PARIS — The man Marine Le Pen chose to lead her far-right party while she ran for the presidency has been forced to step down because he praised a Holocaust denier and expressed doubt that the Nazis used poison gas to murder Jews.
In a 2000 interview, her ally, Jean-François Jalkh, said Zyklon B, the gas used to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust, would have been “impossible” to use in “mass exterminations.”
Ms. Le Pen on Friday morning called the outrage directed at Mr. Jalkh , her choice for interim leader of the National Front, a “defamation.”
She is one of two candidates in the second round of the presidential race, and announced on Monday that she would temporarily step down as party leader to focus on defeating her opponent, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, considered to be the favorite in the election on May 7.
At a rally Thursday night, she had tried to focus the campaign, sharply criticizing Mr. Macron, a former investment banker and economy minister, whom she has condemned as a “globalist” and “immigrationist,” but she did not address the Jakh controversy until Friday morning.
Ever since she became the National Front leader in 2011, she has been trying to “un-demonize”the party, and the legacy of anti-Semitic and racist comments made by the party’s founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Expelled from the party in 2015, he once called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of history.
And Ms. Le Pen herself prompted an outcry earlier in the presidential campaign when she said that France had not been responsible the roundup of Parisian Jews in an event known as the Vel’ d’Hiv during World War II.
But her efforts to buff her party’s image were complicated this week by a furor over comments made in 2000 by Mr. Jalkh. During an interview, a doctoral student, Magali Boumaza, had asked him about the gas chambers. Mr. Jalkh replied that he wasn’t a “negationist” but that he had read the works of a “trustworthy revisionist” — Robert Faurisson, a former professor of history at the University of Lyon who has been convicted of inciting hatred and racial discrimination and who has often been cited by the more extreme far-right elements.
Mr. Jalkh, who once took part in a ceremony commemorating the death of Philippe Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government that collaborated with Nazi Germany, said in the interview that he had been “surprised” by the “rigor “ and “conscientiousness” of Mr. Faurisson’s research.
Revelations that Mr. Jalkh, who is also a member of the European Parliament and a vice president of the National Front, had praised a Holocaust denier quickly prompted the party to react, fearful that his comments might cast a shadow on Ms. Pen’s campaign.
Mr. Jalkh agreed to resign as party chairman to help calm the controversy, Louis Aliot, a vice president of the party, said Friday morning on the French channel BFMTV, announcing that Steeve Briois, the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a National Front stronghold in northern France, would replace Mr. Jalkh.
Mr. Jalkh, who also faced accusations of campaign finance violations related to Ms. Le Pen’s failed 2012 presidential bid, has denied giving the interview, according to Le Monde.
But Ms. Boumaza, now a researcher in Istanbul, told BuzzFeed that she had recorded the comments, which were made during a three-hour interview at National Front headquarters, and that she still had the tapes. The interview had been published in an academic journal, Le Temps des Savoirs (The Time of Knowledge).
Mr. