Marine Le Pen's Comments on the Vel d'Hiv Roundup During WWII Reawaken France's Painful Past

A French police officer guards a group of Jews at an internment camp in Drancy. Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv CC-BY-SA 3.0

Electoral campaigns are in full swing for the French presidential election, the first and second rounds of which will be taking be place on 23 April and the 7 May respectively. Four candidates are currently vying for the top two positions in the race, which will prompt a run-off. They are Emmanuel Macron, founder of the En Marche! political movement; Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right-wing Front National; Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing La France insoumise (Unsubmissive France) party; and François Fillon, of the center-right Republican party.

The majority of surveys on the public's voting intentions have suggested for months that Le Pen is at the front of the pack for the first round, but Macron now ties her for the lead. You can find a rundown on the main four running candidates in this article.

In what has become a messy electoral battle, Le Pen has launched a number of personal attacks on her young opponent — including several comments on the Vel d'Hiv Roundup (a dark chapter of Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War).

The tragedy occurred over two days in July 1942 when more than 13,000 people, almost a third of which were children, were arrested in Paris, and then deported to the many German concentration camps. The official website for the Shoah Memorial in Paris, Memorial de la Shoah, recounts the horrific event:

Les 16 et 17 juillet 1942, les forces de l'ordre françaises arrêtaient plusieurs milliers de juifs pour les déporter vers les camps d'extermination allemands. l'occupant nazi décide de rafler, en zone nord comme en zone sud, les hommes jusqu'à 60 ans, les femmes jusqu'à 55 ans et les enfants de 2 à 16 ans. Ces opérations, programmées par les nazis, sont menées avec la complicité du gouvernement de Vichy et constituent la plus grande rafle de Juifs organisée sur le territoire français durant la guerre.

Cet épisode connu sous le nom de rafle du Vél'd'Hiv est commémoré à plusieurs occasions, et dans de nombreuses communes de France.

On 16 and 17 July 1942, French law enforcement arrested several thousands of Jews with the aim to deport them to German extermination camps. The Nazi occupiers had decided to clear out both the North and South zones of all men of up to 60 years of age, women of up to 55 years of age, and children aged between 2 and 16 years old. The plan, also known as Operation: Spring Breeze, was carried about by the Nazis with complicity from the Vichy government. It was the largest scale roundup of Jews on French soil during the Second World War. This chapter, commonly referred to as the Vel d'Hiv Roundup, is commemorated on numerous occasions in various areas of France.

However, according to Le Pen in a campaign speech on 9 April:

La France n’est pas responsable du Vél’ d’Hiv’. S’il y a des responsables, c’est ceux qui étaient au pouvoir à l’époque, ce n’est pas la France. La France a été malmenée dans les esprits depuis des années. On a appris à nos enfants qu’ils avaient toutes les raisons de la critiquer, de n’en voir les aspects historiques que les plus sombres. Je veux qu’ils soient à nouveau fiers d’être Français.

France should not claim responsibility for Vel d'Hiv. If anyone should claim responsibility, it should be those who were in power at the time, which was not France. France has been mistreated in memory for many years. We teach our children that it is okay to criticise [the country], to not look at any aspects of history apart from the darkest. I long for them to once again be proud of France.

In response to Le Pen, André Sénik, a professor in philosophy with an interest in the history of the Jewish Diaspora, wrote for French news site on how the Vel d'Hiv tragedy has lived on for the last 50 years through French politics:

Il n’a pas fallu moins de 50 ans pour que la demande soit explicitement formulée. C’est seulement en 1992, soit cinquante ans après la rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’, qu’une pétition lancée par  le comité Vel d’Hiv’ 42 et soutenue par 200 personnalités parut dans Le Monde, pour demander au président de la République de reconnaître au nom de la France, que « l’État français de Vichy a été responsable de persécutions et de crimes commis contre les Juifs de France ».

Cette demande émanait de citoyens français juifs et non juifs. Elle ne demandait que la reconnaissance d’une vérité historique dûment établie par les historiens, en particulier depuis les travaux de Robert Paxton en 1972.

