Marine Le Pen was under fire Monday for saying that France played no role in rounding up Jews for deportation at a Paris stadium during World War II, reigniting accusations of extremism against her National Front party two weeks before the presidential election.
Le Pen triggered the controversy Sunday when she told a radio broadcaster that France played “no role” in rounding up 13,000 Jews at the “Vel d’Hiv” stadium in 1942. French police officers carried out the operation under instructions from Nazi occupying forces.
“I think France is not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she told RTL and Le Figaro when asked if former president Jacques Chirac had been correct to recognize in 1995 that the French state had played an active role in the operation. “I think that more generally, if anyone is responsible, it is the people who were in power back then, it is not France per se.”
She added: “France has been unfairly treated in people’s minds for years … We taught our children they had every reason to criticize it … So I want them to be proud of being French again.”
Her comments prompted widespread criticism of her National Front party, accused of staying true to a legacy of Holocaust revisionism despite efforts to present itself as a mainstream political force. Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeated two years ago that he still believed the Nazi Holocaust was a “detail” of World War II.
“Nobody forgets that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” said centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who is leading polls ahead of the election’s first round on April 23. “We should not minimize or be complacent about what the National Front is today in our country. So what she said was a serious mistake.”By denying the responsibility of the French state in the Vel d’Hiv, Marine Le Pen is joining her father in indignity and Holocaust denial,” said Christian Estrosi, a conservative mayor of Nice, in southern France.
Conservative presidential candidate François Fillon had no public reaction.
“Marine Le Pen’s irresponsible behavior persists,” wrote the left-leaning Libération newspaper, while the center-left Le Monde wrote: “Marine Le Pen shocks France with her comments on the Vel d’Hiv.”
Specter of Jean-Marie Le Pen
The controversy raged on Monday as senior National Front officials faced grillings about the comments on TV and radio shows. Le Pen herself issued a statement late Sunday saying she considered France’s government was in London during World War II, referring to the administration of General Charles de Gaulle, and not in France with the Vichy-based collaborationist government.
“Marine Le Pen said something obvious — France was in London, not Vichy,” National Front electoral strategist Nicolas Bay said on Public Sénat TV channel. “Marine Le Pen’s position is the same as all presidents of the 5th Republic.”
Critics pointed out that Bay’s statement was incorrect. While former socialist president François Mitterrand stood by the position that the Vichy government did not truly represent France, his successor Chirac recognized for the first time in 1995 that the roundup had been carried out “by French people, by the French state.” Current socialist president François Hollande went a step further by calling the Nazi-backed operation, which resulted in the concentration camp deaths of thousands of Jews, a “crime” committed by the French state.
Le Pen’s reheating of old Gaullist ambivalence about the Vichy government looked ill-timed, coming just as challengers gain momentum in a tight race.
Polls currently show the National Front leader reaching the election’s second-round run-off. But far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is enjoying a surge in support, and now stands neck-and-neck with third-placed Fillon. Le Pen could also lose support to Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, an independent hard-right candidate whose anti-EU positions echo hers but without the troubling party history.
By suggesting that France should stop claiming shameful passages of its history, Le Pen may have been trying to reach out to historical party backers still loyal to her father, Jean-Marie. But the controversy could put off other voters who were unfamiliar with the party’s legacy.
Le Pen has tried hard in the past six years to rid her party of its reputation for racism and xenophobia, but the efforts were never entirely successful.
Jean-Marie Le Pen was ousted from the party in 2015 for repeating his “detail of history” remark, only to be reinstated earlier this year following a court decision.
Twice this year, Marine Le Pen has had to answer accusations that her party remains rooted in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
In March, a documentary by TV channel C8 showed a regional Front official in the southern Provence Alpes Côtes d’Azur region saying to a hidden camera that he “had doubts” as to whether “so many” people were killed during the Holocaust. The official, Benoît Loeuillet, who runs a bookstore that stocks revisionist histories of the Holocaust, was suspended from the party, although it remains unclear whether he will be fully excluded.
Then Le Pen had to answer questions about why her party continues to employ people known for extremist views or for anti-Semitic comments, such as Axel Loustau and Frédéric Chatillon. The controversy followed reporting which showed that the latter man, a university friend of Le Pen’s, was still on contract with the Front despite being banned from having any “commercial ties” with the party.