Why Marine 'detox' Le Pen reached for the old National Front poison

The JC spoke to Professor Jim Shields, Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University and author of 'The extreme right in France: from Pétain to Le Pen', regarding the Holocaust-related comments from Marine Le Pen on Thursday. Here is what he told us.


Can you explain the context around the events mentioned by Ms Le Pen?

The Vel d’Hiv round-up stands as the very symbol of French involvement in the Holocaust, the mass arrest by French police and deportation to Auschwitz of some 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris in July 1942. This was the largest round-up within a total of 76,000 Jews deported from France to death camps between 1942 and 1944.

Le Pen’s comments [she said on Thursday that “I don’t think France is responsible for Vel d’Hiv… I think that, generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France"] tap into a longstanding argument by some in France that the Vichy regime was an illegitimate hiatus in French Republican history and that the French state was represented at the time by General de Gaulle in London and not Marshal Pétain in Vichy. This was the position held by French presidents from de Gaulle to Mitterrand; only in 1995 did Jacques Chirac acknowledge the responsibility of the French state in the deportations, before François Hollande in 2012 described the Vel d’Hiv round-up as a “crime committed in France by France”.


Why are Ms Le Pen’s comments are so provocative?

Le Pen’s comments are so provocative because of the extreme sensitivity that persists in France over the collaboration with Nazi Germany, the darkest chapter in modern French history and one with which France has never fully come to terms. The Vichy regime is terrain onto which politicians even today stray at their peril.


Why would Le Pen make these remarks now? Is there a large constituency in France who appreciate such comments? Is it a nod to her base?

There are three partial explanations I think.

1) She simply said what she thinks in an unguarded moment, issuing a statement late on Sunday to clarify her view (ie that the French state was in exile in London during the Occupation and she did not exonerate those responsible for the Vel d’Hiv round-up or other atrocities committed in the period).

2) This is part of a larger project by Le Pen to change the way the French think about their history. She sees contrition for past wrongs as part of a politically correct agenda that she wants to challenge, urging the French to be proud rather than penitent about their history.

3) She was playing to part of the FN base, people who enjoyed her father’s frequent provocations of this sort and who are suspicious of Marine Le Pen’s push to clean up the party’s image and distance it from the accusations of racism and anti-Semitism that her father attracted (most notoriously in describing the Holocaust as “a detail of history”).


Will this damage Le Pen?

It will certainly set back her mission to clean up the FN’s image and move the party away from associations with racism and anti-Semitism. It particularly sets back her relations with French Jewish organisations with whom she had been keen to forge a new and positive relationship (with party leading lights attending a recent breakfast at the invitation of the Confederation of French Jews and Friends of Israel (CJFAI)).

How it might affect her in the polls is unclear. It may play to part of the FN’s base, but it will surely not help Le Pen extend her electoral appeal among the wider French public in the way she would need to in order to have any prospect of election to the presidency. 

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