Mitterand refusa de répondre à cet appel, en s’appuyant sur le mythe entretenu conjointement par les communistes et les gaullistes selon lequel la France ayant été résistante, et la République ayant été supprimée par le régime de Vichy, ni la France ni la République n’avaient le devoir d’assumer et de condamner les crimes commis par l’État français de Vichy, son chef, son gouvernement et son administration, au nom de la France légale.

It did not even take 50 years for the question to arise: it was in 1992, 50 years after the Vél d'Hiv roundup, that a petition was published by the Vél d'Hiv committee 42 — accompanied by 200 signatures — in Le Monde, asking for the president of the French Republic to recognise, in the name of France, that “the Vichy French state was guilty of persecution and crimes against the Jews of France”. The request came from French Jews and non-Jews alike, and it was only a request for the recognition of historical truth duly put forward by historians — most notably in Robert Paxton's works in 1972. [President] Mitterand refused to respond to the request, by supporting the myth maintained by both the communists and gaullists, which states that France was the resistance, and that the Republic was removed by the Vichy regime, neither France nor the Republic had the obligation to condemn, or even take responsibility for, the crimes committed by the Vichy French state, its leader, its government and its administration, in the name of France.

On the topic of this recognition, Kamal Aref, an essayist and writer for French newspaper Liberation, argued on his blog Courrier du Caire that it wasn't a matter of this or that:

Les pages sombres de l’histoire, comme on dit, cessent de l’être quand on a le courage de reconnaître ses fautes, ses peurs, ses faiblesses. La France ce sont ceux qui ont résisté. La France ce sont [ceux] qui ont collaboré. La France ce sont ceux qui sont morts dans les camps. La France ce sont ceux qui, 53 ans plus tard, ont reconnu leur faute irréparable.

The dark pages of history, as we call them, cease to exist when we have the courage to recognise the mistakes we made, our fears and our weaknesses. France resisted, but France also collaborated. France is also those who died in the camps. Ultimately, France has, 53 years later, recognised its biggest mistake.

He also asked:

La consternation est-elle de mise? Quand les représentants d’un parti à l’histoire si nauséabonde se posent subitement comme ceux qui auraient été les remparts contre le nazisme et l’antisémitisme, ne faut-il pas tout simplement se rouler par terre de rire?

On l’aura bien compris: Marine Le Pen essaye de nous faire croire qu’elle est juste Marine Le Pen, et non LE Pen, c’est-à-dire Jean-Marie, ce boulet qui lui casse sa baraque à chaque fois qu’on évoque son nom ou d’autres détails.

Mais on ne rit pas, et on aurait 13000 fois tort de rire quand, de façon cavalière, Marine Le Pen évoque «Le Vel d’Hiv”, sans avoir la décence de prononcer le mot “rafle”, en mémoire des 13000 Juifs, hommes, femmes et enfants qui ont été envoyés à la mort.

But should we be dismayed? Should we not laugh, when representatives of a party with such a putrid history suddenly act as if they were the staunch defence against the Nazis and anti-Semitism?

It's worth remembering that Marine Le Pen is trying to make us believe that she is just Marine Le Pen, and not THE Pen, that is to say her father, Jean-Marie, the very utterance of whom utterly derails her plans.

But there are 13,000 reasons not to laugh: Marine Le Pen, in her cavalier way, evokes the name Vél d'Hiv without having the decency to include the word roundup in memory of the 13,000 Jewish men, women and children who were sent off to their deaths.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, often referred to as “The Devil of the Republic” for his controversial policies and statements, is a man who invokes polarised opinions from the French public. Having expelled him from the Front National in 2015, Marine Le Pen is therefore keen to avoid any connection her political career might have with her father's – despite her own policies also being controversial. Nevertheless, Le Pen's words have provoked a number of reactions on social media. Here is a selection of people's reactions on Twitter:

Just a reminder: The Nazis called for the arrest of adult Jews. The French police also arrested the children. #veldhiv #LePen.

#veldhiv The ghost of Daddy #Lepen is never too far away from his daughter.

The victims of #veldhiv have been pulled from eternal rest to serve as a tool in the electoral plot of infamous politicians without brains or morals.

Egged on by the liberated antisemitic discourse of Le Pen's statements, an individual has been captured via CCTV footage vandalising several Jewish graves in a cemetery in Cimiez, Nice, a town known to already avidly support far right policies.

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