Wiener Library Blog
Marine Le Pen’s denial of French involvement in Vel d’Hiv
Posted by Samantha Dulieu, Wednesday 17th May, 2017
As a student of History and French at Royal Holloway University of London I have been able to study what Eric Hobsbawm described as Europe’s “Age of Extremes” through historical scholarship, but also through the study of French politics and culture. Throughout my degree I have studied both the German and French experience of the twentieth century, with a specific focus on the Second World War and the Holocaust. My recent work on Holocaust memory and representation, as well as an interest in contemporary French politics inspired me to consider the influence of the French far-right in this context.
Marine Le Pen’s denial of French involvement in Vel d’Hiv
On 9 April 2017, Marine Le Pen, runner up to the French presidency after the final popular vote, declared on the television programme Grand Jury that “France wasn’t responsible for Vel’ d’Hiv.” She continued, “I think that, in general, if there are people responsible, it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France… We have taught our children that they had every reason to criticise France, to see only the darkest historical episodes perhaps. I want them to be proud of being French once more” (Le Monde, 10 April 2017). Her assertion totally disregarded the responsibility of vast numbers of French officials in collaborating with the deportation and murder of Europe’s Jews. More than this, much of the French press has seized upon this interview as evidence that the French National Front, originally an alliance of Vichy apologists, royalists, Catholic ultra-fundamentalists and skinheads, is perhaps not as sanitised as its increasing presence in mainstream politics might suggest.
Much political discourse surrounding the 2017 Presidential Election campaign has focused on the attraction of the Front National as a populist, “anti-establishment” party, and even the natural heir to the victory of Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Le Pen’s comments about the roundup of Jews at Vel d’Hiv, their widespread criticism, and the continuation of other periodic instances of Holocaust denial within the party have perhaps ensured the failure of Le Pen, who has since renounced her position as head of the party.
The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup
At dawn on 16 July 1942, 4,500 of the Nazi occupation forces in Paris began a mass arrest of Jews living in the city, assisted by the French Milice, a Nazi-supported parallel police force. Within the week, up to 13,000 Jews had been detained in the Velodrome d’Hiver (English: Winter Stadium), in crowded and unsanitary conditions with little food or water. This number included 4,000 children. By the end of July most of these Jews had been transported to French concentration camps, like those at Pithiviers and Drancy, and by the following month all adult detainees were taken by train to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. More than 3,000 children were left in the concentration camps within occupied France, and later were deported to Auschwitz. By the end of September 1942, almost 38,000 Jews had been deported to Auschwitz from France, a fact that has since become engraved in French national memory as a powerful example of France’s culpability in the Final Solution. (Figures: The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, Yad Vashem).
The Front National and the Holocaust
The Front National (FN) was co-founded in 1972 by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, and members of the extreme right nationalist group Ordre Nouveau (New Order) (Symons, 11 April 2017). Not always a cosy alliance, this fractious group nonetheless consistently embraced, or at least tolerated, Jean-Marie’s particular brand of Holocaust denial. By the mid-1980s, resentment among white collar workers, unemployment, and fears of social violence ensured the FN gained ten seats in the European elections. It was through television appearances that Jean-Marie was able to make himself and the party a talking point in French households, and it is notable that it was during one such appearance that he lionised not only Joan of Arc and French Algeria, but Marshal Pétain (Kedward, 508). Pétain was the puppet Chief of State of Vichy France, later condemned for treason for his collaboration with the Nazis. A consistent but fringe influence in French politics, the party reached their (now second) highest pinnacle in terms of mainstream acceptance and popularity in 2002, when Jean-Marie faced Jacques Chirac in the second run off for the presidency. Chirac went on to win by a near landslide, with 82% of the vote, a failure that Marine Le Pen recognised as a direct result of her father’s firebrand attitude to politics and his revisionist conception of French national history.
Jean-Marie Le Pen has remained notorious for his periodic denial of the severity of the Holocaust. In early 2012, he was convicted and ordered to pay a €10,000 fine for contesting crimes against humanity, for his assertion that the German occupation of France was “not particularly inhumane” (Chrisafis, 16 February 2012). In April 2016, Le Pen senior was convicted of the same crime for stating that gas chambers used to kill Jews in the Holocaust were a “mere detail of history” (Chrisafis, 6 April 2016). Furthermore, in April 2015, he used an interview with the far-right weekly newspaper Rivarol to defend the aforementioned Marshal Philippe Petain (Chrisafis, 8 April 2015).
Marine Le Pen’s outbursts of anger towards her father for espousing these views were a part of her process of “de-demonizing”, “sanitising” and “softening” the party in order to broaden their electoral support. Their popular anti-immigration stance was adopted by Sarkozy when he came to power, leading initially to the collapse of the party’s wider base of support. When Le Pen la fille took control of the party in 2011 she therefore sought to garner support among ordinary French people by presenting the party as not that much more right-wing than that which was in power. The “dédiabolisation” of the organisation translated to an expulsion of those who openly upheld antisemitic, ultra right-wing or fascist ideas, and to a great extent was successful.
