The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No publisher would touch Jean-Marie Le Pen’s memoir. Now it’s a bestseller.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founder of France’s far-right National Front party, intends his new book to be the first of two volumes in his memoir. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

PARIS — For years, Jean-Marie Le Pen — the convicted Holocaust denier and aging patriarch of the French and European far right — has floated the idea of a memoir, although the project was always withdrawn as soon as it was announced. No mainstream French publisher seemed willing to give a platform to the man who still refers to the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of history” and who once remarked that AIDS patients belong in concentration camps.

But now a memoir by Le Pen, 89, is more than an improbable reality: “Son of the Nation,” officially released Thursday, became an instant bestseller in France, even topping Amazon sales for much of the day. Readers preordered the entire press run of 50,000 copies before they even hit shelves, Le Pen’s publisher, Éditions Muller, announced this week. A second run is on the way.

The contents of the book — billed as the first of two volumes and dealing with the period between Le Pen’s birth in 1928 and his co-founding of the National Front in 1972 — are consistent with the public persona he has assumed for nearly seven decades: first on the margins of public life, then as the grandfather of the party that came close to power in France’s 2017 presidential election.

Over 400 pages long, “Son of the Nation” offers an emphatic defense of Philippe Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government, which openly collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Le Pen contends that Pétain, once a celebrated war hero, need not be seen as dishonorable for having signed the 1940 armistice with Adolf Hitler.

“Son of the Nation” also takes aim at Charles de Gaulle, the country’s postwar leader, for “helping make France small” by acquiescing to Algerian independence in 1962. Le Pen was a paratrooper in the Algerian war and has always denied accusations that he tortured Arabs in that conflict.

This memoir emerges in a moment of rising historical revisionism in Europe. Right-wing governments across the continent are turning to new narratives of the past to account for the social discontents of the present. In Poland, for instance, the government approved a “Holocaust bill” to criminalize speech that accuses the country of complicity in Nazi atrocities.

Poland’s new ‘Holocaust law’ comes up against massacre of Jews in 1941

“Le Pen and his friends all across Europe belong to the political camp of those who lost the war, and they want to take their revenge,” Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the European far right, said in an interview. “They really think that today, as time passes on, and with the number of those who survived the Holocaust greatly diminished, they will have a tremendous opportunity.”

In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Le Pen acknowledged his hope for mainstream acceptance. “After all, they can say, ‘Le Pen was right,’” he said. “Public opinion — the voters, the citizens — has realized that the ideas we defend are not ‘extremist,’ as our adversaries say, but that they conform to the truth.”

Of course, not everyone who buys Le Pen’s memoir buys his views. Camus noted that Le Pen has been a mainstay of French political life since the late 1940s and that people are “curious about what he has to say.”

The popularity of his book also does not portend a broader embrace of the National Front. In fact, the book may jeopardize the evolution of the party that expelled him in 2015 and that his estranged daughter, Marine Le Pen, now controls.

Despite the nominal interest of Marine Le Pen in “de-demonizing” the National Front in the 2017 presidential election, her father’s shadow proved inescapable. Members of Marine Le Pen’s entourage were likewise exposed as Holocaust deniers and made to resign.

“Son of the Nation” appears little more than a week before the party’s annual conference, where Marine Le Pen hopes to shed the “National Front” name and strip her father of his “honorary president” title.

Yet Jean-Marie Le Pen’s book is likely to serve as a further reminder of the party’s original identity.

Until recently, the likelihood of a Le Pen memoir was small. For many mainstream publishers, the prospect presented a moral boundary not worth crossing.

But Le Pen found an amenable obscure publisher, Éditions Muller, run by a writer with ties to France’s extreme Catholic right and who was exposed in 2013 as the author of an Islamophobic newsletter.

The book’s remarkable visibility is likely to be increased by distribution from the mega-conglomerate Hachette Livre. Myriam Simmoneaux, a spokeswoman for the company, said that the relationship was the “indirect” result of a distribution contract between Hachette and Elidia Éditions, a smaller publishing group, and another agreement between Elidia and Éditions Muller.

The release of Le Pen’s book follows other literary controversies over the revisiting of historical taboos in France. Gallimard, an elite French publishing house, proposed in December reissuing the anti-Semitic pamphlets of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and in January, the Culture Ministry commemorated author Charles Maurras, an infamous anti-Semite, on a list of people who “contributed to the culture and conversation that one encounters in France today.”

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