The Vélodrome d’Hiver, or Winter Velodrome — the Vel d’Hiv — was an indoor stadium on the rue Nélaton near the Eiffel Tower. On July 16, 1942, 4,500 French police and gendarmes, acting on the orders of the French administration, began carrying out plans to arrest 30,000 foreign adult Jews. This operation was given the codename “Spring Breeze.”
The arrests began at 4:00 a.m., but the initial results were disappointing. Many of the Jews on the list for detention, having been warned by the Resistance or hidden by neighbors, could not be found. The police, therefore, decided to detain 4,000 Jewish children instead. The Nazis had not asked for these children. Most had been born in France. The order was given by Maréchal Pétain’s minister, Pierre Laval. It was a wholly French innovation.
Some families were sent to internment camps near Paris, where the children, mostly aged between two and twelve, were separated from their families by the French police, drenched in water, and bludgeoned. Their parents were sent directly to Auschwitz.
Others were taken to the Vel d’Hiv. The few lavatories there were sealed, lest children escape through the windows. The children were left, alone, for five days in the unbearable heat, with only the scarce rations of food and water brought to them by the Quakers and the Red Cross.
From there, they were sent to the internment camps of Drancy, Beaune-la-Rolande and Pithiviers. Then in August, the children were sent, alone — on French rail cars, by the French government — to Auschwitz. The youngest child sent to Auschwitz, under Laval’s orders, was only 18 months old. Laval, according to the historian Julian Jackson, told an American diplomat that he was “happy” to get rid of them.
Not one returned. All were exterminated.
There is no dispute about this. It is as well-documented a historical event as exists, confirmed by the records of the Préfecture de Police, countless eyewitnesses, and in particular, by the past four decades of historical research, which have comprehensively documented the eager collaboration of the wartime French government. Police Chief René Bousquet, who organized the roundup, impressed his German counterparts with his energy. France “did not have a knife at its throat,” writes the historian Philippe Burrin of these events in his authoritative history, La France à l’Heure Allemande. “Without the help of the [French] police, the SS was paralyzed.” The American historian Robert Paxton notes that France was the only country in Western Europe to use its own police force to round up Jews in territory that was not occupied by the Germans.
Everyone in France knew it then. Everyone in France knows it now…
…There were two weeks to go before the first round. Marine Le Pen was not on the verge of victory, but she was on the verge, astonishingly, of an outside chance. Then on Sunday, the ninth of April — the eve of Passover, 5777 — she found herself on the LCI television channel’s weekly show. It had been a chaotic day. The moderator of the show — you remember his name — was Olivier Mazerolle. The fatigue of the campaign was obvious in her eyes. Mazerolle tossed her an easy question (or he broadsided her, depending on your perspective). “Was Jacques Chirac wrong,” he asked, “to make his speech about the Vél d’Hiv?”
Now, it should have been a reflex, for a de-demonized Le Pen. The right answer, the only answer in France, for more than twenty years, has been: “Of course he wasn’t wrong, it is a matter of great pride that we are a France that squarely confronts its past.” In fact, this generation in France really has no idea there has ever been any other answer.
But the Devil got her tongue.
Instead: “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, as viewers’ jaws fell agape throughout France and its territories. “I consider that France and the Republic were based in London during the occupation. The Vichy regime was not France. I think that generally speaking, if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France.”
She tried to find firmer footing: France had “taught our children that they have all the reasons to criticize and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history,” she added. “So, I want them to be proud of being French again.”
She realized, almost immediately, what she had done, quickly saying that this in no way exonerated those who participated in “the vile roundup of Vel d’Hiv and all the atrocities committed during that period.” But it was too late. The program had barely ended when a press release went out from her campaign headquarters to clarify her position. This is rare for the National Front, which usually holds there is no reason, a posteriori, to issue a communiqué explaining the president’s speech; their philosophy — usually — is that she means what she said and she said what she meant, and their leader is faithful, one hundred percent. The very fact of the press release indicated the recognition of an error, a grave misstep. By Monday morning, she was expressing regret. “If Olivier Mazerolle hadn’t asked me the question,” she said, “you can well imagine I wouldn’t have spoken of it.” (That sentence has two meanings. I’ll let you think about them.)
Unfortunately, this didn’t keep Le Pen from a second-place finish in yesterday’s first round of French Presidential voting, but she has no realistic chance of winning. Early polls put her more than twenty points behind centrist Emmanuel Macron:
But she will almost certainly do far better than her father’s performance in 2002. Jean-Marie Le Pen couldn’t break 18% of the vote in the second round; Marine has a realistic chance of doubling that.
Just as Jill Stein insisted that Hillary Clinton was every bit as bad as Donald Trump, the great anti-fascist crusader Mélenchon refuses to take a stand against the actual fascist who has a realistic chance of leading his country. More evidence, as if any were needed, that the far left and far right are united against the center, even if they’d never admit it.