PARIS — Amid worries about rising nationalism, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron paid homage Sunday to the tens of thousands of French Jews killed in the Holocaust with a somber, simple message to voters: Never again.
Chants of “Macron, President!” mixed with tears of sorrowful remembrance as he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Paris, walking past panels bearing the names of those deported to death in Nazi camps, while Holocaust survivors and children of its victims looked on.
It was the second time in three days that Macron visited a site tied to France’s wartime history, as he seeks to remind voters of the shame of France’s Nazi collaboration — and especially of the anti-Semitic past of his rival Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party.
The two face a presidential runoff May 7 that will reverberate across Europe.
Le Pen herself, who has worked for years to detoxify her party’s image, laid a wreath at a memorial to France’s deported Jews in Marseille on Sunday, a national day of remembrance.
Yet the gesture cannot undo decades of anti-Semitism that still poisons her party. Her own father has been convicted of describing the gas chambers as a “detail” of history, and her temporary party leader was removed just last week for similar comments.
After visiting the Holocaust Memorial and a wall honoring French people who protected Jews during the German occupation, Macron said, “We have a duty today to their memory.”
The 39-year-old former economy minister lamented a “moral weakening that could tempt some people to say all things are relative, that could tempt others to negate the Holocaust — a position some people find refuge in because what happened is unforgettable and unforgiveable, and should never happen again.”
Michel Pfeffer, 74, is not a fan of Macron but is determined to vote for him next Sunday for one reason: the names of Pfeffer’s father and his grandfather are etched on the wall of the Holocaust Memorial, two of the 76,000 French Jews deported to die.
“It’s inadmissible. It’s unthinkable” that Le Pen could lead France, Pfeffer told The Associated Press as Macron arrived.
His wife Mireille said, “I have always voted conservative, and it will be difficult to betray my political convictions, but I have no other choice.”
While they said anti-Semitism has always percolated under the surface in France, they feel a growing acceptance of public racism in recent years.
Responding to criticism from Le Pen that Macron is using memories of the Holocaust for political gain, Macron grew heated.
“Does she want us to no longer commemorate?” he asked, pledging to “proudly resolutely defend what we are, our history, the memory of those who perished.”
“Madame Le Pen and her people can complain, but I will not back down,” he added.
France’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis still casts a shadow of shame seven decades later. There was no national atonement, and families across France have troubling stories of collaboration that have been hidden from their children and grandchildren.
It wasn’t until 1995 that then-President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the French state’s role in the Holocaust for the first time.
Despite Chirac’s gesture, many French prefer to see the Vichy regime that governed wartime France as a historical anomaly. Le Pen voiced that position recently, denying that the French state was responsible for Nazi-era roundups of Jews.
France’s election is drawing attention across the European Union just as the bloc is negotiating Britain’s departure. Le Pen’s anti-EU stance could unravel post-war unity, while Macron wants greater European cooperation and trade.
Le Pen wants a referendum on France’s membership in the EU, to restore French borders and return to the franc currency instead of the euro.
“I think the euro is dead,” Le Pen was quoted as saying in Sunday’s Le Parisien.
Le Pen, who has courted the blue-collar vote, visited the Alteo aluminum plant Sunday in the town of Gardanne, but the event appeared to fall flat. She did not meet with workers and quickly left after accusing the factory, which has been blamed for polluting the Mediterranean Sea, of being an example of “savage globalization.”
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