French prime minister okay with publication of anti-Semitic essays

Edouard Philippe says Celine’s place as a great writer cannot be ignored, despite opposition from Jewish groups over reprint of Nazi-supporter

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe delivers a speech at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, during a government seminar following the first weekly cabinet meeting of the year, on January 3, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Benoit Tessier)
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe delivers a speech at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, during a government seminar following the first weekly cabinet meeting of the year, on January 3, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Benoit Tessier)

France’s prime minister said he backed the publication of anti-Semitic essays by the author Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, also known as Celine, despite concern from the country’s Jewish community.

Edouard Philippe said the essays, published under the pseudonym Louis-Ferdinand Celine between 1937 and 1941, could not be ignored, though the publication would have to be carefully watched.

“I am not afraid of these pamphlets’ publication, but they must be thoughtfully accompanied,” Philippe told weekly Journal du Dimanche in an interview published Sunday.

“There are very good reasons to detest the man himself, but you cannot deny the writer’s central position in French literature,” he said.

The plans to publish the essays were made known in November but formally announced only last month. A spokesman for Editions Gallimard, one of France’s most prominent publishing houses, told L’Express the essays would be edited “in a scientific style” that would expose and explain their anti-Semitic content.

But Jewish community figures have still pushed for the publication to be shelved.

CRIF, the country’s main Jewish umbrella group, said in a statement that it opposes the plan to publish later this year the three “racist, anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler” essays titled “A bagatelle for a massacre,” “The school of corpses” and “Beautiful sheets.”

France’s best-known hunter of Nazis, Serge Klarsfeld told Le Parisien that it would be “unbearable” to find at a French library the essays by the celebrated novelist, the paper reported last week.

Celine, a physician and open supporter of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, published “Journey to the End of the Night” in 1932 about his experiences fighting in World War I. Celebrated as a timeless masterpiece about the horrors of war, it influenced Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22,” and earned Celine accolades from the American poet Charles Bukowski, who himself was accused of harboring pro-Nazi sympathies. Bukowski wrote in “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” that Céline was the greatest writer of the past 2,000 years.

Louis Ferdinand Céline (Wikimedia Commons/Domaine public)

Reviled and detested in his native France for his support of the Nazi occupation, Celine left for Germany and Denmark after France was liberated. He returned in 1951, a decade before he died. The author’s page on the website of Editions Gallimard neither says why Celine left France nor mentions his pro-Hitler and anti-Jewish views.

In one of the 176 pages that comprise “Beautiful sheets,” Celine writes: “More Jews than ever before on the street, more Jews than ever before in the press, more Jews than ever before on the bar, more Jews than ever before at the Sorbonne, more Jews than ever before in medicine, more Jews than ever before in theater, in the opera, in industry, the banks. Paris, France more than ever before ceded to the masons and Jews, more insolent than ever before.”

Frédéric Pottier, the French government’s envoy for dealing with anti-Semitism, wrote a letter last month to Antoine Gallimard, the publishing house’s president, expressing “concern” over the plan to publish the essays “in a context where the scourge of anti-Semitism must be fought more forcefully than ever before.”

According to Le Parisien, Celine’s 105-year-old widow, Lucette Destouches, who holds the copyright for the essays, for decades had opposed the publication in France of her late husband’s anti-Semitic essays but recently has had a change of heart.

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