On Sunday night, French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National party denied French responsibility for the brutal fate of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during the Second World War. Only 3,000 returned.
In so doing, she reignited a conversation on both the FN’s xenophobic roots and the French state’s role in World War II. She may also have irreparably damaged her chances for the presidency.
Le Pen has spent the past several years trying to distance herself from her party’s anti-Semitic past. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the party in 1972, famously called the gas chambers a “detail” of history, and Marine showily broke with him in 2015 when he doubled down on that insistence. Her comments on Sunday severely undermined that effort.
Le Pen’s opponents in the tight race for the presidency were quick to condemn the comments. "Some people had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They haven't changed," said Emmanuel Macron, the leader of En Marche, who is tied with Le Pen for first place going into the first round of French voting on April 23.
The Israeli foreign ministry was even harsher: A spokesperson told Reuters that anti-Semitism "is raising its head again today."
"This contradicts the historical truth as expressed in statements by French presidents who recognized the country’s responsibility for the fate of the French Jews who perished in the Holocaust,” the spokesperson said.
France’s dark past
In 1942, French police helped round up 13,000 Parisian Jews, shoving them into the Velodrome d’Hiver — more commonly known as Vel d’Hiv — an all-weather indoor cycling stadium. Men, women, and children languished there for days without adequate bathroom facilities or food. They were sent from there to Drancy, the transit camp outside Paris, and then on to Auschwitz.
In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac apologized to the Jews for the French state’s role in the Vel d’Hiv roundup, and for the deportation of some 76,000 Jews from France during the Nazi occupation. He said France owed “an everlasting debt” to the Jews who were deported:
France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.
Chirac’s statement was historic, as French leaders had long insisted that responsibility for the devastation of the Jews lay not with France, but with Nazi Germany.
It was this that Le Pen denied last night.
"I think France isn't responsible for the Vel d'Hiv," she said, in a televised interview. “I think that, in general, if there are people responsible, it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France.”
Currently, she said, schoolchildren are only taught “reasons to criticise (the country), and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history".
She continued: “So, I want them to be proud of being French again.”
But over the past several decades, the French role in the deportation and looting of the French Jews has only become more clear, not less.
In 2004, French historian Jean-Marc Dreyfus and sociologist Sarah Gensburger came out with a book called Des Camps, Dans Paris, which showed that there were three forgotten Jewish slave labor camps in the heart of Paris itself. Dreyfus discovered that French moving companies had been contracted by the Gestapo to help strip Jews’ apartments after they were rounded up, bringing all their worldly possessions to depots where they were sorted and redistributed into the Reich for bomb victims. All personal items — photographs, school papers — were burned.
That this kind of evidence now exists makes Le Pen’s comments that much more reprehensible.
In 2009, the French high court issued an official ruling that held France “responsible for damages caused by actions which did not result from the occupiers' direct orders, but facilitated deportation from France of people who were victims of anti-Semitic persecution."
Le Pen immediately tried to explain her position, saying that the real French government at the time was the opposition government in exile, based in London, not the collaborationist Vichy government in France. She insisted her comments do not “in any way exonerate the personal and personal responsibility of the French who participated in the vile round-up of the Vel d'Hiv and all the atrocities committed during that period.”
On Twitter, she tried to backtrack even further:
"Je condamne sans réserve le régime collaborationniste de Vichy et justement, je ne lui donne aucune légitimité." #LeTalk— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) April 10, 2017
“I condemn, without reservation, the collaborationist Vichy government. I do not want to give it any legitimacy,” she said.
But this may not be enough to convince those voters who have long remained suspicious that the FN’s dismissal of the Holocaust and anti-Semitic past has merely been hidden during Marine Le Pen’s control of the party — not expunged, as she has claimed.