French Campaign Stirred by Le Pen’s Comments on Responsibility for WWII Jewish Roundup

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Paris ( – Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s rivals have slammed her for comments on the deportation of Jews from France during World War II, although polls have not yet given signs whether the incident will damage her chances in the looming election.

Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has been leading in the polls for the first round of voting on April 23.

Since she made the comments on Sunday, several polls have been conducted but she remains slightly ahead of the other candidates, with between 23.5 and 24 percent.

During a television interview on Sunday a reporter asked her about the country’s previous official apology for wartime events including the rounding up of Jews who were held in a Paris cycling stadium, Vel d’Hiv, before being transported to Nazi concentration camps.

Le Pen replied that “France” was not responsible of the notorious event. “It was the responsibility of those who were running the country.”

“For years, France has been mistreated in people’s minds,” she said. “ I want our children to be proud of being French again because we have taught them a lot of reasons to criticize their country. They only see its darkest historical aspects.”

The French state at the time was administered by the collaborationist Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain, while the “Free French” government-in-exile, based in London, was led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Shortly after her broadcast comments, Le Pen’s headquarters issued a press release in which she said that, “In my view, during occupation the Vichy regime did not represent France. France and the Republic were in London.”

But the clarification did not stop the criticism, from Jewish groups and presidential rivals.

Criticism came too from Israel, a country which a representative of the National Front had visited last January in a bid to improve the image of a party long viewed as being friendly to those with anti-Semitic leanings, especially under the current leader’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions denounced what it called revisionist remarks that unveiled the true face of the National Front.

It recalled that the Vel d’Hiv roundup was organized by René Bousquet, chief of the Vichy Police, on July 16-17, 1942, representing the French state as it then was.

Under orders from the Nazis, 4,500 French police and “gendarmes” arrested around 13,000 Jews in Paris and the region, including 4,000 children, to be sent to concentration camps.

The Union of French Jewish Students also strongly condemned Le Pen’s comments.

Independent presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen’s closest  main opponent according to polls for the first round of voting (23 percent to her 24 percent), described her remarks as “a heavy political and historical error.”

“The truth is that the Vel d’Hiv was a crime committed by the French state,” said the candidate of the center-right Republicans, François Fillon, running third in the first-round polls.

Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, declared that “If anyone doubted that Marine Le Pen is far-right, we can no longer doubt it.”

French senator Nathalie Goulet, a member of the Union of Democrats and Independents party, said in an interview she did not think Le Pen made the comments by mistake.

“I think that she might have wanted to reassure her most right wing voters,” she said in an interview. “I doubt it was not voluntarily that she said that.”

Goulet added that it was also possible Le Pen wanted to get across the message that France is a great country and as such is not responsible for what has been done in the past.

Meanwhile several Le Pen campaign meetings and radio interviews have been canceled in recent days but her staff say it has nothing to do with the controversy.

As the campaign has moved into its official final phase, every candidates now has equal time allocated to them for media appearances. Le Pen appears keen to limit unnecessary interviews during which the comments are likely to be raised again.

In 1995, on the 53rd anniversary of the wartime round-up, the then newly-elected President Jacques Chirac made a speech recognizing for the first time the responsibility of France in the deportation of thousands of Jewish during the Nazi occupation.

“The French Vichy authorities had in fact collaborated with the occupiers, arresting and raiding Jews to hand them over to them,” he said.

Chirac was aware at the time that a number of French people, above all members and supporters of right wing parties, objected to the apology.

In 2012, incumbent President François Hollande also publicly recognized France’s responsibility in the Vel d’Hiv round-up.

France goes to the polls on April 23, and then again on May 7 for a runoff between the two candidates scoring highest in the first round, assuming none has secured an absolute majority of votes.

Polls indicate that Le Pen would lose to Macron in a runoff, if they are the two candidates to go through.

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