Marine Le Pen’s de-Nazification of the Front National

The only chance I got as a history major in college to do deep research into a subject came in a seminar I took senior year: “The Extreme Right in Europe.”

After spending the first few weeks of the semester reading about various far right parties in different European countries, all of us had to choose a subject to write a 25-page paper about. I decided to focus on anti-semitism in the Front National.

Much of my research was based on reading Front National publications, including from their earlier years in the 80’s and early 90’s. Luckily, the University of Wisconsin library had years worth of the FN’s former weekly publication, La France D’Abord! (France First), compiled in massive blue volumes. Those books could not be found in the stacks, but were kept in a secure location in the library along with a bunch of other extremist material that was judged to be at risk of vandalism or theft. At the time that struck me as un unnecessary precaution, but the recent anti-free speech attitudes that have been sweeping the country’s campuses in recent years suggests it may in fact be entirely appropriate.

My examination of the party’s anti-semitism came in the context of Marine Le Pen’s emergence as the new leader of the party that her father, Jean-Marie, had founded in the late 70’s. Marine was desperately trying to modernize the Front National and separate the party from its toxic historic associations.

In the beginning, the Front National was a movement that sought to bring together a hodge-podge of ideologies that had gained power and influence during the Vichy Regime but no longer had a place in post-war, republican France.

One of the principal FN constituencies was made up of monarchists and traditionalist Catholics who had been trying to overthrow the French Republic and its secular, democratic tenets since the 19th century. They had celebrated the fall of the Third Republic in World War II and the establishment of the Vichy state as an opportunity to re-establish an authoritarian, Catholic society free of what they saw as the pernicious influence of “cosmopolitan” forces and ideologies, many of which they blamed on an international “Judeo-Maconic” conspiracy. While Jean-Marie himself grew up in Brittany and had no interaction with the Vichy state, many of the founding members of the party had been top officials. One had even been in charge of hunting down Jews and Freemasons.

Similar but distinct from the Vichy nostalgics among the FN’s supporters were the avowed Nazis and others who subscribed to neo-pagan race theories. A number of the leading members of the party had not only collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, but had even volunteered to join the Waffen SS.

Given how closely tied the party is to the darkest chapter in France’s history, it’s no surprise that so few voters over 65 voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the election. Instead, the far right candidate performed best among the youngest voters.

That’s because Marine has gone to great lengths to obscure the pasts of her fascist forebears.

In fact, contrary to public perception, a recent statement she made denying that France was responsible for the deportation of Jews during World War II is actually a great example how she has distanced herself from her father’s views on the Holocaust.

Asked if France bears responsibility for the notorious Vel d’Hiv Roundup, in which 13,000 Jews in Paris were arrested and later deported to Auschwitz, Le Pen said that it did not. Those who were responsible, she said, “were those who were in power at the time, and that was not France.”

The immediate reaction from other French leaders was to equate Le Pen’s comments with the many times that her father had described Vichy leader Phillippe Pétain as a hero and downplayed or denied basic facts about the atrocities committed in France, either by Pétain’s government or French forces collaborating with Nazis in the north.

In fact, Marine Le Pen does not deny the genocide, but attitributes it entirely to either the Germans or a small group of traitors. By doing so, she is actually embracing the official French narrative for the first half-century after the end of the Second World War. It was not until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the responsibility of the French people and the French state in the holocaust.

What Marine Le Pen knows, however, is that there is a large segment of the French population that likely has not accepted what Chirac admitted 22 years ago. Similar to Americans who get defensive up0n hearing less-than-flattering portrayals of U.S. history, there are plenty of French people who don’t like being told that their ancestors were Nazi collaborators and view such talk as guilt-mongering.

And with that, Marine Le Pen no longer is the leader who represents Nazis, but rather represents the people who don’t want to hear about Nazis anymore.