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Nazi Past Has French Town Wary Of Far-Right Politics


Voters go to the polls tomorrow in France to cast ballots in the first round of their presidential election. President Nicolas Sarkozy still trails his socialist opponent Francois Hollande. Mr. Sarkozy has tried to close that gap by appealing to voters on the right. Much of the French campaign this time around focused on right-wing issues like crime, security and immigration.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a town in France that is still haunted by ghosts of its far-right past, to see what people think about that.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Since Roman times, the French town of Vichy has been famous for its hot springs like this one bubbling up in the center of town. Known as the Queen of Spas, from the 18th century on, Vichy attracted people from across the globe who took to its waters to cure their ailments. But in 1940, the town's fortunes changed.

PHILIPPE GENDRE: This is the Hotel du Parc and this is at the third floor that Marshal Petain was working.

BEARDSLEY: That's Vichy tourism office director Philippe Gendre. He's speaking of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of the French wartime government that collaborated with the Nazis. Gendre says Petain's choice of Vichy for his headquarters was purely logistical. The city had enormous hotel capacity and one of the most modern telephone systems of that time. The war years left an indelible stain on the town, says Gendre.

GENDRE: We've came from a very romantic city, and now for some people, we are the place where a black spot of history was made.


BEARDSLEY: On this morning in Vichy, a group of supporters of far right National Front Party candidate Marine Le Pen is stuffing mailboxes with leaflets. David Salvan is head of the party's Vichy chapter. He says there are absolutely no parallels to draw between Petain and Le Pen.

DAVID SALVAN: (Through Translator) There were extremists in our party in the past. And it was a burden. But that's changed over the last few decades, and especially since Marine Le Pen has taken over leadership from her father. She is fighting for the French nation, not for nationalism. That's different.

BEARDSLEY: It's the first presidential race for the fiery, Marine Le Pen, a divorced mother of three who is credited with modernizing the National Front and bringing it into the mainstream by breaking with the macho, traditionalist world of far-right politics.

SALVAN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: While restricting immigration remains one of the party's main planks, Salvan says its economic goals are what's most important: creating jobs, bringing French industry back home and quitting the euro currency so France can take back its sovereignty from the ratings agencies.


BEARDSLEY: Bonjour, Monsieur Mayor.


BEARDSLEY: Claude Malhuret is the mayor of Vichy. He says the far-right is no stronger here than anywhere else in France. But he admits that Vichy is always on guard. For example, people here still bristle when the wartime government is referred to as the Vichy regime, instead of the Petain regime.

MALHURET: Yes, of course, this has been digested exactly to the same proportion that it has been digested in France. And, as you know, this period of our history has not been digested completely today.

BEARDSLEY: In spite of the mass deportations under the Petain government, today France has Europe's largest Jewish population. It also has Western Europe's largest Muslim community and sometimes the Middle East conflict echoes here.

In March, a confessed Islamist extremist of Algerian origin shot and killed three Jewish children and a teacher in the city of Toulouse. That tragedy pushed the campaign further to the right.


BEARDSLEY: Michele London, a prominent member of Vichy's Jewish community, opens the door to the city's synagogue. She was born in the French colony of Algeria in 1946. She says she has great memories of coming to this spa town with her parents when she was a girl.

MICHELE LONDON: (Through Translator) People came every year from the North African colonies and we had am image of Vichy as a fun-loving vacation place with the casinos, the opera and the spa. The war interrupted that.

BEARDSLEY: London says Jews from North Africa returned to vacation and eventually settled in Vichy when the French colonies gained independence.

LONDON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: London says relations between Muslims and Jews in Vichy, and in France in general are good. She says she was heartened by the huge outpouring of solidarity in France after the Toulouse killings. London says the country's most important value is its strict adherence to secularism. Separating public life from religion is what allows us to respect each other and live together, she says. And no matter who wins the election, that will never be compromised.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.