Emmanuel Macron has warned against the “manipulation” of history in a clear message to the far-right presidential candidate, Éric Zemmour, on a symbolic visit to Vichy.
After the German occupation in 1940, the spa town was chosen for Marshal Philippe Pétain’s puppet regime, which collaborated with the Nazis and ensured the deportation of Jews to death camps. Zemmour has angered historians by claiming, instead, that Pétain saved French Jews.
On Wednesday Macron addressed the shadow of the second world war hanging over France’s increasingly tense and divisive election campaign, although he will not announce his own bid for re-election until early next year.
His presence in the town was calculated to counter Zemmour, 63, a far-right TV pundit who has convictions for inciting racial hatred. At the weekend Zemmour launched his own bid for the April presidential election, vowing to “save” French civilisation from immigration.
To the anger of historians, Zemmour has repeatedly said that Vichy protected French Jews. He said on radio: “It’s my combat against repentance and guilt. The French people are permanently being made to feel guilty.”
Jacques Chirac was the first president, in 1995, fully to acknowledge the role of France and the French state in rounding up Jews for concentration camps during the “criminal folly” of the Nazi occupation. After the war, Pétain was sentenced to death for treason, which was commuted to life in prison.
French historians have furiously denounced Zemmour. The historian Jacques Sémelin wrote in Le Monde that Zemmour’s statements about Vichy had “no historical basis”.
Macron’s trip to Vichy is the first time since 1978 that a French president has made an official visit to speak about the town’s history. Before a planned visit to a memorial for deported Jews, Macron told the local radio station, France Bleu, that “history is written by historians”, and it was a good thing to “respect it and learn about it” and to allow historians to build up a truth built on documents and traces of the past. He said history should not be “manipulated” or “agitated” or “revised” and that France should honour those who fought to make it free.
Macron said he would celebrate the bravery of the 80 parliamentarians who in 1940 opposed the vote giving Pétain full powers.
Zemmour, a Paris-born son of Jewish Berbers who emigrated from Algeria in the 1950s, has been called a dangerous racist and Holocaust denier by the French justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti. On TV this week Zemmour disagreed that he was a Holocaust denier and said his opponents called him racist to belittle his campaign and his supporters.
That Macron has waded into the row with an official visit to Vichy shows that the government is stepping up its offensive against Zemmour. Although the polemicist, who has no election experience, has slipped back from his strong showing in the polls this autumn, he is still considered a serious contender in the first-round vote. Two finalists will go through to a second round on 24 April. The polls currently show Macron as favourite to win.
A government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, said on Wednesday: “There are several visions of the history of France that are confronting each other in the public debate. Ours is the work of historians, on the basis of facts, documentation, research, and not based on personal whim and a will to use it for politics. Those who erase the crimes of the past are in some way justifying those of the future. On the contrary, we must learn from the past in all its complexity, including the darkest pages of our history.”
On Thursday, Macron’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire and Zemmour will hold a primetime debate on the TV channel France 2.