US lawmakers, encouraged by Holocaust survivor groups, started blocking the SNCF from bidding on rail projects, first in the state of Maryland, then in New York, Florida, and for the high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco in California.
The argument is that the rail company was complicit with the Nazis by transporting 76,000 Jews to the death camps between 1942 and 1944. Only about 3,000 survived.
The SNCF has always maintained that it was forced by the occupying German army to transport the deportees.
According to an agreement made in December 2014, the French government will fund compensation for non-French victims, or their descendants — those who were not covered by programs put in place in France since 1946.
The US will manage the fund and pay more than 100,000 dollars to each survivor, and several thousands to spouses and family members of victims.
This should end lawsuits and allow the SNCF to bid on US contracts. The joint statement mentions “legal peace” between the countries.
No day in court
Alain Lipietz, a former French MEP, and a member of the French green party, says the agreement is just a business deal.
“The SNCF, just to avoid a commercial boycott in United States for contracts regarding engineering of high-speed trains, try to say, OK, I’ll pay a lot for no boycott,” he told RFI. “I don’t like it at all.”
Lipietz was involved in a lawsuit against the SNCF filed by his father and his uncle who were deported in May 1944. A French court found the company guilty in 2006, though the verdict was overturned on appeal, because of a procedural issue.
“The judicial process initiated by my father and uncle was in front of a judge, in court, with arguments and an exchange of documents, which is important for historians” he explains. The agreement between the US and France had none of this.
Other parts of the French state have acknowledged their role in deportations, he says, but the SNCF has not, which he attributes to the fact that it’s a commercial enterprise.
“They try to defend their image against the idea they willingly participated to the Shoah,” he says. “What I would like very much is that they say: We did that because we were too obsessed by profit, we were too obsessed by technical efficiency. And we did not train our workers to respect human rights.”