(This story corrects “deported” to “transported” in 1st paragraph)
PARIS (Reuters) - French lawmakers voted on Wednesday to create a $60-million fund to compensate Holocaust victims transported by French state rail firm SNCF to Nazi concentration camps in a move also intended to protect the company from future U.S. litigation.
About 76,000 Jews were arrested in France during World War Two and transported in appalling conditions in railway boxcars to concentration camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.
The vote was carried despite mass abstentions by France’s conservative opposition, which questioned the validity of the legal guarantees offered by the United States.
Opposition lawmaker Pierre Lellouche described the fund, the fruit of an agreement reached in Washington last December, as “a kind of French capitulation before a form of permanent judicial, even legislative blackmail by the Americans”.
The fund, managed by the United States, will be accessible to those deported from France but who could not benefit from French compensation measures. It covers victims in countries except Britain, Poland, Belgium and the Czech Republic, which already have bilateral agreements with France.
U.S. politicians have for years sought to stop the rail firm taking part in tenders on their territory, asking for the French company to first provide compensation.
The agreement is intended to guarantee a judicial immunity that will mean SNCF can no longer be directly targeted by lawsuits or excluded from tenders.
Critics have accused the SNCF of collaborating in the deportation of the victims but the company says it had no choice but to comply. A 2007 ruling by France’s top administrative court the Conseil d’Etat exonerated it of all responsibility.
France’s upper house examines the bill on July 9.
Reporting by Jessica Chen and Emile Picy; editing by Mark John