When a front-runner in France’s impending presidential election obliterates history by denying the country’s well-documented complicity in deporting tens of thousands of French and foreign Jews to Nazi death camps, it is clear that something sinister is afoot in the birthplace of the Enlightenment.
Characterising France as a victim rather than a willing and even enthusiastic participant in the Second World War’s mass liquidation of French and foreign Jews, Marine Le Pen, head of France’s far Right National Front, tried to remove the indelible stain left by that shameful chapter in her country’s history. Instead, she only ensured the stain attached to her own candidacy.
Founded by her father, the racist Holocaust minimiser Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front spent several decades mainly at the extremist margins of French politics. Since taking the party’s reins in 2011, Le Pen has presented herself as a gentler sort of immigrant-bashing nationalist. But, evidently loath to alienate the party’s old guard, she has negated her efforts to detoxify the National Front with dog whistles to the party’s nativist base. With her wilfully denialist remarks last weekend, she went even farther — squarely into the realm of historical revisionism.
“I think France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, referring to the Winter Stadium in Paris where more than 13,000 Jews — mostly women and children — were rounded up in July 1942 before being sent to their deaths in Nazi gas chambers. “I think generally, if anyone is responsible, then it is those in power at the time, not France as such. It wasn’t France.”
She added that: “France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”
Actually, it was very much France that carried out the stadium round-ups; specifically, some 4,500 French police, deployed in pairs, fanning out through the City of Light, beginning at dawn on July 16, 1942, and acting on the direct orders of French officials. In all, 13,152 Jews were picked up over five days: 5,919 women, 4,115 children and 3,118 men; nearly all of them were then deported and murdered. More Jews might have perished had some not been tipped off or hidden by a small number of police, neighbours and friends. That is part of the story, too, but hardly absolution for all France.
After the war, more than 50 years passed before the French Government officially acknowledged the nation’s guilt and collaboration in abetting the Holocaust, in which, of six million Jews who died, more than 76,000 were deported from France. Nonetheless, denialism and wilful historical ignorance have maintained their grip, thanks partly to Mr Le Pen, who advanced the idea that the Nazi gas chambers were “a detail” of the Second World War.
Two years ago, having repeated his loathsome views, he was expelled from the National Front and repudiated by his daughter, then eyeing a presidential bid. But the party, which leads in this weekend’s first-round presidential races, according to some opinion polls, has not really been remade, just recast.
Le Pen has made that clear.