France to pay $60 mn to US for Nazi rail deportations
In a landmark deal, France will pay $60 million to the United States to be shared among American and foreign nationals deported to Nazi death camps on French trains in World War II.
The agreement, unveiled Friday and which has been at least two years in the making, should now remove obstacles to the French rail firm SNCF seeking to bid on major railway contracts in the US, including in the state of Maryland.
"The US and France have reached a historic agreement for substantial compensation in connection with the deportations from France during the Holocaust," US negotiator Stuart Eizenstat said.
"This is another measure of justice for the harms of one of history's darkest eras," he told reporters, adding it was a good example of the close US-French partnership.
Several thousand people could now be eligible for compensation, including nationals of Israel and Canada as well as Americans who were deported from France to the death camps some 70 years ago.
During the German occupation of France, the Nazi regime deported almost 76,000 Jews to concentration camps in French freight cars between 1942 and 1944.
Only around 3,000 survived.
- 'Cog in Nazi machine' -
Maryland lawmakers had demanded that SNCF compensate the victims before being allowed to join a bidding process on a 16-mile (25-kilometer) public-private light rail project worth nearly $3 billion for local projects and introduced bills to that effect.
But the French rail firm had protested that it had no choice as it was simply a "cog in the Nazi extermination machine."
The French government has already paid out some $60 million to French nationals who were victims of the Holocaust under a scheme set up in 1946. And this new deal will not be open to French nationals and their survivors.
Eizenstat said the deal was "recognition" by France that US citizens, Israelis and others had not been eligible for the same payments as French nationals.
The deal is due to be signed on Monday by Eizenstat and French ambassador on human rights Patrizianna Sparacino-Thiellay.
Eizenstat told reporters Friday that Paris would pay a $60 million lump sum to Washington to compensate the survivors or their spouses and heirs.
He had no exact figure of how many could be eligible, but said it was expected to run into "several thousand."
Survivors could receive up to $100,000 each, while spouses or heirs could get several tens of thousands of dollars, he said.
In exchange, the United States would undertake to protect France's immunity with regard to any Holocaust deportation claims filed in the United States.
The head of SNCF America, Alain Leray, hailed the deal as "a welcome conclusion for all those who sought to win compensation for the victims and their families."
Sparacino-Thiellay told reporters: "SNCF had never been held responsible for the deportations. It was an instrument of the deportations."
"It is the responsibility of the French authorities," she added, adding therefore SNCF had not been part of the negotiations.
- Modest redress -
But the French rail company will make a voluntary donation of $4 million to Holocaust museums and remembrances in both the US and Israel.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also welcomed the deal.
"There is no amount of money that could ever make up for the horrific injustice done to these victims and their families," said ADL national director Abraham Foxman, who is also a Holocaust survivor.
"But agreements like this provide some modest redress, an important recognition of their pain, and acknowledge the responsibility of governments and institutions to leave no stone unturned in seeking every possible measure of justice for Holocaust victims."
The deal will enter into law once it is voted on by the French parliament, and signed by President Barack Obama in an executive order.
SNCF is eyeing the Maryland contract as part of a consortium comprising fellow French firms Alstom and Vinci. A winning bid is expected to be picked by the end of the year or in early 2015.
© 2014 AFP