History, historians, and the French presidential elections

by Chris Millington

French wartime propaganda poster for the Vichy regime. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Imagerie_de_la_R%C3%A9volution_nationale.jpg

As France heads toward its presidential election in April, the country’s history is once again a stake in the political culture wars.  Eric Zemmour, a far-right journalist and author, is standing as a candidate.  Zemmour has gained notoriety for condemning an ‘anti-French’ reading of the nation’s history and challenging the supposed anti-national political correctness of historians.  In return, historians have attacked Zemmour’s selective and highly tendentious, not to say dishonest, reading of the past.

Notably, Zemmour has claimed that France’s wartime government – popularly known as the Vichy regime – protected French Jews while it sacrificed foreign Jews to the Nazi occupier.  This claim has a long history.  Vichy’s apologists sought to rehabilitate the regime in the immediate post-war years through the idea that Marshal Philippe Pétain had shielded the French from the worst of German excesses.  Historians have comprehensively disproved this claim.  Nonetheless, during an interview with radio station Europe 1 in September 2021, Zemmour contended that, ‘Vichy protected French Jews and handed over foreign Jews’.

In February 2022, a group of historians made a public intervention in the controversy.  The fifty-eight page pamphlet, Zemmour contre l’histoire (Zemmour against history), published by Gallimard, brought together specialists of twentieth century France to combat the far-right polemicist’s ‘falsifications and political manipulations of the past’.  They took aim at nineteen of Zemmour’s claims about the French past, from the time of Clovis to the trials of former collaborators during the 1990s.  Each section begins with a quotation from Zemmour, followed by a counterargument from the historians demonstrating the inaccuracies or downright falseness of the presidential candidate’s contention. 

Priced under four Euros and published in black-and-white with none of the frills of an academic or popular title, in content and form this is a historical corrective to Zemmour’s ultranationalist ignorance and a non-partisan political intervention.  The historians accept that interpretations of the past can change.  They reject, however, the wilful distortion of historical facts to suit political agendas.

It is difficult to imagine historians in Britain taking such a public stand against a political candidate.  It is true that at the time of the Brexit referendum in 2016, a number of historians divided into the Remainer ‘Historians for Britain in Europe’ and the Leaver ‘Historians for Britain’.  Their interventions, however, were limited to online fora, opinion pieces, and letters to national newspapers. 

Zemmour contre l’histoire reflects a public standing enjoyed by French academics in contrast to the more limited public roles of their British counterparts.  It speaks, too, to the extent to which France has confronted the difficult episodes of its past, however incomplete this process remains.  Meanwhile, recent controversies in Britain over the so-called culture wars attest to the lamentable reluctance of a nation to come to terms with the darker aspects of its history.  Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the French.  

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