Battling anti-Semitic image, Le Pen quietly visits Holocaust memorial

Presidential candidate lays wreath at Marseille plaque to victims rounded up by Nazis, days after allegations her deputy denied genocide

French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen arrives for a campaign meeting, on April 27, 2017 in Nice.  AFP/Valery HACHE)
French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen arrives for a campaign meeting, on April 27, 2017 in Nice. AFP/Valery HACHE)

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen placed a wreath on a Marseille monument to French victims of the Holocaust Sunday morning, weeks after she drew sharp criticism by claiming that France had no responsibility for the fate of its Jewish citizens deported to Nazi Germany.

The low-key wreath-laying took place without the media present at a memorial to 30 Jewish women and children who were rounded up by the Gestapo in 1943, to mark France’s Memorial Day for Victims of Deportation.

She was accompanied by a local politician. A picture of the wreath-laying was tweeted by a campaign worker.

Her rival, centrist Emmanuel Macron of the En Marche movement, is due to visit a Holocaust memorial near Paris later Sunday.

Le Pen has worked to purge the hard-right National Front (FN) party of its anti-Semitic old guard, including her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, but has been bedeviled by statements casting doubts over the efforts, including her own claim that France wasn’t responsible for aiding Germany in deporting citizens to their deaths.

The populist candidate said April 10 that France was not responsible for the roundup of Jews during World War II. She said she “considers that France and the Republic were in London” during the war, with Gen. Charles de Gaulle who oversaw the Resistance.

Last week, allegations emerged that the man chosen to lead the party while she focuses on the presidential campaign, Jean-Francois Jalkh, had questioned the Holocaust and the use of gas chambers to kill millions of Jews.

Le Pen — who once called Nazi death camps the “height of barbary” — firmly denied that anyone in the party leadership would cast doubt on the extermination of six million Jews and others, some deported from France.

“Let things be very clear. I abhor these theories,” she said in an interview on BFM-TV.

“There is no one in the leadership of the National Front who defends this kind of thesis,” she said.

Jalkh firmly denies French media reports that he questioned whether Zyklon B poison gas was used in death camps. Lawyer David Dassa-Le Deist said he was filing a defamation suit against Le Monde newspaper, which identified his client as a negationist, someone who denies the Holocaust.

However another party stalwart, Steeve Briois, mayor of Le Pen’s northern bastion, Henin-Beaumont, was named to replace Jalkh as temporary party chief while Le Pen campaigns in the critical final stretch ahead of the May 7 vote.

Even without the cloud of anti-Semitism casting its shadow anew on the party, Le Pen, who took over the National Front in 2011, faces claims of racism for evoking fears that Muslims want to conquer France.

French emotions around France’s history of collaborating with the Nazis remain complex seven decades after the war’s end. The country has never undergone a national atonement. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac boldly declared that the collaborationist Vichy regime — which helped in the deportation of 75,000 French Jews — was the French state. However, many still view the actions of Vichy as a historical anomaly. Some still salute its leader, Philippe Petain, a hero of World War I.

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