PARIS – France’s troubled wartime past is taking center stage Friday in the country’s highly charged presidential race, as centrist Emmanuel Macron visited the site of France’s worst Nazi massacre and Marine Le Pen’s far-right party suffered a new blow over alleged Holocaust denial.
Seeking the moral high ground, Macron wants to send a message to voters that Le Pen isn’t a candidate like any other, but the heir of a party stained by anti-Semitism, racism and an outdated worldview.
Le Pen’s years-long efforts to detoxify her party’s image — efforts that have brought her one step away from the presidency — endured a new setback Friday, when the leader of her National Front party quit because of an uproar over past remarks allegedly questioning the Nazi gas chambers.
French emotions around France’s history of collaborating with the Nazis remain raw, seven decades after the war’s end. The country has never undergone a national atonement; instead many people still view the actions of the collaborationist Vichy regime as a historical anomaly instead of atrocities committed by the French state.
Macron sought to bring the horrors of the Holocaust home to voters with his visit Friday to Oradour-sur-Glane, a ghost town left behind after the largest massacre in Nazi-occupied France. The town is today a phantom village, with burned-out cars and abandoned buildings left as testimony to its history.
On June 10, 1944, four days after the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy, an SS armored division herded villagers into barns and a church, blocked the doors, and set Oradour-sur-Glane ablaze. A total of 642 men, women and children died.
Only six people survived.
In comments to local newspapers published on Friday, Macron said “we don’t want to forget that from here, from Oradour, comes our Republican pride, the National Council of the Resistance that has built our fundamental balances, our strength and the European project. That is, everything Marine Le Pen wants to destroy.”
Le Pen prompted an outcry earlier this month by denying that the French state was responsible for the roundup of Jews in World War II, in a reference to the Vel d’Hiv, the Paris stadium where thousands of Jews were transferred before being sent to Nazi death camps.
Meanwhile, interim National Front leader Jean-Francois Jalkh resigned Friday over comments reported in a 2000 interview in which he allegedly cast doubt on the truth of Nazi gas chambers.
National Front vice president Louis Aliot said on BFM television Friday that Jalkh is stepping down to avoid further damage to the party, but that he is contesting allegations of Holocaust denial, a crime in France.
Jalkh is also among seven people called to trial in an alleged illegal financing scheme for the party — one of the other challenges facing Le Pen’s campaign.
Aliot said Jalkh will be replaced as party leader by Steeve Briois, mayor of Le Pen’s electoral fiefdom of Henin-Beaumont in depressed northern France.
Soccer great Zinedine Zidane, meanwhile, joined the list of prominent figures urging voters to keep Le Pen out of the presidency.
Le Pen is not letting setbacks deter her. She is painting herself as David against rival Emmanuel Macron’s Goliath as she tries to overcome a poll gap and broaden her support base.
The two candidates offer starkly different visions of France’s future — Macron’s embrace of a globalized, diverse nation within an open-bordered Europe vs. Le Pen’s protectionist, tightly policed France independent of the EU.
Le Pen reached out Friday from her far-right base across to the far left, urging voters who chose communist-linked Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first-round vote to support her in the runoff.
Le Pen and Melenchon won a combined 40 percent of the vote in the first round after populist campaigns that tapped into widespread frustration with mainstream politics.
While they hold opposing views on immigration and social issues, Melenchon and Le Pen are both skeptical of the European Union, hostile to free-trade deals and promised to help workers hurt by globalization.