France Is Severe on Holocaust Denial

France is a country officially based on its form of laïcité, essentially the absence of religious involvement in governmental affairs.  It is welcoming that it has taken to heart a passage from the biblical Proverbs: it is joy to the just to do judgment, but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity.  That judgment is punishment for the denial of the Holocaust.

That judgment should prevail in the trial of the 87-year-old extreme right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, currently a member of the European Parliament,  who on July 26, 2015 was summoned to stand trial for denying crimes against humanity, in this case the Holocaust.

In 1987 Le Pen , the founder in 1972 and longtime leader of the Front National (FN) party, made a remark for which he was convicted of racial hatred and was fined 183,000 euros.  At that time, he said, “I’m not saying the gas chambers didn’t exist.  But I believe it’s just a detail in the history of World War II.” 

He was fined again by a Munich court in 1999 for his statement that “If you take a 1,000 page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines.  This is what one calls a detail.”  Among Le Pen’s other contributions to history was his defense of the wartime French Vichy regime and the activity of its head, Marshal Philippe Pétain, who realized the need for France to defend the white world.

In April 2015, Le Pen informed French TV that he did not regret his statements about the Holocaust.  He repeated remarks he had made on a number of occasions in France and Germany that “gas chambers were a detail of the war, unless we accept that the war is a detail of the gas chambers.  I continue to hold this view because it is the truth and it should not shock anyone.”

He did shock almost everyone, including his daughter Marine Le Pen, since 2011 the leader of the FN, who attempts to appeal to French mainstream voters in her ambition to become president of France, and who has differed from her father on this Holocaust issue as well as on others.

 As a result of his remarks, Jean-Marie Le Pen was on May 4, 2015 suspended from the party, and a rift developed between father and daughter.  She asserted he could no longer speak in the name of the FN.  However, a French court on July 8, 2015 quashed the suspension and ordered the FN to reinstate him as honorary “president for life” of the party.

It is an understatement to say that Le Pen’s views – extreme nationalist, opposed to immigration, and xenophobic – are controversial in mainstream France.  He has called for restrictions on immigration and for the use of the death penalty, while opposing same-sex marriages and abortion.  He expresses skepticism about the desirability of the European Union, though he is a representative of the European Parliament.

Nevertheless, in an ideologically divided France, Le Pen received sufficient electoral support to reach the second round in the French presidential election in April 2002.  He was for a time a formidable figure, and he hopes to remains so as the prominent voice of extreme nationalism.

Fortunately, this becomes increasingly unlikely as France has risen to the challenge of increasing anti-Semitism in the country.  Le Pen and all those who deny or minimize the Holocaust have to face the consequences of the Gayssot Law of July 13, 1990.  This law makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945, on the basis of which Nazi leaders were convicted for extermination of Jews by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg between 1945 and 1946.

The Gayssot Law was upheld as valid by the Human Rights Committee on December 16, 1996.  Though it imposed restrictions on free speech, they were held permissible because of the need to struggle against racism and anti-Semitism.  The raising and strengthening of anti-Semitic feelings was punishable.

Equally important in the fight to punish anti-Semitism, as manifested by Holocaust denial, is the activity of French prime minister Manuel Valls.  In a strong speech, following the funerals of those killed by terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, delivered in the National Assembly, he declaimed that “[w]e have not shown enough outrage.”  It is time to say to those who have not sufficiently reacted to the terrorist acts that anti-Semitism cannot be accepted.

In the same spirit as French Prime Minister Valls, the French courts have responded to the need to outlaw anti-Semitism by indicting Le Pen for remarks about the Holocaust.  They have realized, as all must do, that the prevalence of anti-Semitism is a symptom of a crisis for democracy.