PARIS (Oct. 15)
Bruno Gollnisch has spent years preparing himself to take up the mantle of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now he appears to have outdone even his master in provocative remarks about Jews and the Holocaust.
Gollnisch, Le Pen’s likely successor as head of the National Front party, said Monday that the existence of Nazi gas chambers was a matter of legitimate debate for historians.
“There isn’t a serious historian around who totally sticks by the conclusions of the Nuremberg Trials,” Gollnisch told a press conference in Lyon on Monday. “I’m not questioning the existence of concentration camps, but on the number of deaths, historians can discuss it. As to whether gas chambers existed, that’s up to the historians to determine.”
The remarks could see Gollnisch removed from his post as a professor at the University of Lyon III, while the European Parliament could sanction Gollnisch, who is also a member of the legislative body.
Such action would mirror disciplinary action taken by the European Parliament in 1997 which lifted Le Pen’s parliamentary immunity after the National Front leader repeated comments describing the Holocaust as a “detail” of World War II.
Gollnisch’s remarks followed the publication of a last week government report that accused the University of Lyon III of systematically tolerating academics who advocated Holocaust denial.
Gollnisch teaches Japanese at the university and is one of a number of far-right academics associated with the institution since it was created in 1973.
The report was commissioned by former Education Minister Jack Lang in 2002 and chaired by the historian Henry Rousso.
While the report’s conclusions noted that the university “was not a fascist campus,” it went on to say the school had, during the course of its existence, provided “shelter for a far-right kernel” of academics among its staff.
Lyon III has often been at the center of controversy over the legitimacy of academic debate regarding the Holocaust.
In a notable example in 1985, Jean-Paul Allard, a professor at the university, approved a student thesis that denied killings were carried out in concentration camps during World War II.
And in 1990, the university awarded a student a bachelor’s degree with an honors citation after the student submitted a thesis shining a favorable light on the life of Georges Montandon. An academic who studied racial theory in the 1930s, Montadon was responsible for providing certificates of “Aryanness” during the Nazi occupation of France.
For his part, Gollnisch this week also chose to attack Rousso’s impartiality.
Rousso was “a Jewish personality, a respected historian, but his neutrality cannot be assured,” Gollnisch said.
Such remarks were slammed by Jewish and anti-racist groups with the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, which called them a “double provocation.”
Gollnisch had “called into doubt the existence of the gas chambers and questioned the legitimacy of an academic by the sole fact of his Jewish origins,” CRIF said in a statement.
Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, told JTA that Gollnisch’s comments showed that “this man, who calls himself a scholar, is totally ignorant of history.”
“There weren’t just concentration camps, there were extermination camps; every reputable historian accepts that as a fact,” he said, adding that Gollnisch’s comments were “not academic, but politically and ideologically based.”
The Paris-based International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, known by its French acronym, LICRA, called on the European Parliament to take action against Gollnisch.
In a letter to Parliament President Josep Borrell on Wednesday, LICRA’s president, Patrick Gaubert, asked the legislature to enforce sanctions against Gollnisch “for his revisionist comments which place in doubt the historical veracity of the existence of the gas chambers.”
The letter drew a quick response from Borrell, who condemned Gollnisch’s remarks in a statement to the European Parliament session on Thursday.
Directly addressing Gollnisch, Borrell said he was “ashamed” to have heard a European legislator making “scandalous claims” regarding the existence of gas chambers.
“I hope you will be held accountable for your slanders by the courts,” Borrell added.
Gollnisch’s remarks are not the first time he has strayed into controversial territory.
In 1991, he called for “the respect of freedom of expression for educators who exercise a critical perspective towards the history of the Second World War.”
And in 1996, Gollnisch publicly praised French soldiers who fought alongside the Nazis on the Eastern Front during World War II.
The remarks are likely to heat up the increasingly vicious battle within the National Front regarding who will succeed Le Pen when he decides to retire.
While Le Pen has denied any intention to step down, the party is currently split between its traditionalist wing, led by Gollnisch, and the so-called modernizers gathered around Le Pen’s daughter, Marine.
Those close to Marine Le Pen immediately drew on Gollnisch’s comments to place in doubt his fitness as a potential future party leader.
Eric Iorio, who is responsible for election strategy for the party, said that “if Gollnisch wants to appear as a historical reprobate, he should do it in a personal capacity, not as a personality and a future president of the National Front.”
Another senior party figure suggested that Gollnisch “only needs now to put on a hood and dress like the Ku Klux Klan.”
In the meantime, Lyon III has distanced itself from Gollnisch’s remarks and called on Education Minister Francois Fillon to initiate disciplinary measures against Gollnisch.
“These remarks are as much unacceptable in themselves as they are for the serious attack they bring upon the honor and credit of the university,” Lyon III’s president, Guy Lavorel, said in a statement Wednesday.
The inability to find backing even within his own milieu seemed to have at least brought the point home to Gollnisch.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be chased out of my chair in Japanese or even put in prison for this phrase, but I assume responsibility for it,” he said.
He did not, however, apologize.
Attacking what he described as the “thought police” and the “considerable interests who want to prevent this debate,” Gollnisch said it was “in the interests of the State of Israel to have endless discussions about reparations.”