December 15, 2007
Adam Sage in Paris
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, went on trial yesterday accused of condoning the Nazi occupation of his country, which he described as “not particularly inhumane”.
Mr Le Pen was prosecuted for allegedly conspiring to justify war crimes in an interview with a right-wing magazine.
The offence carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a €45,000 (£32,000) fine. Mr Le Pen was not in the Paris Tribunal to hear prosecutors denounce his remarks as illegal under French legislation, which makes it a crime to justify or deny the Holocaust.
Anne de Fontette, the state prosecutor, called for him to be given a five-month suspended sentence and a €10,000 fine. Judgment was expected to be suspended.
The 79-year-old provoked widespread outrage when he told Rivarol, a weekly publication, in 2005: “In France at least, the German occupation was not particularly inhumane, even if there were a number of excesses, inevitable in a country of 550,000 sq km.
“If the Germans had carried out mass executions across the country as the received wisdom would have it, then there wouldn't have been any need for concentration camps for political deportees.”
He also claimed that the Gestapo, Hitler's secret police, had protected civilians and prevented a massacre in Lille, northern France. “There were a multiplication of anecdotes of this type,” he said.
The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France said that Mr Le Pen had “sullied the memory of all the victims of Nazism”. A total of 76,000 Jews were deported from France during the German occupation between 1940 and 1944. Only 2,500 returned.
Tens of thousands of French resistance fighters were also deported and thousands of French civilians were killed by the Nazis.
“And that is not inhumane?” Serge Klarsfeld, the celebrated French Nazi hunter, asked the court. He said Mr Le Pen's comments had been more than a slip of the tongue. “He cannot fail to have thought about what he said.”
Maître Didier Seban, the lawyer representing the French Anti-Racist Movement, said: “These words are not simply a mistake but part of a veritable policy aimed at rewriting history.” Historians accuse Mr Le Pen of seeking to play down Nazi atrocities in an effort to exonerate France's far-right Vichy regime, which collaborated with Hitler.
Marie-Luce Wacquez, the editor of Rivarol, who was also on trial, justified Mr Le Pen's remarks. “If you exclude the deportations, the occupation was pretty moderate compared with what happened in the Netherlands and Belgium,” she told the court.
The National Front leader has 25 previous convictions for offences which include grievous bodily harm, anti-Semitism and condoning war crimes. In 1987, he was ordered to pay 100,000 francs in damages for describing the Nazi gas chambers as a “detail of the history of World War Two”.
Mr Le Pen, who has transformed his party from a marginal organisation into a political force, stunned the French and European establishment when he reached the second round of the 2002 presidential election.
After his failure to repeat the performance in this year's election, his movement is facing financial crisis and internal turmoil over the battle to replace him when he retires.
He has chosen Marine, his daughter as his successor but she is contested by traditionalists.
Judgment in the case was suspended until February 8.