France - US

French rail company challenged over Nazi deportation in US rail bid

French President François Hollande inaugurates a Holocaust memorial at the rail depot at Drancy in 2012
French President François Hollande inaugurates a Holocaust memorial at the rail depot at Drancy in 2012 Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Politicians in the US state of Maryland are trying to block a subsidiary of the French national railway network, the SNCF, from bidding for a new rail contract unless the company pays reparations to Holocaust victims.

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The bill would prevent the company, Keolis, from winning the 35-year, six-billion-dollar (4.4-billion-euro) light-rail project, known as the Purple Line, unless its parent company pays reparations to Holocaust victims who were shipped out of France during World War II.

Historians estimate that some 76,000 Jews and other Nazi prisoners were sent to the French-German border on SNCF trains on their way to concentration camps.

Leon Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from an Auschwitz-bound train, launched a petition against the SNCF and gained backing from two Democrat members of the Senate in Maryland, where he now lives.

In a communique, Bretholz said that the SNCF was "paid by the Nazis per head ... to transport innocent victims across France and ultimately toward death camps".

"It is time for the SNCF to be held accountable for its active role in the Holocaust... they must pay reparations to the survivors and their families," he said.

The bill's main sponsor, Senator Joan Carter Conway, accused the SNCF of insulting victims by refusing to take responsibility for its war-time action.

SNCF America president Alain Leray said the state-owned company has already disclosed its “tragic World War II past” in 2011 and said he may argue tha the bill would be “discriminatory” against SNCF if it is written specifically to target one company.

According to French law, only the government can pay reparations for Holocaust deportations, he said, adding that the French state has paid more than four billion euros in reparations to Holocaust victims.

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