PARIS (AFP)---France's state-owned rail company SNCF has made a belated apology for hauling thousands of Jews to their deaths in Nazi camps, after US lawmakers threatened its chances of winning lucrative contracts.
Until recently, the company insisted it had been forced by France's World War II German occupiers to help deport 75,000 French Jews to the gas chambers, and noted that 2,000 of its own rail workers were executed.
But, with SNCF and its main train-builder Alstom seeking work in the United States, the company's chairman Guillaume Pepy earlier this month met in Florida with elected representatives and Jewish community groups to express his regret.
According to reported remarks confirmed to AFP by an SNCF spokesman, Pepy told them he wished to express "his profound pain and regret for the consequences of acts ... carried out under order."
Back in August, Pepy opened SNCF archives to American historians and said that he took concerns over the company's role "very seriously" -- but stuck to the company line that it had been "acting under the Nazi yoke."
The issue had been taken up by US lawmakers, however, and with big contracts like that of Florida's proposed Tampa to Orlando high-speed rail line in the balance, SNCF has now apparently decided to go a little further.
Had it not, it might have found itself excluded from the US market.
In California, where SNCF is eyeing another high-speed project, state assemblyman Bob Blumenfield passed a law requiring companies bidding on the contract to reveal their role in prisoner transport between 1942 and 1944.
Florida's Congressman Ron Klein, another Democrat, has proposed a similar law at the federal level. Neither text mentions SNCF by name, but both clearly target the firm seeking to export France's world class TGV technology.
With deals worth tens of billions of euros (dollars) at stake, former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, chairman of the French Senate's Franco-US friendship committee, has sought to defuse the row.
He told his US colleagues that French rail workers had no choice but to collaborate, but some were unimpressed and even in France campaigners for Holocaust remembrance have criticized the firm's tardy apology.
"It's an obvious step towards establishing historical truth," said Alain Lipietz, a former member of the European parliament who sued SNCF on behalf of four family members hauled to their deaths on board French trains.
"But what's regrettable is the fact that he did what he did in the United States solely to improve his position in a contract negotiation, and not in order to ensure that it doesn't happen again one day," he said.
For his part, France's senior human rights official Francois Zimeray accused protectionist politicians in the United States of exploiting the issue to exclude French products from US markets.
"I encourage SNCF to face up to this page in its history, and to break downany myths," he added, insisting that France had acted in an exemplary way in terms of Holocaust remembrance and reparations.