Opinion » Letter From The Editor

A French Village



For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been watching a television series called (in America) A French Village. It ran for seven years in France, more than 70 episodes, so it has been a long, and still-ongoing, binge. We started watching out of curiosity. My wife is French and I like watching shows in French with subtitles so I can practice listening to the language in hopes of improving my "Ou sont les toilettes"-level French. There was no way, we vowed, that we're going to watch seven seasons of this thing. But we're six seasons in and A French Village has hooked us, big time.

The show is set in the fictional town of Villeneuve during World War II. The village is controlled by the Nazis and the collaborative French government of Vichy. The driving conceit of the show, which becomes more apparent with each ensuing season, is that, sooner or later, almost everyone in Villeneuve has to make a choice: collaborate with the ruling Nazi/French-puppet regime, or resist.

Most try for a third option: living quietly, going about their lives as close to normally as possible, hoping to avoid incurring the wrath of the Nazis, and staying out of the way of the Resistance. But sooner or later, the moment of truth arrives for everyone: Do you stay safe, keep your mouth shut, walk away, and accept that you are on the side of people doing horrible, murderous, genocidal things, or do you somehow find the courage to resist — or give everything up and flee?

Businessmen sell lumber and concrete to the Nazis; restaurants serve them meals; city officials accommodate their demands; women at the bordello sleep with them; the local police cooperate in roundups and torturous interrogations; the local doctor treats their wounded. But as the "aryanization" of the village and its businesses widens, as the village's Jewish families are rounded up, as they are pulled from their children and put on separate trains, never to return, the creeping horror of what is being accepted by most villagers becomes unavoidable. It's a slow build.

This being a French show and something of a soap opera at heart, there are, of course, love affairs and trysts and intrigue and secrets and betrayals: Most of the usual trappings of existence sustain themselves amid the shooting and the bombings and the horrors. All Germans aren't monsters. All French aren't heroes. The world is complicated. As are men and women. Another insight from the show: Life can be banal, even in wartime.

But around season five, as the war begins to wind down and the Nazis leave, the town begins to split along a widening fissure: Were you a collaborator or not? It seems a simple delineation, but it turns out not to be. French cops who did the Germans' bidding, hunting down resistance fighters and killing French civilians, are a simple call — they get the firing squad. But what about the young police conscript who served only a few weeks? And what about the mayor who convinced the Nazis to execute only 10 villagers instead of the 20 they'd planned? Did he do a good thing? Or is he irredeemably evil? What about the women who slept with Nazi soldiers? Collaborators or survivors? Coming back together as a community after so much trauma proves not to be easy. Much depends on who's judging and who's being judged.

And maybe there's a lesson here for America, after the divisive trauma of the past four years. Here's what Joe Biden said in his Inaugural address: "To restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity."

Unity. Our new president speaks of it often. And so do many Republicans these days. And I think most of us would agree that some sort of unity between the country's two major parties could be good. But here's the thing: Unity only works if justice is done first. Unity only works if there is a mutually agreed upon set of facts, a ground from which we can begin moving forward together.

Let me suggest a few facts that should be agreed upon: Joe Biden won the presidential election; Democrats are not part of a "deep-state" secret cabal of pedophiles; QAnon is an insane conspiracy theory; the people who vandalized the Capitol and terrorized our legislators were supporters of Donald Trump, who invited them there.

People who deny any of these truths while calling for unity are collaborators. They don't belong in the village.

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