Leading French National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has sparked controversy by claiming France bears no responsibility for French police collaboration in the 1942 Vél d’Hiv arrest of 13,000 Jews, who were shipped to their demise at Auschwitz.
Disagreeing with former President Chirac and his two successors over the last twenty years, Le Pen said the Vichy collaborationist regime of the German occupation was guilty of the crime, but it did not implicate France. She preferred a focus on national pride instead of guilt, she added.
Later, trying to assuage the controversy, she explained: “I consider that France and the Republic were in London during the occupation and that the Vichy regime was not France.”
And: “It does not in any way exonerate the personal responsibility of the French who participated in the vile round-up of the Vel d’Hiv and all the atrocities committed during that period.”
And later: “I condemn, without reservation, the collaborationist Vichy government. I do not want to give it any legitimacy.”
Le Pen has tried to separate the current National Front she leads from the party under its previous leader and founder, her now 88-year-old father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has disputed and minimized aspects of the Holocaust. In its early years, the party, then deemed marginal, had included aging survivors and supporters of the Vichy regime.
Apparently, Le Pen was trying to justify her remarks by echoing Charles De Gaulle’s claim that his Free French government based in WWII London was the legitimate voice of France, not the Vichyites who surrendered and collaborated with the Third Reich.
De Gaulle of course from 1940 onward sought to delegitimize Vichy in favor of his British-backed Free French. In his first radio broadcast from England, he warned surrender to Germany would result in “slavery,” which “a great many Frenchmen refuse to accept…for reasons which are called: honour, common sense, and the higher interests of the country.”
Per honor, De Gaulle said France “had no right to surrender to the enemy” so long as its allies continued the war, citing the exiled Polish, Norwegian, Belgian, Netherlands, and Luxemburg governments.
Per common sense, De Gaulle said the war was not lost, with allies “who possess immense resources and who dominate the seas,” with the “gigantic potentialities of American industry.”
Per the higher interests of the country, De Gaulle soberly asked “if the powers of freedom ultimately triumph over those of servitude, what will be the fate of a France which has submitted to the enemy?”
Establishing himself as the legitimate alternative to Vichy, De Gaulle called “upon all Frenchmen who want to remain free to listen to my voice and follow me.”
Four years later at the hour of his vindication with Paris’s liberation, De Gaulle speechified:
Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris, but liberated Paris! Liberated by the people of Paris with help from the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, of France which is fighting, of the only France, the real France, eternal France.
De Gaulle conceived of an “eternal France” that transcended the failures of its often inept and morally delinquent rulers. Regarding Vichy’s crimes against the Jews, he announced during the occupation:
The famous decree concerning the emancipation of the Jews of France [during the French Revolution], as well as the Proclamation of the Rights of Man and Citizens, is still in effect and cannot be repealed by the men of Vichy. In fact, we consider the changes made to the Constitution and to French Law by the so-called Vichy Government, whose origins and actions are unconstitutional and illegal, to be null and void. LIBERATED FRANCE, which, respects the Constitution and the Laws of the Republic wherever it exerts power, is determined to restore, once victory is achieved, the equality—in dignity and in deed—of all of the citizens on French soil.
After the liberation, top officers of Vichy, like General Petain and Pierre Laval, who was himself directly complicit in Jewish deportations to death, were tried and convicted for their crimes against legitimate law.
De Gaulle’s project of delegitimizing a criminal regime while pointing to an aspirational France of lawful equality for all was different in tone and substance from Marine Le Pen’s cavalier dismissal of French complicity in the Holocaust for the purpose of a superficial national pride.
“France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years,” she complained in her comments about Vél d’Hiv, the stadium where French police detained 13,000 Jews, one fourth of them children, for shipment to a Nazi death camp. “We’ve taught our children that they have all the reasons in the world to criticize it, to only see its darkest historical aspects. I want them to be proud of being French.”
De Gaulle in contrast did not tout therapeutic national bluster but aspired to national honor and glory that protects “equality—in dignity and in deed—of all of the citizens on French soil.” In a 1941 Christmas Eve message to the children of France, he likened France to a great lady who embodied “beauty, goodness, and bravery.”
Such “beauty, goodness, and bravery” precludes minimizing terrible crimes in the nation’s history, as Marine Le Pen seemed to suggest. Instead, a true national glory admits evils, seeks atonement, and pursues merciful justice for all.