French elections begin in just two weeks, but that didn’t stop Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front’s candidate, from dredging up her party’s history of anti-Semitism, denying France collaborated with the Nazis to weed out the country’s Jewish population during World War II.
Asked about French complicity in the Holocaust in a media interview published Monday, Le Pen downplayed France’s role during the Vichy regime when French police rounded up some 13,000 Jews and carted them to a cycling track on the west side of Paris in 1942.
The “Vélodrome D’Hiver” incident, commonly referred to as “Vel D’Hiv,” is a historical stain for the French, whose founding principles of liberty, equality, and universal citizenship are at odds with the country’s collaboration with the Nazis while under occupation. The Jews held there, including 4,000 children, were eventually shipped to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.
“I don’t think that France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said Sunday. Instead, she argued that “those in power” at the time hold all culpability. The collaborationist Vichy regime “was not France,” she said.
The National Front has a long and ugly history of downplaying the Holocaust, which her father, former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, has called a “detail” of history. The Nazis deported an estimated 78,000 French Jews to death camps between 1940 and 1944.
Then-President Jacques Chiraq, speaking in 1995 at the Vel D’Hiv, acknowledged complicity and urged the French not to look away. The French, he said, surrendered their values to their occupiers. “Nothing is dissociable,” he added. “Racist crimes, the defence of revisionist arguments, provocations of all kinds … draw from the same sources.”
But Le Pen has used the ugly moment in France’s history to aid her nationalist platform: “France has been mired in people’s minds for years. In reality, our children are taught that they have every reason to criticize her, to see only the darkest historical aspects. I want them to be proud to be French again.”
Her comments instantly incited anger from Jewish groups in France and abroad, as well as other candidates. Emmanuel Macron, her principal opponent in the upcoming presidential elections, seized on the opportunity to remind the French of the historical anti-Semitism of the National Front. “We must not be complacent or minimize what the Front National is today,” he told BFM TV.
Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate, criticized Le Pen as well: “If some people were still doubting that Marine Le Pen is from the far right, from now on they cannot do so anymore.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday condemning the comments: “This declaration is contrary to historical truth,” the statement said. “This recognition is the basis for remembrance day events that mark the anniversary of the Jewish expulsion from France as well as the study of the Holocaust in its education system,” it added.