Gavin Mortimer Gavin Mortimer

Why are French politicians obsessed with world war two?

French soldiers during exercises in England. (Getty Images)

War talk is all the rage in France. The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are often cited, but the war that has come to increasingly obsess the political class in recent weeks is the one that began in 1939. Almost every day brings another reference to a period that barely anyone in the Republic experienced first-hand.

The latest example was a radio interview on Tuesday morning between Marion Maréchal, Vice President of Eric Zemmour’s Reconquest party, and a journalist from France Inter, a radio station that describes itself as ‘progressive’. ‘What difference is there,’ the journalist asked Maréchal, ‘between the defence of the family that you propose and that proposed by Marshal Pétain?’ Maréchal did not appreciate the comparison to Pétain, the figurehead of the Vichy regime during the four years of Nazi occupation, calling it a ‘stupid, crazy and outrageous question’.

What preoccupies the majority of the French is not the complex past but the alarming present

The question was asked of Maréchal because a few days earlier she had criticised the Cannes film festival for awarding its best female actor accolade to the ensemble cast of a film that includes the transgender actress. ‘So it’s a man who is receiving the prize for… female interpretation,’ tweeted Maréchal. ‘Progress for the left is the erasure of women and mothers.’ Six LGBTQ+ associations have since filed legal complaints accusing her of a ‘transphobic insult’.

Pétain viewed the family in 1940 as integral to the spiritual revival of France, what he called his ‘National Revolution’. Maréchal, like Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is a defender of the traditional family unit, and is opposed to those elements within radical progressivism that seeks to dehumanise and diminish women. The question put to Maréchal was facile, another attempt to smear the French right by linking them to Pétain and Vichy.

Twelve months ago, the then Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, described Marine Le Pen’s National Rally as the ‘heir to Pétain’, to the irritation of her boss, Emmanuel Macron. The President admonished Borne, telling her that ‘you won’t be able to make millions of French people who voted for the far right believe that they are fascists.’

That message doesn’t appear to have filtered down to Valérie Hayer, the lead candidate for Macron’s party in the European elections. ‘Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen lead a party founded by Pierre Bousquet, a corporal in the Waffen SS,’ she tweeted this week. Bousquet was one of the founders of the National Front in 1972, and not the only founder member to have fought for the Nazis. So did Léon Gaultier. On the other hand, several of the National Front pioneers fought for the Resistance, among them Rolande Birgy, honoured by Israel for helping save Jews during the war.

Hayer’s tweet was a reaction to a social media post from Le Pen. ‘National Resistance Day’ is on 27 May in France, a date to remember the brave men and women who actively opposed the Nazi occupation, and Le Pen had hailed their ‘commitment and sacrifice’. Le Pen’s declaration also incurred the contempt of the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI). ‘Your party was founded by collaborators and Waffen SS,’ Antoine Léaument, one LFI member, tweeted. ‘You are the political descendants of the people the Resistance fought.’ Not to be left out, the Communist party’s lead candidate in the European elections, Léon Deffontaines, also accused the National Rally of being the successor to Pétain.

In the years immediately after the war, French communists aggressively pitched themselves as the principal force that had resisted the Nazis, overlooking their initial collaboration with the occupier in 1940. The Resistance, like the Vichy regime, attracted men and women of all ideologies. I know because I have interviewed numerous veterans. I met men who had been members of the Socialist party in 1944 and still were 60 years later; similarly, I was acquainted with three Resistants who had fought alongside the SAS in the Morvan in the summer of 1944, and decades later felt no shame in telling me they voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen because only he ‘stood up for France’.

These old men still loathed François Mitterrand, who was their MP in the late 1940s before eventually becoming the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic in 1981. Mitterrand served the Vichy government before switching sides and joining the Resistance, but in the eyes of the men I interviewed, he was a Vichyiste first and a Resistant second. The Vichy regime was like the Resistance in that it pulled in people of all ideologies. While many were right-wing, Vichy’s anti-Semitic prime minister, Pierre Laval, was a Socialist before the war, as was the notorious chief of police, René Bousquet, responsible for organising the deportation of French Jews to the Nazi death camps.

Mitterrand and Bousquet became close after the war, and it was an embarrassment to the former when his friend was indicted in 1991 on charges of crimes against humanity. The man who was instrumental in bringing Bousquet to court was Serge Klarsfeld, the founder of ‘The Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France’. Late last year, Klarsfeld gave an interview in which he expressed his satisfaction that Marine Le Pen’s party had shed the anti-Semitism espoused by her father. He also spoke of his bitter regret that this bigotry was embedded within elements of the French left, although he added that there was a ‘tradition’ of left-wing anti-Semitism in France. On the same day that Maréchal was accused of pining for the days of Pétain, a far-left MP from LFI was suspended from the National Assembly after waving a Palestinian flag during a debate. Later, another member of LFI, Dabid Guiraud – accused of anti-Semitism earlier this year – manhandled a Jewish MP, Meyer Habib, with a cry of ‘this man is a pig’.

Habib, a centre-right MP, has said he intends to file an official complaint because ‘calling Jews pigs is the oldest anti-Semitic insult in the world’. The strategy of the left and their progressive allies to link the right to the dark days of the occupation is not working. Bardella, the National Rally’s lead candidate in the European elections, yesterday recorded his biggest approval rating yet among voters – 34 per cent, which is 18 per cent more than his closest rival, Hayer.

What preoccupies the majority of the French, though, is not the complex past but the alarming present. A cost-of-living crisis, spiralling crime and crippling debts. A new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the country, one inspired not by Petain but by a the war in Gaza.