Le Pen's cynical Holocaust remarks could reopen old wounds in France

Head of the French far-right party Front National and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen speaks during a dinner in the coastal city of Byblos on February 19, 2017, during her visit to Lebanon.

Story highlights

  • Stephanie Hare: Le Pen's recent remarks suggest that the daughter differs from her father only in style, not substance
  • Where he once declared the Holocaust "a detail of history," she has advanced a far slicker and more manipulative message, Hare says

Stephanie Hare holds a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics. Her dissertation drew on exclusive interviews with Maurice Papon, a civil servant who was convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his role in the arrest and deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party, told a television audience over the weekend that France was not responsible for the so-called Vél d'Hiv roundup of July 1942, when French police arrested more than 13,000 Jews, detained them for five days in the Vélodrome d'Hiver cycling stadium in Paris and then deported them.

In making such a comment, Le Pen undermined any claims that the National Front had purged its party of its anti-Semitic elements. While this is unlikely to deter her core supporters, it has the potential to repel those who are undecided.
Le Pen had been asked whether former President Jacques Chirac was wrong in 1995 when he accepted responsibility for the Vél d'Hiv roundup and for France's role in the deportation of nearly 76,000 French and foreign Jews during the Second World War.
    In doing so, Chirac broke with every post-war leader before him, all of whom had maintained the national myth first offered by General (and later President) Charles De Gaulle that the "real" France had resisted the Nazi Occupation.
    Both Chirac's successors, Nicolas Sarkozy (a conservative) and Francois Hollande (a socialist), upheld his position. Le Pen's remarks thus represent a rupture with the past 22 years of French leaders' views on France's role in the Holocaust.
    "I think that France was not responsible for the Vél d'Hiv [roundup]," she told the television moderator. "I think generally, and in very general terms indeed, if anyone is responsible, then it is those in power at the time, not France as such. It wasn't France."

    Like father, like daughter

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    Le Pen's remarks come just two weeks before the first round of France's presidential election on April 23. She is expected to win and advance to the second round on May 7.
    And they are somewhat surprising when compared to her earlier efforts to root out anti-Semitism in her party. In 2015, Le Pen expelled her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, after he made statements denying the Holocaust (Holocaust denial is a crime in France).
    Last month, she suspended Benoît Loeuillet, one of the National Front's regional councilors, after he was secretly filmed claiming that 6 million Jews were not murdered during the Holocaust.
    Yet Le Pen's recent remarks suggest that the daughter differs from her father only in style, not substance: Where he once declared the Holocaust "a detail of history," she has advanced a far slicker and more manipulative message.

    Shameful history

    France's responsibility for the Vél d'Hiv roundup is clear, direct and indisputable.
    In July 1942, René Bousquet, the chief of police for the Vichy State, made a deal with Karl Oberg, the SS general in charge of the German police in France. In exchange for French police rounding up and deporting Jews, France could retain a degree of autonomy during the Nazi Occupation -- at the cost of human lives.
    The Bousquet-Oberg accords led French police and others who worked for the French State to steal Jewish-owned property and businesses as well as arrest, intern and deport nearly 76,000 foreign and French Jews.

    A cynical move

    Le Pen later tried to explain that she simply shares the view of former French presidents Charles De Gaulle (a conservative) and François Mitterrand (a socialist) that the "real" France during the Second World War was in London, with De Gaulle's resistance movement, not in Vichy, the capital of the collaborationist regime.
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    This is a deeply cynical move, one that obscures the role of the parliament in approving the creation of the Vichy State after France surrendered to Nazi Germany in May 1940.
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    It also overlooks the fact that the majority of those who were employed by the state switched seamlessly from the Third Republic (1870-1940) to the Vichy State (1940-1945).
    Only a minority of French people resisted the Nazi Occupation. Of those who did, most began resisting in 1943, by which point France had already deported thousands of Jews.

    Election gamble

    Marine Le Pen knows she is manipulating history.
    She was an adult during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when France began making an effort to come to terms with the Nazi Occupation and when her father was repeatedly brought to court for his Holocaust denials and historical revisionism.
    By rejecting France's responsibility for the Vél d'Hiv roundup, Le Pen hopes to boost her support, which her followers fear will fall short of the 50.1% of votes she needs to avoid a second round of voting and win the presidency.
    But she is taking a huge gamble, as France's role in the Holocaust remains a highly sensitive topic. Already her comments have earned widespread condemnation from her political opponents, historians and Jewish groups.
    The risk is that she could trigger a replay of 2002, when voters turned out to support the then-incumbent Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen, who lost overwhelmingly.
    But an even greater risk is that she could engage in such shameful historical revisionism and not be punished by voters at all.
    This would re-open wounds within French society, trouble France's relationships with Germany and Israel and force the world to consider anew whether France has truly come to terms with its dark years.