Adding a jarring note to the flood of tribute after Francois Mitterrand’s death this week, France’s extreme-right National Front Party praised the former president for refusing to apologize for France’s role in deporting Jews during World War II.
The National Front’s remarks came just hours after Mitterrand, France’s longest serving president, passed away in his sleep Monday after a long battle with prostate cancer.
“Francois Mitterrand showed more moral courage than his successor,” said Bruno Gollnisch, the National Front’s secretary general. “Despite pressure from his friends and all sorts of lobbies, he rightly refused to recognize France’s responsibilities in the persecutions of which Jews were victims.”
National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen denies being anti-Semitic, but he has repeatedly triggered outrage among France’s Jews with deliberately offensive remarks, such as saying that the Holocaust was merely a “detail” of history.
Gollnisch’s comments threatened to revive a controversy over Mitterrrand’s attitudes toward France’s wartime past that marred the final years of the Socialist leader’s 14-year period in office that ended in 1995.
Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire General, which oversees the religious needs of France’s Jewish community, was among those critical of Gollnisch’ s remarks.
Gollanisch’s “declaration should be filed away like those of the same category, which show that his party harbors nostalgia for the Vichy regime,” which collaborated with the Nazi occupiers of France, Kahn said in an interview.
Controversy surrounding Mitterrand’s wartime activities repeatedly haunted him despite his many gestures toward the Jewish community in France as well as in Israel.
In 1982, Mitterrand became the first French president to visit Israel.
In 1984, during a visit to the Soviet Union, Mitterrand brought along Theo Klein, the then, head of CRIF, the umbrella organization of secular French Jewish organizations – a gesture intended to increase public awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry.
Shortly after Mitterrand’s death, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres described the French leader as “a friend of Israel,” adding that Mitterrand was “among the most outstanding leaders in the 20th century.”
Henri Hajdenberg, the president of CRIF, also had praise for Mitterrand, speaking in an interview of the late leader’s “deep interest in all that concerned the Jewish community and Israel.”
French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk said Mitterrand’s relations with France’s 700,000-strong Jewish community “were always marked by great attention and a desire for profound understanding.”
Sitruk added: “He was a convinced secularist, yet he felt that the freedom of religious practice should be preserved.”
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who was a close friend of the late president, told French radio: “Who else in Europe had his stature? Who else in Europe will leave, or has left, such a mark on the youth of yesterday and today?”
“He was always on the side of the underdog, the victims, always on the side of the abandoned,” Wiesel said.
Widely acknowledged for having maintained France’s influence as a world player throughout the Cold War years, Mitterrand was also the object of heated controversy.
In the last years of his presidency, Mitterrand came under fire from intellectuals and Jewish groups for refusing to apologize for France’s wartime complicity with the Nazi occupiers in rounding up some 75,000 Jews and deporting them to concentration camps.
Mitterrand insisted that France could not be held responsible for the crimes of the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II and therefore owed no apology.
He was booed in July 1992 by militant Jews at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the notorious roundup at the Velodrome d’Hiver, the cycling stadium where on July 16, 1942, some 13,000 Jews, about 4,000 of them children, were deported from France to Nazi death camps. Only about 2,500 returned.
Mitterrand’s insistence on sending a wreath every year to be laid on the tomb of Vichy leader Marshal Philippe Petain to honor his heroism during World War I further exacerbated the controversy surrounding Mitterrand.
He finally stopped sending the wreath in 1993 under pressure from Jewish groups and former Resistance fighters.
But revelations in a book published in 1994 that Mitterrand worked for the Vichy regime and was an extreme-right sympathizer in the early years of the war before joining the Resistance in late 1943 stirred up a political storm.
The book by journalist Pierre Pean, written with Mitterrand’s help, linked the French leader to far-right causes before the war and told of his close friendship with former Vichy Police Chief Rene Bousquet, who provided the Germans with the manpower to carry out the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup.
Mitterrand continued to meet with Bousquet until 1986, even though Bousquet’s involvement in the roundup had become known in the late 1970s.
Bousquet was awaiting trial for crimes against humanity when he was shot dead in June 1993 at the age of 84 by a man described by police as a deranged publicity-seeking writer.
CRIF President Hajdenberg said that because of his relationship with Bousquet, Mitterrand’s “image will remain shrouded.”
The book, called “A French Youth,” shocked many on the left and fueled attacks by Mitterrand’s foes, who often portrayed him as a ruthless opportunist and political schemer.
Mitterrand attempted to defuse the scandal by giving long explanations in newspaper and television interviews, saying that he had used his position in the Vichy government to forge identity papers for Resistance fighters had to help the underground opposition.
Although Mitterrand tried at the end of his presidency to come to terms with his country’s – and his own – actions during the war, his many years of avoiding the issues had come to symbolize France’s ambiguity toward its past.
It remained for Mitterrand’s successor to confront head-on the issue of France’s wartime guilt.
Last July, just two months after taking office, President Jacques Chirac used the annual Velodrome d’Hiver commemoration to acknowledge that France shared responsibility for sending Jews to their deaths.