Frontrunners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen dominate heated debate which centres on immigration and economy.
Paris, France – On July 16 and 17, 1942, French police rounded up 13,152 Jews – including 4,000 children – and held them at an indoor cycle-racing track not far from the Eiffel Tower.
Later, they were moved to an internment camp in Drancy, a northeastern suburb. From there, they were shipped in rail cattle cars to Auschwitz for their mass murder.
Deportations continued for two more years after the so-called “Vel’ d’Hiv roundup”, until the end of the German occupation. In total, at least 77,000 Jews living in France were swept to their deaths in concentration camps – most in Auschwitz, some on French soil.
It was not until 53 years later in 1995 that a French leader recognised France’s role in the massacre, which took place under the collaborationist Vichy regime – the common name of the official French state headed by Marshal Philippe Petain during World War II.
Then, President Jacques Chirac apologised on behalf of the French policemen and civil servants who served in the raid.
“Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state,” he said. “France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”
Until that moment, the official line was that France or the French Republic bears no responsibility and all blame should be directed at Vichy – a stance considered to be anti-Semitic.
Now, as she bids for France’s top job, the far-right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has recirculated this argument – a move that would not have been at all surprising had it been played by her more openly bigoted father and founder of the National Front party (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, but which sent the media into minor shock coming from his daughter, who is attempting to detoxify the party’s fascist, racist and anti-Semitic image.
“France is not responsible for the Vel’ d’Hiv,” she told RTL radio last month. “Those responsible were those in power then. This is not France.”
“Marine Le Pen has been working hard to give the impression that her party has changed, but it only fools the foolish. Her recent statement … indicates very well the shallowness of the party’s metamorphosis,” Maxime Benatouil, co-chair of the French Jewish Union for Peace (L’UJFP), told Al Jazeera.
On Wednesday, with four days to go until the second round, Le Pen’s centrist rival Emmanuel Macron challenged her interpretation of responsibility in a televised debate.
“We don’t have to share [Jacques Chirac’s] view,” she replied, unrepentant.
“The fact that Vichy is France is so obvious it doesn’t need to be discussed,” Laurent Levy, an author and activist, told Al Jazeera. “Le Pen’s party was founded by collaborationists … it had a bad smell when she said that.”
Le Pen was also possibly trying to appease the traditional anti-Semites that raised her within the FN, from which she has temporarily stood down ahead of Sunday’s decisive vote, Levy said.
“She has to reassure part of her party, those who don’t recognise the party she has developed, those who say she’s now inside the system instead of against it,” he said. “Maybe she just thought she was being patriotic by saying France has a clean record and is perfect.”
Macron, on the other hand, has acknowledged the stained pages of French history. He has visited sites related to the history of collaboration, and while in Algeria in February condemned France’s colonial past as “a crime against humanity”.
“He [does not want to be] held responsible for not preventing what happened in the past to happen in the near future,” Nacira Guenif, a sociologist and professor at the University of Paris 8, told Al Jazeera. “The FN is a living expression of anti-Semitism in France. The reasons why it has not disappeared have to do with the fact the French are still very keen on remaining white. It’s a matter of Frenchness seen as whiteness.
“Although it is widely considered that Jews have become ‘white’, for those who consider that Jews cannot be white, for them anti-Semitism still makes sense. It’s an identitarian resource that they exploit very strongly.”
There are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in France.
CRIF, or the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, says that anti-Semitism has increased since 2002.
Among the gravest examples are the 2006 murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi; the 2012 shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse that left three children and a teacher dead; and the killing of four Jews in 2015 at a kosher supermarket in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
According to CRIF and reports in some Israeli media, a feeling of insecurity has led to an increase in the number of Jews settling in Israel.
However, some argue that the issue has become politicised.
CRIF says in 2013, 3,500 left for Israel, up from an average of between 1,000 and 1,800 per year. In 2014, that number rose to 7,000 and then 8,000 in 2015.
“There is a climate of fear among Jewish religious and secular communities, no doubt about that,” said Benatouil, of L’UJFP. “However, it is very hard to say [whether] France-based Zionist [figures] aren’t simply adding fuel on fire by making it bigger than it actually is.”
Last year, the number of those relocating to Israel dropped to 5,000 – a relative decrease.
“Aliyah [Jews relocating to Israel] has been promoted in France by the Israeli state for a long time,” said Guenif. “There is some sort of overstatement about moving to Israel since the attacks.”
“During the 2000s, when there was this increase of anti-Semitic acts or statements against Jews, there was strong promotion of returning to Israel inside the Jewish community in France. There was a very strong policy of getting them to move to Israel … [Aliyah] is not as strong as it seems,” she said, adding that many who leave – a majority of whom are of North African descent – soon return because of racism in Israel.
According to a 2014 study by Fondapol, a think-tank, three groups are responsible for rising hate crimes against Jews: the extreme right, the extreme left and Muslims.
“Anti-Semitic acts are often conducted by young Muslims,” Robert Ejnes, the head of CRIF, told Al Jazeera. “All terrorist attacks have been made in the name of Allah. We know this is a hijacking of Islam by these jihadists.”
However, many believe that while Muslims are at times responsible for anti-Semitism, Europe’s largest Muslim minority of five million is too often grouped together as one homogenous group, scapegoated, and demonised as the first anti-Semites of France.
“The fight against anti-Semitism has been mostly used as a weapon of Islamophobia,” said Laurent. “People say anti-Semitism is only something proper to the Muslim part of the population, but the evidence that that is not true has risen.”
The charge of anti-Semitism is often directed at those who question Israeli policy and argue against Zionism – including Muslim critics.
“Some Jews in France … feel like they are themselves under attack when we denounce the crimes of Israel,” said Levy, adding that the already heated debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in France intensified during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014.
But reports of violence on the street between Jewish and Muslim communities are exaggerated, Levy said.
“There might be tiny problems here or there, but I wouldn’t say that when a group of men wearing the kippah pass some men with beards, there is an electricity. I would also add that the image of a man with a beard is not the typical Muslim in France.”
Guenif, too, warned against hearsay reports of physical violence committed by Muslims.
“Anti-Semitic acts could be from all parts, but I’m not sure Muslims are so keen on desecrating tombs in cemeteries,” said Guenif. “The divisive politics of white French supremacy are effective in dividing and pitting minorities, one against the other.”
Another concern is how France deals with its various minorities.
“The problem does not lie with Judaism and Islam, or between Muslims and Jews. The problem is political,” said Benatouil. “When you have a state which would defend Israel no matter what, do everything it can to preserve the memory of the Jewish sufferings while doing too little or nothing with the memory of other communities, what do you think happens?”
He added that Muslims, often targeted as Islam is conflated with “terrorism”, tend to suffer more in today’s charged atmosphere.
“What happens is exactly what we live now in France: a hate, which sometimes takes on the clothes of anti-Semitism and which is based on a legitimate feeling of double standard, pops up. I believe that the responsibility of the French state is tremendous.”
With additional reporting by Naima Bouteldja