France: Extreme Right and Left leaders distort Holocaust history

France's grappling with its involvement in the Holocaust has taken decades.

Emmanuel Macron (photo credit: REUTERS)
Emmanuel Macron
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The French admissions of Holocaust guilt, which came many decades too late, are currently being contested by important French politicians. This year the truth of contemporary France as the legal successor of the Vichy regime was denied by two extremist candidates in the presidential elections, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon. During the campaign, right-wing Le Pen gained 21.3% of the votes in the first round and 33% in the second. After the elections, extreme left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon put forth even more distorted statements. He won 19.6% of the vote in the first round of the elections.
It took until 1995 before French right-of-center president Jacques Chirac admitted that the Vichy Regime – which collaborated with the Germans – came to power in a legitimate way.
Chirac said this at a memorial ceremony at the location of the former Paris bicycle stadium, Vélodrome d’Hiver, where the detainees were held in the first major French roundup of Jews.
Chirac mentioned the assistance France had given the Nazis in arresting Jews as a step on the way to their murder: “France, the homeland of Light and Human Rights, land of welcome and asylum, France, that day committed the irremediable. It broke its word and delivered those it protected to their executioners.” He added: “We maintain toward them an unforgivable debt.”
His admission made it clear that contemporary France has to assume responsibility for the Vichy regime’s extreme antisemitic measures, which sometimes even preceded Germany’s actions. Chirac’s statement was the more important as his socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand, had refused to admit this truth. Mitterrand had been a Vichy civil servant until he moved to the resistance in 1942.
In later years, French responsibility for Vichy crimes was admitted by socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and right-of-center prime minister Dominique de Villepin. Similar statements were made by Chirac’s successor, president Nicholas Sarkozy, and thereafter by socialist president François Hollande.
In April 2017 Marine Le Pen said, “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vél d’Hiver. I think that generally speaking if there are persons responsible it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France.” She added, “Children in France have been taught reasons to criticize [the country] and to only see perhaps the darkest aspects of our history... so I want them to be proud of being French again.”
To summarize Le Pen’s statement: for French children to be proud of their country, one has to lie about France’s antisemitic past and the country’s resulting responsibility. The center-right candidate in the presidential elections, former prime minister François Fillon, reacted: “The truth is that what happened at the Vél d’Hiver is a crime committed by the French state.” He added: “The National Front still has many members who are nostalgic about the Vichy government.”
Fillon made his views even more clear, saying: “Vichy was the official France, even though there was another France, that of De Gaulle in London.”
This year, French President Emmanuel Macron invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the raid of the Vel d’Hiver. The general trend of Macron’s speech was in line with that of his predecessors.
Melenchon, now leader of the extreme-left La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) Party, was a Trotskyite in his youth. Later he joined the Socialist Party and became a minister.
Melenchon had reacted to Le Pen’s distorted remarks by saying that the French police had organized the arrest of the Jews. He added: “The French Republic is not guilty, but France is.”
After Macron’s speech, Melenchon radically changed his attitude.
He wrote: “France is nothing but its republic, which was abolished on July 10, 1940.” He added: “The French Republic has been transplanted to London with General de Gaulle in order to organize the resistance.” He further remarked that Vichy was not France.
This statement was an extreme distortion of history. The United States, which was neutral at that time, recognized Vichy as the official French government and sent an ambassador to it. Upon its creation, Vichy was also recognized by many other countries including the Soviet Union, Canada and Australia. It was Vichy that broke off relations with the United Kingdom and not the reverse.
These distortions of France’s role in the Holocaust cannot be considered marginal as Le Pen and Melenchon together collected more than 40% of the votes during the first round of elections. The extreme Left leader abused the history of the Holocaust even more vehemently than the rightwing leader.
To complete the picture: Melenchon is also an ardent enemy of the Israeli government, an opinion which has publicly expressed on various occasions.
Some of these were totally unrelated to Israel.
This was the case for instance when his party withdrew this month from a parliamentary commission inquiring into the institutional future of New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific Ocean. Melenchon’s motive for this was the divisive character of the commission’s chairman, former prime minister Manuel Valls. He invented an additional reason: Valls’ supposed closeness with the leaders of Israel’s extreme Right.
The author is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.