Eric Zemmour is the only contender for the French presidency at the elections next April who is not a complete bore.
The 63-year-old journalist, tv pundit and best-selling author has yet to declare his candidacy but is second in the polls behind Emmanuel Macron and ahead of right-wing rival Marine Le Pen. His national-populist rhetoric strikes a chord with patriotic French deplorables.
But his claim that the wartime collaborationist government of Marshall Philippe Pétain saved the Jews of France from the Nazi death camps which he repeats regularly has caused uproar. Already, in December 2020, it led to a 10,000 euro fine for denial of a crime against humanity.
The claim is not just wrong – though it does contain a grain of truth. It is, I think, also fatal to his cause. That he is a Jew whose family is from Algeria makes no difference.
In fact, Pétain's government, based in the spa town of Vichy in the Auvergne, played a highly active role in the arrest and deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps between 1940 and 1944 - both in the south of France which it controlled and in the north which the Nazis had occupied but where Vichy controlled the police.
Three quarters of the Jews deported from France to their deaths were arrested by French police. The Nazis lacked the manpower or information to do it themselves.
Ironically, the only place where Jews in France were safe was in the small zone in the south east on the right bank of the Rhone and the French Riviera between Nice and the Italian border which was occupied by Italy's Fascists.
Vichy France – in a word – was far more anti-Semitic than Fascist Italy.
Zemmour's claim – first made in his 2014 best-seller Le Suicide Francais – which makes a distinction between French Jews and foreign Jews is that Vichy handed over «des juifs étrangers pour sauver des juifs français».
In total, 50,000 foreign Jews were deported from France to the Nazi death camps and 25,000 French Jews – about one quarter of all Jews in France – of whom only about 2,500 survived.
The regime sacrificed the foreign Jews and thus – or so Zemmour claims but few historians agree – saved the lives of 75% of French Jews.
This was the defence used by Vichy collaborators at their trials after the war.
Yes, the Vichy government did round-up foreign Jews rather than French Jews wherever possible, but does that make its behaviour any better? No, of course not.
And that behaviour was appalling, and certainly until the Nazi occupation of the south of France as well from November 1942, not the result of compulsion but of freely taken decisions.
In October 1940, the Vichy government issued the Statut des Juifs which made all Jews second class citizens. This and subsequent anti-Semitic decrees led to Jewish property being confiscated, Jews banned from many jobs and the word "Jew" stamped on their identity cards. At the same time, Vichy formally stripped 110,000 French Jews in Algeria of French citizenship – including Zemmour's parents.
Vichy also interned thousands of foreign Jews and political opponents in concentration camps in the south-west of France. The writer Arthur Koestler, who was held at one of these - Le Vernet near Toulouse - said conditions were worse than in Dachau where he was deported to afterwards.
The best bet for Jews in France, whether French or Foreign, was to get to the Italian zone in the south-east.
There, tens of thousands of Jews sought and received protection until its occupation by the Nazis after the fall of Italy's Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in July 1943.
And from there, many escaped to Switzerland.
Mussolini, unlike Hitler, had no wish to exterminate Jews – his principal mistress until 1935 was Margherita Sarfatti who was Jewish. Jews could be Fascists and many were until 1938 when after his fatal alliance with Hitler he introduced anti-Semitic laws which like those of Vichy made Jews second-class citizens.
Yet the German Jewish journalist, Emil Ludwig, who interviewed Mussolini many times in 1932 wrote in a preface to a new 1946 edition to his book Talks with Mussolini - and so, after the Holocaust - that "no Englishman or Russian had so much sympathetic understanding of the Jews as Mussolini did with me in 1932".
Fascist Italy was the only Axis-controlled country, apart from Denmark, that did not deport Jews. Jews were only deported from Italy after the fall of Mussolini and his return as head of a Nazi puppet regime in the north of Italy – but deported by the Nazis, albeit often assisted by die-hard Fascists.
In the Italian-controlled south east of France, Italy's generals and officials had actively stopped the French police and para-military police – the Milice - trying to round up Jews. In May 1943 alone, 4,500 Jews sought refuge in the departement of Isère in the Italian zone where the Italian commanding officer ordered the French Prefect not to arrest any Jews – whether French or foreign. Indeed, in each country under Italian occupation, including Greece and Yugoslavia, Italian generals and officials tried to save Jews from the Nazis and their local collaborators.
By July 1943, Fascist Italy had not deported a single Jew from the parts of these countries it occupied – or from Italy. In total, relatively few Jews – 8,564 - were subsequently deported from Italy and these countries to the Nazi death camps – of whom only 1,009 survived.
Zemmour would do well to step back from the canvas to see the bigger picture. For the truth is that Vichy France treated the Jews – whether French or foreign – worse even than Fascist Italy did.
Nicholas Farrell is the author of Mussolini – A New Life (Weidenfield & Nicolson / Orion)
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