Marine Le Pen, a leading candidate, 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.
Some 13,000 Jews were deported by French police on July 16-17, 1942, many of whom first were detained under harsh conditions at the indoor cycling stadium.
In all, about 75,000 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps from France during the Second World War. 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 the front-runner 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-Islam 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 an effort 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 later 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.”
She argued that had been the position of France’s heads of state, including Charles De Gaulle, until former President Jacques 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.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry was not persuaded by her elaboration.
“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.
The two top vote-getters in the French presidential vote on April 23 will go into a presidential runoff on May 7. Polls suggest Marine Le Pen will advance to the second round of the election.
Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.