For reasons I have already discussed, Le Pen is about to get trounced by Macron in the second round of the French presidential election (all the more so because she did a very poor campaign and was very bad during the debate), but the fact that she doesn’t have a chance didn’t prevent a lot of people from pretending that democracy was in danger, that France was threatened by fascism, etc. I have already explained at length in another post that the notion that the National Front was a fascist party which threatened democracy was a myth created by the socialist party in the 1980’s in order to divide the right. In this post, I want to come back on the way in which a statement recently made by Le Pen about the Holocaust had been presented in the media, since a lot of people have been talking about it. In particular, after the first round, The Guardian published this op-ed by Hadley Freeman that many people I know shared, in which she tries to shame people who are hesitant to vote for Macron.
Freeman is either a moron who has no idea what she is talking about but thinks she can nevertheless lecture the rest of the world or a liar who engages in the kind of propaganda one can often find in The Guardian. There is a lot of nonsense in that article, but I have a lot of work, so I will only discuss the main claim (which figures prominently in the headline), namely that Marine Le Pen is a “Holocaust revisionist”. Here is how Freeman supports this accusation in her article:
[Marine Le Pen] insisted that the Vichy regime “was not France”, an approach to history that redefines the term “selective”. She added that the 1942 Vel d’Hiv round-up, when 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris, wasn’t the responsibility of France. (Spoiler! It was, and, in fact, the French police rounded up Jewish children, which the Nazis hadn’t even asked them to do.)
While a lot of people believe this, it’s not the case that the French police arrested Jewish children during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up, even though the nazis hadn’t even asked them to do it, as Alain Michel demonstrated. I will come back to Michel’s work soon, but for the moment, I want to focus on what Freeman is saying about Le Pen. In this passage, she clearly suggests that Le Pen is denying that French cops participated in the Vel’ d’Hiv’, which is a filthy lie.
Neither Marine Le Pen nor anyone else, not even the worst crackpots, deny that the French police arrested Jews for the Germans during the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up. Despite what Freeman is trying to suggest, Le Pen was making a political and legal point, not a factual one. She doesn’t deny that French cops rounded up Jews, including children, during the war. What she denies is that the government of Vichy, which controlled France during the Occupation, was the legitimate government of France during that period. She claims that, from the moment the Parliament granted the Cabinet the authority to change the Constitution and made Pétain the head of state, through a vote that she thinks was illegal, the legitimacy was transferred to De Gaulle in exile. Not only is this not a far-right position, but it was actually the official position of every French government until 1995 (before Hollande went even further in 2012), although don’t count on Freeman to explain this to you… In particular, it was the position of De Gaulle and Mitterrand, which should be enough to show how ridiculous the accusations against Le Pen are. It was Chirac in 1995 who reversed the position of the French government on that point and, while today the majority of politicians agree with that change or at least don’t ask for another reversal, there are still people on both the left and the right who disagree. But nobody calls them fascists, because unlike in the case of Le Pen, it doesn’t serve anyone’s political purposes.
Many people think that, although the official position of the French government until 1995 may have been justified immediately after the war and in the years that followed (for reasons that it would take a long time to explain), it no longer makes sense. I actually think they are right about that, but I’m not convinced that, when Chirac made the decision to change the official position in 1995, there weren’t other reasons to maintain the fiction that Vichy wasn’t the legitimate government of France during the Occupation. (I say that it’s a fiction because, although there is probably a good case that, from a strictly legal point of view, the vote of the Parliament that ended the Third Republic was illegal, there is no doubt that both foreign governments and most French people regarded Vichy as the legitimate government of France during the war.) In fact, I’m personally inclined to think that Chirac shouldn’t have made that decision, but I also think that it probably shouldn’t be reversed, which is not the same thing. Indeed, one can think that Chirac’s decision was a mistake, but also that reversing it would do more harm than good at this point. But I can see how someone might disagree and, in any case, Le Pen’s position is perfectly respectable.
