How many? Sources exist. Historians have studied the question. But in 2012 can one ask how many homosexuals were deported from France during the Nazi occupation because of their sexual orientation? And, if one asks, can one accept the answer?
The outcry over an obscure French deputy's comments sheds light on a particularly fascinating French taboo.
It all started when an UMP parliamentarian and member of the Droite Populaire named Christian Vanneste set off a media firestorm by refering to what he called "the famous legend of the deportation of homosexuals" from France in WWII. (view video )
The reaction was immediate.
French politicians from all parties condemned him.
A socialist spokeperson for François Hollande denounced Vanneste’s diatribe as “not only homophobic, but also as denying the Holocaust”. '
UMP members called for him to be kicked out of the party. (“He should be immediately kicked out of the UMP”, tweeted France’s junior minister of housing and UMP member, Benoist Apparu.")
Gaylib compared his remark to Le Pen's famous "detail" dismissal of the Holocaust.
Even the Front National condemned him.
Not since Bush's invasion of Iraq have competing French political parties displayed such unity of opinion.
French politicians have been known to commit, be charged with and even be convicted of crimes without being expelled from their parties. (Sexual harassment, corruption and influence peddling come to mind.)
What was so special about these words concerning events 70 years ago?
Today French schoolchildren learn about the persecution of the "Jews, gypsies and gays" in WWII. President Jacques Chirac officially recognized the deportation of homosexuals in 2005.
So the systematic persecution and deportation of homosexuals in WWII France now belongs to the official French narrative of the Nazi Occupation.
What do historians specialized in this period say about the question?
Renowned French lawyer and Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld says: “I have never seen a document declaring the deportation of homosexuals in France”, adding that while gays were surely deported, it was not specifically because of their sexual orientation.'
(That is: among the Jews, communists and resistance fighters deported, some were also homosexuals.)
What are we to make of such an number?
Such universal outrage as we are observing among the French political class suggests that many people have a stake in believing the number to be much higher.
Why do they believe this? And why does it matter so much?
How can a straight-forward historical question about World War II be so fraught?
Actually, nearly all questions about World War II in France are fraught.
It took decades of efforts by determined private citizens like the Klarsfelds to identify the 70,000 French Jews who were deported to their deaths.
It took the publication of Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay to awaken the French public to the horrors of Vel d'Hiv. Mitterand's role in Vichy was not made public until the very end of his career. A precise and accurate history of the Resistance has yet to make its way into French public schools (if you have collegiens, ask them to recite their lessons about WWII.) Certain topics, such as the Bataillon Charlemagne, or the failure to change cultural or judicial elites after the war, are scarcely known outside of specialist circles (and even these hesitate to take them on). So sensitivity to Word War II issues is not uncommon.
Even so, the reaction is unusually virulent.
There is, of course, the unattractive personality of Vanneste. His Wikipedia page portrays him as generally hostile to gays in a manner familiar to a certain traditional French Catholic electorate (see Christine Boutin). In 2006 he was charged with using offensive language concerning gays, but the charges appear to have been dismissed on appeal as not exceeding the boundaries of freedom of speech ("cassation sans revoi".)
However, historical facts exist independently of Vannestes' personal likes and dislikes. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."
The job of establishing the facts falls--not to politicians or lobbies (be they conservative Catholic or gay)--but to historians armed with sources.
So why are the UMP, socialists, FN and everyone else yelling bloody murder?
Such violent indignation under such circumstances seems, well, odd. As if a taboo has been touched. But which one?
Few elements are more revealing about a culture than its taboos. Several important and complex ones are at play here.