Le Pen’s replacement as FN leader ‘questioned existence of gas chambers’

Marine Le Pen’s replacement as acting leader of Front National during the final days of her French presidential campaign is facing criticism over past statements he made apparently questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers.

“I believe we should be able to discuss this issue [of gas chambers],” Jean-François Jalkh, who was nominated interim president of the far-right party after Le Pen’s decision to stand aside, reportedly told an academic in an interview in 2000.

In comments unearthed by a journalist at La Croix newspaper and republished in Le Monde, Jalkh, an MEP, argued he was not a Holocaust denier but had spoken to a chemistry expert about Zyklon B, which was used in the extermination chambers.

“I consider that from a technical standpoint it is impossible – and I stress, impossible – to use it in mass exterminations. Why? Because you need several days to decontaminate a space … where Zyklon B has been used.”

The incident has revived accusations of denialist tendencies in Front National that Le Pen has tried to quash since taking over as leader in 2011 and undertaking a major public relations effort to detoxify the party and rid it of its jackbooted, antisemitic overtones.

Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, FN’s founder, has repeatedly been convicted for hate speech and contesting crimes against humanity, including for describing the gas chambers as a “detail” of history and the Nazi occupation as “not particularly inhumane”.

In the interview Jalkh also praised the “rigour” of the arguments used by Robert Faurisson, a Holocaust denier and former academic convicted of contesting crimes against humanity after questioning the systematic killing of Jews with gas during the second world war.

Jalkh replaced Marine Le Pen as the party’s president after she stepped aside from the role on Monday in an attempt to broaden her appeal to non-FN voters and concentrate on running her campaign for the second round of the presidential election.

Jalkh told Le Monde he had no recollection of the interview. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this rubbish,” he said. “I have no memory of this. I may have given an interview but these are not my preferred subjects.”

He added: “It’s possible that I saw these people in 2000, but I can see students who show up wanting to talk about Zyklon B coming. I’m no FN beginner, I’ve been here since 1974: I challenge anyone to say they’ve heard me talk about these matters.”

Jalkh’s nomination showed Front National still had “issues of democratic hygiene” to deal with, said Richard Ferrand, the campaign manager for Le Pen’s second-round rival, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron.

“Marine Le Pen has had herself replaced by someone who resembles her, who has sectarian ideas, divisive ideas,” Ferrand said on French television, adding that Jalkh’s acting presidency of the party should be terminated.

But Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s closest adviser, dismissed the accusations as “a campaign polemic”, describing Jalkh as “serious, moderate … a patriot and an honest man”. David Rachline, Le Pen’s campaign manager, denounced “a fake scandal” and said Jalkh had filed a formal complaint.

Magali Boumaza, the academic who carried out the interview, told Le Monde she had contemporaneous notes and a tape recording of her interview with Jalkh, which had been done at FN’s former headquarters in Saint-Cloud, just outside Paris.

She said the interview had lasted three hours and it was Jalkh who spontaneously raised the topic of the gas chambers. Her article had been published in an academic review in 2005 and had not been contested at the time, she said.

The anti-immigration, anti-EU Le Pen finished second to Macron in the first round of the elections on Sunday. Current polls suggest he is on course to defeat her in the runoff on 7 May.