Council enters debate over French rail company and Holocaust reparations

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Mark Levine. (William Alatriste/NYC Council)
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A French rail company that transported thousands of people to concentration camps during World War II is being targeted by New York City lawmakers who want to bar the company from doing work with the government here.

A resolution from New York City City Councilmen Mark Levine and Ben Kallos, the chair and co-chair of the Jewish Caucus, would “prohibit New York City from contracting with companies that profited from the Holocaust, but have never compensated victims,” according to a joint statement about their resolution. The resolution also calls on Albany to create legislation that would bar such companies from getting government contracts at the state level.

Last month, a similar resolution was introduced in the state Legislature by Assembymembers Rhoda Jacobs of Brooklyn, David Weprin of Queens and Charles Lavine of Long Island.

The statements from from Levine and Kallos were released jointly with Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan, who has federal legislation seeking reparation payments from that French rail company, Societe Nationale des Chemin de fer Francis (SNCF).

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An SNCF affiliated company, Keolis, recently won contracts in Virginia and Massachusetts and is part of a consortium bidding on work in Washington, a spokesman confirmed. 

In an interview with Capital, SNCF American President and CEO Alain Lerary said his company didn't profit from the Holocaust, and pointed to remarks from the Obama administration calling resolutions in the state legislatures in New York and Maryland detrimental to ongoing negotiations between the American and French governments on a deal to provide compensation to victims families here.

“It completely ignores historical facts,” Lerary said, when asked about the New York City Council resolution. “If I read the statements that have been released today, we’re being associated with companies that profited from Holocaust related activities. My company did not profit. My company lost 2,100 of its employees who were murdered by the Nazis for resisting Nazi orders. My company lost 65 percent of its assets by the end of the war. Now, I don’t see how people can say we profited from any Holocaust related activities.”

In an April 9 statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “Recent initiatives of certain state legislatures, such as New York and Maryland, have begun to pose a serious obstacle” to finalizing a deal between the French and American governments over reparation payments.

On the broader issue of reparations payments, Lerary said that is a matter for the French government to settle, not a state-owned company like SNCF.

“There is a 1948 law in France which specifically addresses this issue,” he said. “All matters related to deportations in France are the sole province of the French state. it is the french state which failed to protect the nation in 1940; it is the French state which collaborated with the Nazis. It is the French police that arrested the deportees and it is therefore and consequently the french state that pays compensation and reparations directly linked to deportations.”