Le Pen’s comments about the Holocaust however, have not appeared in a vacuum. Only days after announcing her resignation as party leader her interim replacement Jean-François Jalkh was required to step down in order to prepare for a legal battle based on comments he made in the past questioning the use of Zyklon B gas by the Nazis. Furthermore, in March this year, the party suspended Benoit Loeuillet, a regional councillor in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France, after secretly filmed footage emerged of him declaring of the Holocaust that “there was no mass murder as has been said” (Reuters, 15 March 2017).
Le Pen’s attempts to mask this undercurrent of Holocaust denial and antisemitism in order to appeal to a broad base of disillusioned voters has even extended to her avoiding any mention of the party in official campaign materials. She has consistently campaigned as simply “Marine, Presidente”, in a further attempt to distance herself from the party’s more malevolent elements (BFMYV, 19 November 2016).
Vichy Apologism - Confined to the Far Right?
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s loss to Jacques Chirac in 2002 is made more significant by the fact that it was Chirac who made waves in 1995 when he became the first president to acknowledge French collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War. He said, "These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions… Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state” (Simons, 17 July 1995). The previous president, Francois Mitterand had followed the socially-accepted line from the 1960s, that it was the Vichy regime, not the French state that had sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths.
If it is in the Front National that Vichy apologism has achieved its greatest expression we should remain aware that this is a phenomenon far from being isolated to far-right organisations. Acknowledgement of French involvement in the deportation of Jews has certainly been a taboo in French culture. The celebrated 1969 Swiss documentary Le Chagrin et Le Pitié (English: The Sorrow and the Pity) by Marcel Ophuls about the persecution of Jews in Clermont Ferrand was banned from French screens until 1981, and the director of the 1956 documentary Nuit et Brouillard (English: Night and Fog), Alain Resnais, was forced to edit out a shot of a French official (conspicuous by his képi hat) guarding the concentration camp at Pithiviers.
The fate of the Jews in France has been addressed in many other books and films in the last few decades, although the 2010 film Le Rafle was the first to explicitly acknowledge the roundup of Jews in Paris by French officials. It was praised upon its release and the then Education Minister Luc Chatel ensured that the film was available to watch online for all French students aged 17 and 18 (Lichfield, 8 March 2010). However, this collective coming to terms with France’s national history has perhaps been eclipsed by the growing popularity of a party so willing to ignore the reality of France’s role in the Holocaust.
Despite attempts to sanitise her party of its most overtly antisemitic elements, Marine Le Pen has revealed to French voters, through her own actions, the dangers of voting for a party with such a damning record. Her denial of the involvement of French officials in the rounding up of Jews for deportation in the occupation period is representative of attempts by the French far-right to rewrite the history of France. The ‘roman national’ (English: national story/ history) according the the Front National is one of denial, victimhood, silence, the glorification of the French colonial empire and apologism for the Vichy regime. Article 97 of the Front National manifesto states that they want to “strengthen the unity of the nation through the promotion of national history and the refusal of divisive state repentances” (Libération, 14 April 2017). If these ‘repentances’ extend in the mind of Front National officials as far as disavowing French involvement in the Holocaust, it would seem that the party’s denial of history is present not only in the scandals and mishaps that have plagued the party in recent years, but at the very core of their political ideology.
“Ce qui se cache derrière le logo de campagne de Marine Le Pen.” BFMYV, 19 November 2016.
Chrisafis, Angelique. “Jean-Marie Le Pen convicted of contesting crimes against humanity.” The Guardian, 16 February 2012.
Chrisafis, Angelique. “Marine Le Pen in political attack on her father after he belittles Holocaust.” The Guardian, 8 April 2015.
Chrisafis, Angelique. “Jean-Marie Le Pen fined again for dismissing Holocaust as ‘detail’.” The Guardian, 6 April 2016.
“Contre la promotion du Roman National du Front National.” Libération, 14 April 2017.
“France’s National Front Suspends Official in Holocaust Row.” Reuters, 15 March 2017.
Kedward, Rod. La Vie en Bleu: France and the French Since 1900. London: Penguin: 2005.
“La faute de Marine Le Pen sur la rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv.” Le Monde, 10 April 2017.
Lichfield, John. “Film Awakens France’s Shame in the Holocaust.” The Independent, 8 March 2010.
Simons, Marlise. “Chirac Affirms France’s Guilt in Fate of Jews.” The New York Times, 17 July 1995.
Symons, Emma-Kate. “The New National Front Is the Same as the Old National Front.” Foreign Policy, 11 April 2017.
The Vel' d'Hiv Roundup. Yad Vashem.
Suggested Further Reading:
The Wiener Library holds material not only on the history of France during the Second World War but also how the legacy of Vichy regime has impacted on France today. Some of this material is listed below:
- The Jews in France During the Second World War by Renee Poznanski
- The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 by Henry Rousso
- France at War: Vichy and the Historians by Sarah Fishman
- The Politics of Everyday Life in Vichy France: Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers by Shannon L. Fogg
For related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue; Vichy; France; Occupation; Drancy (police detention camp); Dealing with the past; Public opinion; Gurs (internment camp)
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