Jean-Marie Le Pen, France's far-right National Front leader and presidential hopeful, said Sunday that outgoing President Jacques Chirac's 1995 recognition of France's responsibility for the deportation of Jews during World War II was regrettable.
"The president plays a part in the way in which one presents the national memory. Thus Jacques Chirac had recognized the responsibility for the French state in the deportation of Jews," said Le Pen in an interview with Le Parisien.
Chirac was the first French president to acknowledge the state's responsibility when he made his comments. According to Le Pen, Chirac's remarks are scandalous because they taint the country's image. He added that the subject was a very sensitive one from which presidents and prime ministers alike shied away.
"Even [Francois] Mitterrand had not done it," Le Pen said, alluding to the former French president despised by the Right, and who was part of the underground fighting the Vichy government. While in office, Mitterrand stayed true to the Leftist policy of attacking the collaborationist Petin government of the 1940s.
"To criticize Chirac's courage is not surprising and shows clearly that Le Pen is an anti-Semite," Simon Wiesenthal Director and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff told The Jerusalem Post. "You have to remember, Le Pen is the one who said the gas chambers were nothing but a detail to minimize the importance of the Holocaust."
In September 1987, Le Pen stated that the gas chambers were "a point of detail of the history of the Second World War," a statement that cost him a â‚¬183,200 fine from the French Justice Department.
Le Pen responded to this episode, which he touched on in the interview, saying "I am not afraid of the word ['detail']. It is the only thing that they found to reproach me with in 50 years of public life, while so many of my rivals dipped their hands into the public coffers and should be in jail, if not more."
Le Pen may have dug himself into deeper trouble with Jewish communities responding to a question regarding the teaching of the Holocaust, in which he said that "these debates are not confined to freedom of expression. I am very careful not to go there. One cannot express another opinion which is only dictated by a single thought."
Le Pen's comments come on the same day Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal accused UMP presidential frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to form a coalition with Le Pen in an effort to attract the right-wing vote. Le Pen would not give a definitive answer, playing the "possibility card" and saying that "I do not engage for the future."
A spokeswoman for the UMP said that such an arrangement would definitely not happen between the two candidates, but would not comment if Le Pen's remarks was part of the reason, due to the fact that Sarkozy's mother was a Jewish immigrant from Greece.
During the campaign for France's presidency, Le Pen has even gone so far as to say that, because of Sarkozy's heritage, he is less suited to lead the country. "Mr. Sarkozy does not have this past which constitutes the structure of the nationâ€¦ and having three foreign grandparents is not what qualifies [him] more for this exceptional function," he said.
Le Pen stunned French pollsters in 2002 when he advanced in the primaries into the presidential runoff with Jacques Chirac. However, Le Pen was defeated by an uncharacteristic union of both left- and right-wing party support.