France’s role in deporting Jews: The changing political views over 70 years

Georges Gobet, AFP | Marine Le Pen

National Front leader Marine Le Pen sparked controversy in France on Sunday when she said the French State was not responsible for the Nazi-ordered round-up of more than 13,000 Jews at Paris’s Vel d’Hiv cycling track in 1942.


In so doing, she called into question the role French authorities played in deporting Jews during the Second World War, for which President Jacques Chirac officially recognised France’s responsibility in 1995.

Did Le Pen not anticipate the outcry her comments would spark? Hours after declaring Sunday that “France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv [round-up],” the presidential candidate felt obliged to release a communiqué condemning rivals’ “political exploitation” of her remarks.

Campaign beat: Le Pen ruffles feathers over WWII round-up of Jews

“Like Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterrand or more recently [centre-right parliamentarian] Henri Guaino, [former Socialist cabinet minister] Jean-Pierre Chevènement, and [nationalist presidential candidate] Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, I consider that France and the Republic was based in London during the Occupation and that the Vichy Regime was not France,” she wrote. “That stance was always defended by French heads of state, before Jacques Chirac and, especially, before François Hollande wrongly revisited the position.”

Indeed, from De Gaulle to Mitterrand, no French president had recognised France’s responsibility for the Vel d’Hiv round-up before Chirac in 1995. Each considered that the Vichy Regime did not count as the French Republic, that the latter was embodied by De Gaulle’s London-based Free France government-in-exile.

Asked to comment on the subject in July 1992, two days before the 50th anniversary of the round-up, Mitterrand said, “In 1940, there was a French State, which was the Vichy Regime, which was not the Republic. And it is that French State that should be called to account. Do not hold the Republic accountable; she did her duty… The French State was the Vichy Regime, it was not the Republic… The Resistance… the De Gaulle government, then the Fourth Republic and the others, were founded precisely upon refusing that French State.”

Two days later, Mitterrand became the first French president to commemorate the round-up, although he did not speak at the ceremony. Then in February 1993, he made July 16 a “national day commemorating racist and anti-Semitic persecution committed under the de facto authority known as the ‘government of the French State'”. The unwieldy wording was not neutral and once again underlined Mitterrand’s way of subtly distinguishing between the “French State” in place and the “French Republic".

‘France… committed the unredeemable’

It was not until Jacques Chirac’s July 1995 speech that the link was finally made. “These dark hours forever sully our history and slander our past and our traditions. Yes, French people, the French State, assisted the occupier in its criminal madness,” the freshly elected Chirac said. “France, the motherland of the Enlightenment and Human Rights, land of welcome and of asylum, France, on that day, committed the unredeemable. Breaking her word, she delivered her protégés to their executioners.”

Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, took part in no commemoration ceremony, but he did say in 2007, “Jacques Chirac said what had to be said and I think there is nothing to subtract and nothing to add to the very good speech he made at the time.”

Hollande, for his part, attended the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv round-up and his remarks were in keeping with Chirac’s. “The truth is that the French police, on the basis of lists it established itself, attended to apprehending thousands of innocent people ensnared on July 16, 1942,” Hollande said in 2012. “[The truth] is that the French police force escorted them all the way to the internment camps. The truth is that not one German soldier – not one – was mobilised throughout the entire operation. The truth is that this crime was committed in France, by France.”

Historian Isabelle Veyrat-Masson tells FRANCE 24, “Marine Le Pen isn’t wrong from a historiographical perspective because the debate over the notion of what the Vichy Regime was – representative of the French State or not – is possible.” Veyrat-Masson, a research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has coordinated a research collective on so-called memory wars in France and around the world. “If these same remarks had been made by someone else, incidentally, they would not necessarily have shocked people,” she says. The historian notes that other politicians, left and right alike, have made similar remarks in the past.

Former Socialist culture minister Jack Lang, for one, told a French newspaper after Chirac’s watershed 1995 speech, “The only guilty party is the Vichy government and not the French Republic.”

After Hollande’s 2012 speech, Guaino, who had served as President Sarkozy’s main speechwriter, responded, “Personally, I find it scandalous, for a very simple reason: My France wasn’t in Vichy; it had been in London since June 18 [1940]. [Hollande] did not speak in the name of the France I love.”

Reacting to Le Pen’s remarks on Monday, the nationalist Dupont-Aignan, a rival candidate in the 2017 presidential race, took the same line. “There is one France that collaborated, the Vichy one. There is one France that salvaged honour, De Gaulle’s one,” he said.

Veyrat-Masson says, “One must after all also interpret Le Pen’s remarks politically.” The historian adds, “We can see that she is moving back to a line that allows her to bolster her traditional electorate, that of her father [National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen], by way of an outrageous nationalism. Yet it is precisely because it is Marine Le Pen who made the remarks and that we know the National Front’s history on the issue of the Second World War and anti-Semitism that there are so many reactions.”

Le Pen’s remarks, made just as the National Front candidate has lost ground in polling before April 23’s first-round vote, should not come as a surprise, incidentally. They are in keeping with the 97th of her 144 “presidential commitments", which reads “refusing divisive repentances of the State”.

“We have taught our children that they have every reason to criticise [France], to only see perhaps the darkest historical aspects… I want them to be proud to be French again,” Le Pen said Sunday, days after having lamented that “80 percent” of teaching about the Second World War is devoted to France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

This article has been translated from the original, in French.

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