A respected Holocaust historian said Sunday that a recently uncovered 1940 document provides written proof of the personal involvement of Nazi-occupied France's wartime leader in persecuting Jews.
The document was given a few days ago to France's Holocaust Memorial museum by a donor who wants to remain anonymous, Serge Klarsfeld told The Associated Press.
Klarsfeld, a trial lawyer and longtime Nazi hunter, said he is certain of the document's authenticity and calls it the latest sign of official anti-Semitism by the French — and not just by their German occupiers.
The document — dated Oct. 3, 1940 — is a draft of a statute on Jews under France's collaborationist Vichy regime. It includes what Klarsfeld says are handwritten notes by Vichy leader Philippe Petain describing how authorities should target Jews, notably by excluding them from public office and from working in schools.
Klarsfeld says the document is "decisive proof" that the measures were taken at the behest of Petain himself and that the handwritten notes show that Petain in fact toughened the statute's original language.
Klarsfeld said the statute was not written "at the Germans' demands" and shows "the will of Vichy to align itself with the Nazi racial ideology."
France has struggled to come to terms with its role in the Holocaust. Some 76,000 Jews were deported from France to Nazi concentration camps. Fewer than 3,000 returned alive. It wasn't until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac said the nation bore some responsibility, breaking with the official position that the Vichy regime was not synonymous with the French state.
Petain's defenders have said he acted to protect Jews, to the degree he could, under the Nazi occupation.
Historians have had only indirect evidence of Petain's involvement in drafting the statute on Jews, from a declaration by a former foreign minister who said Petain ordered the toughest anti-Semitic measures of all.
"At his depths, he was an anti-Semite, and did not defend French Jews. ... He took the initiative to persecute them," Klarsfeld said.
The document appears to show that Petain crossed out an exemption in the original statute for French Jews whose ancestors were naturalized before 1860, and edited it to ensure that Jews could not run for public office.
All the changes suggested by the notes were included in the final, published version of the statute.
Klarsfeld, whose father died in the death camp in Auschwitz, has devoted his life to shedding light on France's collaboration in the Holocaust. He has unearthed thousands of documents clinching court convictions and proving the systematic persecution and deportation of Jews from France during World War II. He has flushed out war criminals from safe havens around the world, including tracking down Nazi Klaus Barbie in Peru.
Klarsfeld's announcement Sunday came the same day that Paris marked the 30th anniversary of a bombing of a synagogue that killed four and injured dozens and shocked the country. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and leading Jewish figures attended a ceremony marking the anniversary.