Secretary of State to the Minister of the Armed Forces, Geneviève Darrieussecq, said she was unaware that 54 people in France had received war pensions from Germany for services rendered to the Nazi regime during World War II.
"We had no knowledge of this pension," she told Le Parisien on Monday, "but they could have been people who were wounded while serving in the Wehrmacht [unified, armed forces of Nazi Germany].
Darrieussecq was called to react after the Belgian parliament passed a resolution last Thursday urging the government to seek more information from Berlin regarding 27 Belgian citizens who allegedy still receive a complementary pension from Germany.
Belgian MPs called for the German federal government to put an immediate stop to the payments and publish a full list of the beneficiaries.
German authorities have refused to communicate the list of recipients, citing legal concerns around protecting privacy.
But on Friday the German labour ministry told French enws agency AFP that 2,033 people living outside the country had received payments in February as war victims and collaborators of the Nazi regime.
Three-quarters are in Europe, with the highest number in Poland (573), followed by Slovenia (184), Austria (101), Czech Republic (94), Croatia (71), France (54), Hungary (48), UK (34), Belgium (18).
The payments range from 435 euros to close to 1,300 euros per month depending partly on time spent in prison after the war, which was regarded as "working for Germany".
Compensation rather than pension
The pensions are deliverd under the 1951 Law on the Care of the Victims of the War which was passed to compensate war victims of Nazi crimes and includes former collaborators of the Nazi regime, some of whom were forcibly enrolled and recruited.
It built on a decree, signed in 1941 by Adolph Hitler, and never abrogated, to compensate those who pledged "allegiance, fidelity, loyalty and obedience" to the Führer in the event they suffered partial or total invalidity as a result of their collaboration in the war.
So technically the payments are seen as compensation rather than a pension.
The law excludes former members of the SS and perpetrators of war crimes.
Calls for pensions to be stopped
On Saturday, the head of hard-left France Unbowed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, demanded the pensions be stopped and that all sums paid out be handed over to the Charles de Gaulle Foundation.
54 français toucheraient des indemnités du gouvernement #Merkel pour services rendus à l'occupant nazi. Je contacte tous les présidents des groupes parlementaires pour faire interdire cela et exiger la restitution des sommes et leur versement à la Fondation Charles de Gaulle.Jean-Luc Mélenchon (@JLMelenchon) 23 février 2019
But Geneviève Darrieusecq has called for caution.
"They could be former soldiers, widows," she told Le Parisien. "We must first of all try to investigate more thoroughly who might be concerned," citing the case of people forced to enroll in the German army.
"In the case of people in Alsace and Moselle [who were enrolled by force], there were 135,000. Thousands among them were injured or became invalids. Many were seriously impacted, against their will.
“We must take the time to study the situation calmly and not rush into controversy,” she said. "We mustn’t be excessive and turn these kind of subjects into caricature.”
The subject is particularly sensitive in France, which has seen a recent steep rise in anti-Semitic attacks.