PARIS • France's wartime past has taken centre stage in the presidential race, with far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen's party scrambling to stamp out a controversy over Holocaust remarks while centrist Emmanuel Macron visited the site of a Nazi massacre.
On Friday, nine days before the second round of the election, Ms Le Pen's anti-immigration National Front (FN) was again fighting a furore over a senior official's reported remarks about the Nazi gas chambers.
On Monday, Ms Le Pen said she was stepping aside as FN leader while campaigning so as to remain "above partisan considerations".
Four days later, her stand-in Jean-Francois Jalkh was replaced by Mr Steeve Briois, after Mr Jalkh was accused of praising the work of a convicted Holocaust denier and expressing doubt that the Nazis used poison gas to murder Jews.
"Mr Briois will take over the interim leadership and there'll be no more talk about it," FN vice-president Louis Aliot said.
Ms Le Pen, 48, has sought since taking the helm in 2011 to purge the FN of the anti-Semitism that was its trademark under her father, FN co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In 2015, she booted him out of the party for repeatedly calling the Holocaust a "detail" of history but this month was herself criticised for saying France bore no responsibility for the round-up and deportation of French Jews during the war.
Mr Jalkh is accused of praising the work of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson in an interview for a 2005 article in a French academic journal. "What I'm saying, and what really surprised me, in the work of a genuine negationist or revisionist... is the well-worked, rigorous nature of the argument put forward," Mr Jalkh was quoted as saying.
Mr Aliot last week said: "We condemn this type of remark and he denies (making) them."
Also unearthed was a report from 1991 saying Mr Jalkh had attended an anniversary rally held by supporters of Marshal Philippe Petain, French war-time leader and Nazi collaborator, in July of that year.
Ms Le Pen's party has been dogged by accusations of Holocaust denial throughout her campaign. In March, Mr Benoit Loeuillet, an official in Nice, was filmed in a documentary saying he "didn't really know what to think about the negationist thesis. It's complicated". He added: "I don't think there were as many dead. There weren't six million of them."
The FN shake-up comes in the midst of a bruising campaign in which Ms Le Pen has tried to wear down lingering resistance to her party's tainted brand by portraying Mr Macron as an elitist money man.
Polls give Mr Macron a commanding lead of up to 20 points over Ms Le Pen in the May 7 run-off but show the gap narrowing slightly after Mr Macron's sluggish start to his second round of campaigning.
Mr Macron, 39, who visited a village where Nazi troops massacred 642 people during World War II, said: "To not remember is to repeat the mistakes of history."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS