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December 30, 2021 1:36 pm
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‘Bestial’: Veteran Nazi War Crimes Investigator Serge Klarsfeld Attacks Far-Right French Presidential Candidate Eric Zemmour

avatar by Ben Cohen

Far right French pundit and presidential candidate Eric Zemmour attending the launch of his latest book in Sept. 2021. Photo: Reuters/Eric Gaillard

A leading historian of the Holocaust whose investigative efforts resulted in the post-war prosecutions of Nazi war criminals has launched a scathing attack on a maverick far-right candidate in the forthcoming French presidential election.

In an extensive interview this week with L’Humanité — a French daily closely associated with the country’s Communist Party — Serge Klarsfeld denounced what he called the “bestial theses” of  Éric Zemmour, a prominent political commentator who is running on an independent far-right ticket in the April 2022 poll.

While Zemmour is known principally for his strident anti-immigrant stance, many members of the Jewish community have voiced concern at his revisionist accounts of key episodes in French history. Zemmour, himself born into a Jewish family from Algeria, has argued against the weight of historical evidence that the collaborationist wartime regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain saved French-born Jews from the clutches of the Nazis by sacrificing those born outside the country. He has also questioned whether Alfred Dreyfus — the French-Jewish army captain falsely convicted of espionage in 1894 amid a wave of violent antisemitism in France — was truly innocent.

“Vichy persecuted French Jews as it persecuted foreign Jews,” said Klarsfeld — a historian and activist who, working alongside his wife Beate Klarsfeld, brought several Nazi war criminals to justice after the war. Those convicted as a result of the Klarsfelds’ efforts have included Klaus Barbie, the SS officer known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” Paul Touvier, a French collaborator who worked under Barbie, and Maurice Papon, a Vichy official who participated in the deportation of more than 1,600 French Jews.

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“In Vichy, there was an antisemitism of exclusion, dispossession and ‘aryanization’ of Jewish property,” Klarsfeld explained. “It is also important to know that 7,000 Jews were denaturalized, which facilitated their deportation.”

He continued that “what is true, and this is what Éric Zemmour relies on, is that Vichy placed French Jews after foreign Jews in the order of deportation. But only at first.”

Said Klarsfeld: “This did not prevent the deportation of 6,000 French Jewish children whose parents were foreigners. And, in a second phase, it did not prevent the deportation of adult French Jews either. In the event of a German victory, all French Jews would have been deported.”

Emphasizing that the Vichy regime was “forever guilty” for its role during the Holocaust in France, Klarsfeld added: “We will never be able to erase from history the fact that the vast majority of deported Jews were arrested by those in French uniforms.”

But Klarsfeld’s comments on Zemmour’s anti-Muslim stance courted a controversy of its own, with some French Jews criticizing the historian for seemingly comparing the plight of Jews under Nazi rule with the situation of Muslims in France today.

“Zemmour promotes bestial theses. Like the Nazis,” Klarsfeld asserted. “To hear him say it, we should get rid of the Muslims. But the Nazis said the same about the Jews, without specifying how. And [then] we had the gas chambers.”

Klarsfeld then asked rhetorically how Zemmour intended “to get rid of the Muslims.”

“Once in power, the extreme right has always carried out its threats,” he stated. “We must take them seriously, and fight obscurantism and totalitarianism, through mobilization and education, with the utmost energy.”

Klarsfeld’s invocation of Nazi policies to criticize Zemmour’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant positions infuriated some French Jewish commentators, who also condemned his decision to speak to L’Humanité — a newspaper which loyally defended the antisemitic and anti-Zionist policies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when it was formally affiliated with the French Communist Party (PCF).

The journalist and commentator Clément Weill-Raynal tweeted that he was “not sure that participating in the hunt for Zemmour in L’Humanité — a Stalinist newspaper which for ages has distilled anti-Israel hatred and complacency towards Palestinian terrorism that kills Jews — is Serge Klarsfeld’s best idea.”

Gilles-William Goldnadel — a prominent lawyer whose clients have included the family of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman brutally murdered in her own home by an Islamist intruder in April 2017 — meanwhile tweeted a photograph of an August 1939 front page of L’Humanité that extolled the infamous peace pact between the Nazi and Soviet regimes. “This is the newspaper where my dear Serge Klarsfeld made a senseless comparison with the Second World War,” Goldnadel commented alongside. “Much grief and a little pity.”

Klarsfeld’s remarks were warmly praised by other observers, among them Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who tweeted her thanks, and Gil Taieb, a vice-president of the French Jewish organization Crif, who urged Klarsfeld to prepare himself “to be insulted.”

“Your life says more than all these scavengers who will howl for Zemmour,” Taieb told Klarsfeld.

A Harris poll of French voters earlier this month suggested that Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the conservative ‘Les Républicains’ Party, stood the best chance of defeating incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. The same poll indicated that Macron would win more than 60 percent of the vote in the event that he faces off against Zemmour in the second round of the election.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, this article previously described Vichy official Maurice Papon as having participated in the deportation of 140,000 Jews

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