I’m almost done with this post, but I want to say a word about why I think Chirac’s decision was arguably a mistake, even though I can’t really go into the details because it would take a whole book. The problem with Chirac’s speech in 1995, which was made even worse by what Hollande said in 2012, is that it effectively made it very difficult to have a reasonable debate about the role played by Vichy in the Holocaust, which is far more complicated than what people imagine. In general, the period of the Occupation is extremely complicated and, despite what most people think, history is not in black and white. (Indeed, the history of the Occupation in France would provide a lot of fascinating case studies to moral philosophers, if they cared to read about it.) Mitterrand lived through it and was involved with both Vichy and the Resistance, so he was perfectly aware of that, which is why he never accepted to acknowledge the responsibility of France in the Holocaust, because he knew the people who were pushing for that chance were also promoting a simplistic view of history. Today, the dominant view is that Vichy enthusiastically participated in the Holocaust, which is simply false. There is no doubt that Vichy was antisemitic and committed many crimes, but the brand of antisemitism it promoted was very different from the genocidal kind of antisemitism embraced by the nazis. In particular, Vichy was never interested in the extermination of the Jews, even though it de facto contributed to it.
But this doesn’t mean that it made it worse and, in fact, it probably contributed to save Jews. This is the view defended by the Franco-Israeli historian Alain Michel, whom I already mentioned above, in a book he published a few years ago. (I also know through personal correspondence with him that he is currently working on another book that will focus more specifically on the Vel’ d’Hiv’ round-up. It’s interesting that several of the most original contributions to the history of the role played by Vichy in the genocide have come from Israel. I think it’s not only because people in Israel obviously have a special interest in that issue, but also because they are less constrained by the political correctness that makes it difficult to have a honest debate about this in France, especially since 1995.) He argues that Vichy made the decision to sacrifice the foreign Jews who lived in France during the war in order to save the French ones. (Although it should be noted that, at the beginning, the French government didn’t know that the nazis were murdering the Jews who were being deported.) This probably resulted in lowering the number of victims, if only because there were more Jews who had French citizenship. Indeed, among countries under German occupation that can be compared to it, France is the country where the greatest proportion of Jews survived. (To be clear, Michel doesn’t claim that Vichy’s policy was the only factor, only that it was one of them and probably the most important.) While this is controversial, I think Michel’s case is compelling and, on the other hand, the arguments of his critics are very weak. In fact, in many cases, I wonder if they have even read his book, since they make points that are either irrelevant to his thesis or that he already addressed.
In particular, Robert Paxton criticized Michel’s book in very harsh terms, but his arguments are ridiculous and/or rest on pretty obvious mistakes. For instance, he says that Michel’s thesis can’t be true, since Vichy adopted anti-semitic laws that also targeted French citizens. But Michel never denied that and it’s totally irrelevant to the view he defends in his book. (I will probably write a detailed post in French at some point to debunk Paxton’s argument, but if you’re interested, you can already read Michel’s excellent reply to him. While I think that Paxton did a lot of useful work that enriched our knowledge of this period, I also think that he is biased and routinely engages in a lot of manipulations to paint Vichy in as dark a color as possible, when reality is a lot more complicated. I don’t have time to say more here, but if you’re interested, you can start by reading this website that documents some of the problems with Paxton’s scholarship.) It’s also worth mentioning that, until the 1970’s and 1980’s, Michel’s position was the dominant view among historians of the Holocaust. In particular, it was the position of Raul Hilberg, who is arguably the greatest of them. Michel’s critics pretend that it’s because Hilberg didn’t have access to more recently discovered archives, but the fact is that Hilberg never changed his position on that point, even though he died in 2007 and the last edition of his magnum opus was published in 2003.
Anyway, I can’t really discuss Michel’s thesis in detail here, so you should read his book if you’re interested. I just wanted to give you a sense of how incredibly complicated that period was. On a topic as difficult and painful as the Holocaust, people shouldn’t make simplistic and misleading claims about something they know nothing about just to score a few political points, but when it comes to the National Front it happens all the time. Even if you think that Michel is wrong, what is absolutely clear is that, despite what Freeman is trying to suggest in that op-ed, Le Pen never denied that the French police participated in the genocide of the Jews during the war and it’s outrageous to suggest otherwise. (Of course, I’m not surprised that The Guardian accepted to publish this op-ed, since it’s neither the first nor the last piece of propaganda it publishes.) There are good reasons to oppose Le Pen, some of which I explained in another post, but the claim that she is a fascist and a “Holocaust revisionist” isn’t one, because she is neither.