Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion France’s unhinged anti-vaccine movement is more than a threat to public health

A protester at an anti-vaccine rally in Paris on July 17. (Michel Euler/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

It was supposed to be a somber day, a national day of reckoning for the crimes of the past.

This month, France commemorated the 79th anniversary of the infamous “Vél d’Hiv” roundup during World War II, when French police arrested and detained more than 13,000 Parisian Jews in a stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. Most were ultimately deported to Nazi concentration camps; the vast majority were murdered. The Vél d’Hiv remains one of the darkest days in French history, and rightly so.

But the unhinged evolution of France’s anti-vaccine campaign, in which a significant number of protesters donned yellow stars like the ones the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the occupation, transformed a solemn look at the past into an ugly glimpse at the present. It was a reminder of the fragility of the past in the chaos of the present.

One of the speakers at the ceremony on July 18, held on the banks of the Seine where the old stadium used to stand, was Joseph Schwartz, 94, who was arrested with his mother on July 16, 1942, and who managed to survive the war, albeit as an orphan. But Schwartz was not allowed to remember his mother or his childhood in peace. Nor was he allowed to reflect on the trauma he experienced on his own terms.

“I wore the star — me,” Schwartz said. “I know what it is; I have it in my bones. It’s the duty of all citizens to stand — not to let this outrageous, antisemitic, racist wave persist. It’s a primary duty.”

That Schwartz had to say these words is beyond comprehension. But as the French government’s aggressive “health pass” vaccine requirements come into force, the dark side of vaccine hesitancy has become even clearer than it has always been. On Saturday, some 160,000 people, including far-right activists, protested across the country against the measures.

On July 16 and 17, anti-vaccine demonstrators vandalized two vaccine clinics in France. And in one particularly violent scene, they stormed the town hall of the southeastern French city of Chambéry and tore down a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government has said that unvaccinated citizens will not have access to many public places, including museums and movie theaters, as of this past Wednesday. Lawmakers are debating whether to extend those restrictions to restaurants and cafes come August.

For a variety of reasons, anti-vaccine sentiment was already high in France before the arrival of the coronavirus vaccines. But likely in response to Macron’s new rules, a public initially very skeptical of the new injections is now more than willing to get them. The government’s initially sluggish campaign has picked up speed, and people are finally getting their shots. As violent as some of the anti-vaccine demonstrations have been, they are not particularly expressive of the mainstream.

But these demonstrations are troubling nevertheless, especially because of how they reflexively insult the memory of the past, and the Holocaust in particular.

This is not just a French story. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has also repeatedly made offensive comparisons to the Holocaust to oppose coronavirus precautions. “We can look back in a time and history where people were told to wear a gold star,” Greene said in an interview for a podcast in May. “And they were definitely treated like second-class citizens, so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany.” (Under sharp rebuke, Greene later apologized after a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

Why is this seemingly always the reflex? In Europe and in the United States, these are people who seek victim status without having experienced any suffering whatsoever, but they also harbor an apparent obsession with the mass murder of European Jews, an event they somehow feel entitled to bend to their aims.

This, in the end, is the ultimate aim of facile and ridiculous comparisons to the Holocaust: applying the event in so many situations as to become meaningless, and no longer something worth taking seriously. These comparisons strip the event of its horror, and they chip away at its memory.

In France in particular, this is an ongoing battle waged since the end of World War II.

It’s often forgotten how much of a battleground France was for the construction of Holocaust memory in the immediate postwar period. It was here, in 1943, before the war was even over, that the rabbi and industrialist Isaac Schneersohn founded the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, arguably the first major attempt to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in Western Europe. But it was also here that the Holocaust denial movement found its earliest and most prominent champions, such as the writer and critic Maurice Bardèche in the late 1940s and, later, the writer Robert Faurisson.

French law now prohibits Holocaust denial, and yet insulting — and rewriting — the memory of the past is still deeply entrenched. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the patriarch of the French far right, has been convicted of repeatedly calling the gas chambers a “detail” in the history of World War II; his nominally estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, said during her 2017 presidential campaign that France was not responsible for the Vél d’Hiv roundup. This is what is really at stake.

When anti-vaccine demonstrators march with yellow stars, they remind us of more than the human capacity for stupidity and cruelty. They are also reminders of just how fragile the memory of the past has always been.

Read more:

Edward Serotta: They survived the Holocaust. Now they’ve come together to endure the pandemic.

Catherine Rampell: Covid-19, vaccine hesitancy and the misinformation conundrum

The Post’s View: The right’s reckless anti-vaccine campaign is not mere pandering. It’s fatal.