Over the course of two days in July of 1942, French authorities rounded up some 13,000 Jews in what is known as the “Vél d'Hiv roundup," taking them to the Drancy internment camp and the Vélodrome d'Hiver, an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium in Paris.
The 7,000 detainees packed away in the Vélodrome d'Hiver were not given food, water or access to sanitary facilities, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But a worse fate awaited the prisoners: they were soon deported to Auschwitz.
Several French presidents have acknowledged the state’s complicity in the Vélodrome d'Hiver—known colloquially as “Vel d’Hiv”—roundups, which were carried out in collaboration with the Nazis during WWII. But Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party and a contender in the upcoming presidential election, recently ignited a firestorm when she argued that the French state was not responsible for the fateful incident, Harriet Agerholm reports for The Independent.
On Sunday, Le Pen suggested that country’s wartime Vichy government, a Nazi puppet state established in the unoccupied zone of southern France, was to blame for the atrocity. “I think that generally speaking if there are people responsible, it's those who were in power at the time,” she said during an interview with the French broadcaster LCI. “It's not France.”
Le Pen also opined that French children are taught “reasons to criticize [the country], and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history. So I want them to be proud of being French again.”
Her comments, which were swiftly condemned in the French press, may damage Le Pen’s efforts to distance herself from the extremist past of the National Front, writes James McAuley of the Washington Post. The party was founded by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who once described Nazi gas chambers as a mere “detail” in history. Marine Le Pen banished her father from the party in 2015 after he repeated that sentiment, and has sought to establish herself as an ally of Jewish groups.
Le Pen now faces bruising criticism from political opponents and advocates. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault opined that her comments “showed her true colors,” according to James Masters and Margaux Deygas of CNN. Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Le Pen’s “announcement contradicts the historical truth.”
The Vélodrome d'Hiver roundups were part of a series of arrests that affected nearly 13,000 Jews in France—among them 4,000 children. Robert O. Paxton, professor emeritus of social sciences at Columbia University who specializes in the history of Vichy France, tells Smithsonian.com that it is "totally consensual among historians of all nationalities—French, German, British, American—that the French government at Vichy participated actively in the arrest of Jews that were locked up in that bicycle station, the Vélodrome d'Hiver.
"It was done entirely by French police," Paxton added. "The French police gave formal orders by a decision of the Vichy government, by the ministry of the interior, the official authorities. It was a government action."
French authorities were not recalcitrant participants in a Nazi plan—they rounded up Jews “with enthusiasm,” Paxton said. The first phases of arrests and deportations focused on Jewish refugees and immigrants, who had fled Germany in the 1930s. “There was a big backlash against immigrants generally and Jewish refugees in particular,” Paxton said. “[The] Vichy government was delighted that they could send some of these foreign Jews back to Germany.” The government would go on to deport between 75 and 76,000 Jews—a third of whom were French citizens.
For decades, the French government refused to recognize its role in the Holocaust, according to Agerholm of The Independent. Only in 1995 did then-president Jacques Chirac apologize for the state’s participation in Vel d’Hiv. “France, on that day, committed an irreparable act,” he said. “It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”
The country has since made efforts to acknowledge its complicity in Nazi atrocities. Last year, a cache of historical documents pertaining to the Vel d’Hiv was made public for the first time. These archives, which included tallies of the number of people arrested, “clearly show the French regime’s collaboration with the Nazi occupants,” according to Andrea Davoust of France24.
Responding to backlash over her recent comments, Le Pen released a statement defending her stance on Vel d’Hiv. “I consider that France and the Republic were in London during the occupation and that the Vichy regime was not France," the statement reads.
But Paxton said that the Vichy state cannot be so easily disentangled from the country’s legal government. In July of 1940, the National Assembly overwhelmingly granted full legislative powers to Marshal Philippe Pétain, chief of state of Vichy France. "The virtual entirety of the French civil service followed him," Paxton explained. "Nobody at the time had the slightest doubt that this was the government of France."