PARIS — Marine Le Pen, a leading contender in France’s presidential race, has prompted an outcry by denying that the French state was responsible for the roundup of Jews in World War II.
Her remark rolled back more than two decades of policy on France’s responsibility in the darkest period of its modern history.
Le Pen said Sunday on RTL radio, “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv”— a reference to the Paris stadium where thousands of Jews were rounded up before being sent to Nazi death camps.
Those responsible “were those in charge at the time,” she said.
Her statement upends the 1995 acknowledgement by then-President Jacques Chirac that the French state was responsible for deportations — not the collaborationist Vichy regime.
It also appears to run counter to her own efforts to rid her National Front party of the stain of anti-Semitism and racism.
Some 13,000 Jews were deported by French police on July 16-17, 1942, many of whom were first detained under harsh conditions at the indoor cycling stadium.
In all, about 75,000 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps from France during World War II. Only 2,500 survived.
Other French presidential candidates and Israel’s Foreign Ministry were quick to condemn Le Pen’s remark.
“If one doubted whether Marine Le Pen is far-right, there is no doubt anymore,” Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon told RTL radio.
Le Pen’s main rival in the race, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, said at a news conference Monday that Le Pen made a “serious mistake.” Macron is a front-runner — along with Le Pen — in the two-round presidential election that will be held on April 23 and May 7.
“On the one side, it’s an historical and political mistake. And on the other side, it’s the sign that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Macron said, referring to Le Pen’s father, co-founder of the anti-immigration party she now leads.
The elder Le Pen repeatedly has been convicted of crimes related to anti-Semitism and racism. Marine Le Pen pushed him out of the National Front party as part of her effort to scrub the party image to appeal to more mainstream voters.
“I hope the French will sanction this re-alignment of Marine Le Pen with her father,” famed French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld told the Associated Press.
Le Pen has taken major steps to remove the anti-Semitic label long associated with her party. She has instead targeted Muslims, voicing fears their civilization will upend that of France.
Le Pen specified in a written statement that she “considers that France and the Republic were in London” during the war, and that the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis “wasn’t France.”
De Gaulle oversaw the Resistance movement from London.
She argued that her position had been the position of France’s heads of state, including de Gaulle, until former Chirac “wrongly” acknowledged the state’s role in Jewish persecution during World War II.
“It does not discharge the effective and personal responsibility of the French who took part into the monstrous roundup of the Vel d’Hiv,” she wrote.
After decades of denial in France, Chirac in 1995 became the first president to publicly acknowledge the country’s role in the deportations of Jews, issuing a long-awaited public apology at the start of his first term in office.
“These dark hours soil forever our history and are an injury to our past and our traditions,” Chirac said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry was quick to voice its disapproval.
“This declaration is contrary to historical truth, as expressed in the statements of successive French presidents who recognized France’s responsibility for the fate of the French Jews who perished in the Holocaust,” the ministry said in a statement.
Small independent presidential candidate Jean Lassalle, a lawmaker with centrist views, denounced Le Pen’s “disgraceful” remarks.
“It makes me throw up,” Lassalle said on Franceinfo radio.
Le Pen made a reference to a “new anti-Semitism” in a speech Monday on countering terrorism — without revisiting her Sunday remark. She blamed Islamic fundamentalists for this modern brand of anti-Semitisim — in which “French are attacked, injured and sometimes even killed only because they are Jews.”
The two top vote-getters in the French presidential vote go to a runoff. Polls suggest Le Pen will advance to the May 7 second round of the election — but not win.