French banks allegedly kept millions in Jewish funds

The revelations showed striking similarities to a dispute between Jewish groups and Swiss banks, which have come under fire in recent months for holding onto assets deposited by Jews during the war years.

Le Monde said the French banks' failure to comply with the government order to turn over the funds was due to bureaucratic confusion rather than a deliberate effort to conceal the money.

CRIF, France's umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations, said in a statement that "French banks never tried to have the truth about these accounts known, nor tried to find the heirs, and didn't make the slightest gesture towards Jewish orphans whose parents were exterminated.

"The moment of truth has come," the group said, demanding an inquiry into safe-deposit boxes and life insurance policies belonging to Jewish families killed in the Holocaust.

"CRIF demands that all light be shed on this affair," it said.

In 1941, France's German occupiers froze all Jewish bank accounts and, according to Le Monde, French banks after the war continued to destroy automatically all records of accounts that had not been active for the past 10 years.

A 1966 law required banks to hand over the money and records of such accounts to the Caisse des Depots et Consignations, a special bank for state funds. But the law went almost entirely unheeded, Le Monde said.

The law was reinforced in 1977, but there was little change in the banks' behavior, according to the report.

The French Banking Association, which represents all of France's commercial banks, told Le Monde that nothing illegal had been done and that it would try to trace the accounts.

But one bank told the paper it had 54 miles of records to plow through.

After a May 1995 fire at the troubled state bank Credit Lyonnais, 6,400 of the bank's 7,800 safe-deposit boxes were opened. Many had not been touched or paid out for decades, with some of the contents predating World War II, it was discovered.

"Sometimes we found money, sometimes a few jewels. But mostly documents — bills, marriage contracts, property titles and many bank documents and sometimes 30-year-old check stubs," said Colette Bonenfants, who oversees the bank's safe-deposit boxes.

"The value of most of the documents was absurdly low compared to the amount due in back rent" for the boxes, she said.

Le Monde's disclosures come in the wake of a recent government decision to launch an investigation into Jewish-owned property seized during World War II. Public attention has so far focused on apartments and some 2,000 works of art now housed in French museums.

France's state auditor accused the state museum network, in a report leaked to the media in January, of failing to try to return the works, many of which are believed to have been taken from Holocaust victims or sold at far below their market value by Jews under duress.