The SNCF's chairman issued the company's first formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011, claiming it had been "a cog in the Nazi extermination machine."A number of advocates have long argued that the SNCF should be held liable. Among them is Alain Lipietz, a former French green party deputy and author of The SNCF and the Shoah. His father, Georges Lipietz, who died in 2003, was arrested in southern France in 1944 for having a Jewish accent and was deported to Drancy concentration camp.
In 2001, Georges Lipietz filed an action before the Toulouse administrative tribunal against the SNCF for its role in his deportation. The tribunal found that the French state and the rail company were complicit in his deportation, and the SNCF was ordered to pay compensation. The ruling was later overturned when an appeal court in Bordeaux decided that the administrative court did not have the jurisdiction to make such a ruling.In his book, Alain Lipietz refuted the SNCF's claims it was coerced by the Vichy government into transporting Jews, and alleged instead that the company had been paid for its role in the mass deportations.France's far-right want rid of UK-bound migrants in Calais. Read more here.But on Friday, Sparacino-Thiellay told the AFP that while the SNCF was "instrumental" in the deportations, ultimately the company is not liable for payment of reparations. That responsibility lies with the French State, she said.Romain Nadal, a spokesperson for the French ministry of foreign affairs, backed Sparacino-Thiellay's comments Tuesday, telling VICE News: "It's normal for the State to take responsibility. It's a historical responsibility."While the SNCF has not played an active part in recent negotiations, the outcome of Monday's agreement will have a tremendous impact on the company's business, and particularly its activities in the US. In return for France's reparations deal, the US has pledged to grant both the European country and its state-owned companies immunity from all legal action in America relating to WWII deportations.
SNCF currently owns 70 percent of Keolis, one of four companies picked by the state of Maryland to bid on the construction of the $2.45 billion Purple Line; a publicly operated train line. The 35-year contract to design, build, and operate the line is valued at more than $6 billion.Prior to the deal, several US state legislatures, including Maryland, had threatened to pass laws that would block the SNCF from bidding on rail contracts unless it paid compensation to American Holocaust victims. After the reparations negotiations began, state authorities backed off from the threats.In 2010, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill requiring companies wanting to bid on rail contracts in California to disclose their role in deporting Jews during WWII.That same year, the SNCF ran into resistance from Holocaust survivors in Florida when it tried to bid on a $2.6 billion high-speed rail project connecting Tampa to Orlando.When contacted by VICE News, the SNCF's press office declined to comment, saying it had only learned about France's reparations agreement from the media.Follow Virgile dall'Armellina on Twitter :@armellinaPhoto via Wikimedia Commons