PARIS — The Velodrome d’Hiver is an eternal stain on French history.
After dark on July 16, 1942, French police rounded up about 13,000 Jews from across occupied Paris and deposited them in the “Vel d’Hiv,” a famous indoor stadium that had hosted the 1924 Summer Olympics and where the likes of Ernest Hemingway would come to enjoy the races. From the stadium, not far from the Eiffel Tower, the vast majority of these interned Jews in 1942 were deported to Auschwitz. Most would never return from that World War II Nazi concentration camp.
The reason the Vel d’Hiv lingers in France’s national memory is that the roundup was carried out by French police — not by the German occupiers.
In a republic devoted to the lofty ideals of equality and universal citizenship — and that had legally emancipated its Jews long before any of its European neighbors — the Vel d’Hiv roundup exposed the deadly hypocrisy of collaboration with the Nazi regime. In 1995, speaking at the site of the stadium, then-President Jacques Chirac put it this way: “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum — France, on that day, committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners."
Now enter Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front party, who is making a run for the presidency in the April 23 election.
“I don’t think that France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she declared Sunday on French television. “I think that in general, more generally, if there were those responsible, it was those who were in power at the time. This is not France.”
In remarks that elicited outrage across the French media, Le Pen went further: “France has been mired in people’s minds for years. In reality, our children are taught that they have every reason to criticize her, to see only the darkest historical aspects.”
“I want them to be proud to be French again.”
Israel condemned Le Pen’s remarks, saying they reflect rising anti-Semitism that, “unfortunately, is once again raising its head.”
“This declaration is contrary to historical truth, as expressed in the statements of successive French presidents,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released on Twitter.
For Le Pen, of course, the past is dangerous territory.
For years, her principal political obstacle has been convincing critics that she has sufficiently distanced herself from the fraught history of the National Front, a far-right, fringe coalition that her father founded in the mid-1970s and that — in the current anti-establishment climate — she could carry to power for the first time.
Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 88, once referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history.” In a country that deported about 76,000 Jews in World War II, the elder Le Pen’s remarks banished the National Front to the political wilderness for decades. In the eyes of many, it became a synonym for racism and anti-Semitism.
Marine Le Pen has insisted that she is not her father's ideological heir.
For one — in an epic family drama of Shakespearean proportions — she expelled her father from the party in 2015, after he repeated his infamous provocation about the gas chambers. In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Jean-Marie Le Pen reiterated that he does not regret the remark — only the “persecution” he suffered for having said it.
Marine Le Pen, by contrast, has condemned anti-Semitism and has reached out to Jewish groups in recent years, offering her support in what she has portrayed as a mutual fight against Islamist extremism. Less explicitly, she rarely uses her last name in campaign materials, and the National Front’s traditional logo is conspicuously absent from her campaign’s new visual identity.
But her attempts to “de-demonize” the National Front have been increasingly undermined.
Aside from her remarks about the Vel d’Hiv, a National Front official in the south of France was caught on camera last month denying the Holocaust. “I don’t think there were that many deaths,” Benoît Loeuillet, the official, said. “There weren’t 6 million. There weren’t mass murders as it’s been reported.”
He was later expelled from the party.
And then there is what critics have dubbed as Le Pen’s dog-whistle anti-Semitism, the use of phrases and people that evoke certain stereotypes she does not have to explicitly define.
For example, she frequently invokes Patrick Drahi, a Franco-Israeli telecommunications magnate. In her campaign speeches, she often accuses him of running an international financial conspiracy aimed at bringing into power her principal opponent, Emmanuel Macron.
Macron is a former investment banker at Rothschild, a financial institution founded by Europe’s most famous Jewish family. This is another of Le Pen’s favorite criticisms to levy — directed not merely at what Macron used to do, but where he used to do it.
Macron wasted no time in responding to his opponent on Monday. "Madame Le Pen made a heavy political and historical mistake. This is the true face of the French extreme right, which I'm fighting," he said on Twitter.
Jewish groups condemned Le Pen’s latest remarks — delivered, as it happens, one day before the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
“Through these remarks, Marine Le Pen is part of the Vichy and collaborationist tradition of her father and the founders of the National Front,” the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), France’s largest Jewish advocacy organization, said in a statement. The Vichy government was a collaborationist regime that controlled France's unoccupied zone after Nazi Germany invaded France in the summer of 1940.
“Marine Le Pen demonstrates to those who doubted that she has inscribed the National Front outside the realm of the Republic,” the group said.