The past re­mains present

Vot­ers will choose be­tween war­ring vi­sions of France.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY james.mcau­ley@wash­post.com

paris — The French call it “the past that will not pass.”

This year’s elec­tion in France has proven that phrase — first coined by prom­i­nent French his­to­rian Henry Rousso — to be more than pre­scient. In sub­tle and not-so-sub­tle ways, France’s com­plic­ity in the Holo­caust and, to a pro­found de­gree, its colo­nial crimes have been defin­ing themes of the most con­tentious pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in re­cent mem­ory. When vot­ers go to the polls Sunday, they will choose be­tween war­ring in­ter­pre­ta­tions of France’s past as much as be­tween dif­fer­ent vi­sions for its fu­ture.

Em­manuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, the two can­di­dates in the fi­nal round of the vote, are dis­tinct in many ways. Macron, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker and the dar­ling of Parisian and aca­demic elites, is a boy­ish acolyte of cos­mopoli­tan Europe; Le Pen, a hard-line na­tion­al­ist, is an ad­vo­cate of eco­nomic pro­tec­tion­ism and closed bor­ders. But rarely are the two more op­posed than when they talk about his­tory, as they have done fre­quently through­out a long and bit­ter cam­paign.

For Le Pen — the daugh­ter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a con­victed Holo­caust de­nier who re­peat­edly has dis­missed the Nazi gas cham­bers as a “de­tail of his­tory” — the past is noth­ing to be ashamed of. Last month, she re­marked on na­tional tele­vi­sion that France bore no re­spon­si­bil­ity for an in­fa­mous Paris roundup dur­ing the Holo­caust, when French au­thor­i­ties ar­rested some 13,000 Jews, soon de­ported to their deaths.

Ap­prox­i­mately 76,000 Jews were de­ported from France to the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps dur­ing World War II. Most never re­turned.

“If there were those re­spon­si­ble,” Le Pen said, “it was those who were in power at the time. This is not France.”

Ver­sions of Holo­caust de­nial and re­vi­sion­ism have clouded Le Pen’s Na­tional Front party through­out the 2017 cam­paign.

In early March, a party of­fi­cial in Nice was caught on cam­era say­ing that “there weren’t mass killings as it’s been said.”

In late April, Jean-François Jalkh, Le Pen’s ap­pointed deputy of the Na­tional Front dur­ing the clos­ing days of the cam­paign, was re­ported to have said — in an on-the-record in­ter­view in 2000 — that the Nazis never used the poi­son gas Zyk­lon B to ex­ter­mi­nate mil­lions of Jews and others.

“From a tech­ni­cal point of view it’s im­pos­si­ble,” Jalkh al­legedly said in that in­ter­view, al­though since then he has claimed he can’t re­mem­ber say­ing so and sued the Le Monde news­pa­per for pre­sent­ing him as a Holo­caust de­nier.

Macron, by con­trast, has cho­sen — at sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal risk — to con­front head-on other dark chap­ters of France’s past, es­pe­cially colo­nial­ism.

Some say the tac­tic stems from his early days as an as­sis­tant to the late French in­tel­lec­tual Paul Ri­coeur, whose work of­ten ex­am­ined the in­ter­sec­tions of his­tory and mem­ory.

In one of Macron’s most con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sions on the cam­paign trial, he went in Fe­bru­ary to Al­ge­ria, which France had an­nexed for 132 years, and called on the French state to apol­o­gize for­mally for its crimes as a colo­nial power, es­pe­cially in the bloody war for Al­ge­rian in­de­pen­dence be­tween 1954 and 1962.

France’s his­tory in that war, Macron said in an in­ter­view days later, rep­re­sented “crimes and acts of bar­barism” that to­day de­serve to be la­beled “crimes against hu­man­ity.”

For months, Le Pen has harped on Macron for those three words, ac­cus­ing him once again in a tele­vised de­bate Wed­nes­day of “in­sult­ing” the French peo­ple.

In a high-pro­file case, her fa­ther, in the 2002 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, was ac­cused of tor­ture dur­ing the Al­ge­rian War — charges that the el­der Le Pen ve­he­mently dis­putes.

Ben­jamin Stora, France’s pre­em­i­nent ex­pert on colo­nial Al­ge­rian his­tory and a found­ing mem­ber of Paris’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the His­tory of Im­mi­gra­tion, said in an in­ter­view that the out­cry over Macron’s dec­la­ra­tion has high­lighted the ways in which, at least in this elec­tion, the past re­mains present.

“For many peo­ple, colo­nial­ism has al­ways been a dis­tant ab­strac­tion, a pe­riph­eral prob­lem,” he said.

“But no one to­day who is hon­est can see it that way any­more. The ques­tion of im­mi­gra­tion is a cen­tral ques­tion in our so­ci­ety and in many ways, the ques­tion.”

So many of the prob­lems in French so­ci­ety to­day, Stora said, stem from the af­ter­math of France’s colo­nial his­tory — and the French state’s strug­gles to in­te­grate im­mi­grants from across the once-ex­pan­sive French em­pire.

“If you don’t know the his­tory of Al­ge­ria, you can­not un­der­stand France in 2017,” he said.

This year’s elec­tion has widely been re­garded as his­toric, with both prin­ci­pal can­di­dates rep­re­sent­ing par­ties out­side the cen­ter-left and cen­ter-right that have gov­erned the coun­try since 1958.

Many even have pon­dered the de­gree to which this elec­tion rep­re­sents a de­par­ture from the statist model en­vi­sioned by Charles de Gaulle, with a president as a pow­er­ful ex­ec­u­tive who em­bod­ies the dig­nity of the na­tion.

For some, how­ever, the prospect of a Na­tional Front vic­tory at the pres­i­den­tial level is the op­po­site of a new de­vel­op­ment.

“When you place them within the frame­work of the con­ti­nu­ity of French his­tory, you can­not find one sin­gle new el­e­ment brought by the Le Pen fam­ily and their move­ment,” Zeev Stern­hell, a prom­i­nent his­to­rian of French fas­cism, said in an in­ter­view.

“This is clas­sic hard-right na­tion­al­ism with the usual xeno­pho­bia, the ha­tred of the ‘other’ and the cult of the peo­ple against the elite.”

That ide­ol­ogy, Stern­hell added, has been a con­stant in French his­tory since 1789, man­i­fest­ing through­out the 19th cen­tury.

It ap­peared, Stern­hell said, in episodes such as the “Drey­fus af­fair,” when a Jewish mil­i­tary cap­tain was wrongly ac­cused of trea­son, and later dur­ing the Vichy govern­ment in World War II, when a long-dor­mant far right cap­i­tal­ized on mil­i­tary de­feat to take power.

A Le Pen vic­tory in 2017, Stern­hell said, “would be an anti-En­light­en­ment and an­tilib­eral revo­lu­tion.”

For Rousso, who re­cently was de­tained in the United States dur­ing President Trump’s “travel ban,” one of the many is­sues at stake in France’s elec­tion is the pol­i­tics of mem­ory — es­pe­cially com­pli­cated in a di­verse so­ci­ety that blends a mul­ti­tude of im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ences.

“A prin­ci­pal chal­lenge for the next president of the re­pub­lic will be to try and find a way to rec­on­cile dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries,” he said. “And more im­por­tantly, di­vided mem­o­ries.”

In the mean­time, he said, the past is here to stay.

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