PARIS, July 24 (JTA) — French student groups and anti-racist organizations are trying to draw attention to a university long known as a breeding ground for Holocaust denial and other far-right activities.
If they succeed, student leaders say, they will deliver a severe blow to the far-right in France.
The University Jean Moulin is named for a heroic leader of the French Resistance who was tortured and executed during the Nazi occupation. But in an ironic twist, the school, also called Lyon-III, has come to be known among French students as the “fascist university.”
That reputation grew out of events dating back to 1981, when a group of scholars with strong ties to far-right elements in France and Italy created the Institute for Indo-European Studies at the university.
From the outset, one of the scholars’ main goals was to pursue what is known in France as “negationnisme” — Holocaust denial.
For a few years, the products of their labor remained buried in obscure right-wing journals.
In 1985, however, the institute found itself mired in controversy when one of its founding members, Jean-Paul Allard, served on a doctoral committee that granted highest distinction to a thesis denying the existence of gas chambers in Polish concentration camps.
The Ministry of Education nullified the dissertation the following year but Allard, a professor of German at Lyon-III, walked away from the affair unscathed.
Now, as his retirement nears, Allard is again coming under fire.
Over the past several months, a series of protests by a coalition of student groups at Lyon-III have managed to focus public attention on Allard and his colleagues.
Last February, members of the National Union of French Students — Independent and Democratic, the Union of Jewish Students of France and a local student organization called Hippocampe drew national attention to the situation at Lyon-III by occupying a research building there.
Carrying banners juxtaposing Moulin and the French Resistance’s Gaullist cross with Allard and the Nazi swastika, the organizers denounced Holocaust denial and demanded sanctions against Allard.
The student groups were supported by anti-racist organizations such as the League of Human Rights and SOS Racism. Their actions prompted the university’s president, Gilles Guyot, to take action.
Late last month, following a request from Guyot’s office, two professors who in 1990 approved with honors a thesis attempting to disprove the Holocaust changed their evaluation of the work to “unacceptable.”
The dissertation, completed under the guidance of a Lyon-III history professor, attempted to validate the theories of Paul Rassinier, the father of French Holocaust revisionism.
Guyot subsequently announced that the matter was closed, but student groups did not agree.
They have asked France’s Ministry of Education to appoint an independent commission to examine right-wing influence at Lyon-III.
The ministry hasn’t decided whether to act, but newspaper accounts in Le Monde and Liberation about the situation in Lyon have created the momentum for change.
Earlier this month, a regional commission on higher education summoned Guyot to explain why he approved a check for some $4,000 to the Society for Indo-European Studies.
The society was created by Allard in 1999 after the Institute for Indo-European Studies dissolved itself in the midst of a Ministry of Education inquiry.
As a private organization, the society is not eligible for funding from a public university.
With the Socialist Party holding power in France, observers say it is likely that the student organizations will be granted the more far-reaching investigation they seek.
How far such a commission would be willing or able to go in severing the ties between the university and far-right groups is unclear.
Guyot has minimized the involvement of university faculty in right-wing activities, claiming that only three professors have clear affiliations with extreme-right groups.
But organizers of the student protests disagree.
“People who really know the situation can come up with the names of some 20 extreme-right members of the faculty,” says Philippe Aim, President of the Lyon chapter of the Union of Jewish Students of France.
Other critics of Lyon-III say the school’s importance to far-right parties — particularly the anti-Semitic and xenophobic National Front — cannot be determined by mere head counts.
Its value, they say, lies more in the theoretical and institutional legitimacy the school lends to Holocaust denial, which in the past has served as a key campaign strategy for the National Front.
Since the mid-1980s, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen has used Holocaust denial to focus media attention on his party and mobilize right-wing voters.
Such tactics proved successful in the first round of the 1988 presidential election, when Le Pen’s National Front Party gained a shocking 14.4% of the vote.
Although Holocaust denial is on the wane in France, Lyon-III nonetheless provides it with the trappings of legitimacy, student leaders warn.
For Jewish students in particular, the struggle involves another dimension.
“For Jews like me born after the war, who have been taught the duty of memory since our early age, it is shocking to see people questioning the existence of concentration camps and diminishing the importance of the Holocaust,” Aim says.
“Faced with this situation, one can either feel helpless or fight back.”
He is proud to be among those involved in the fight.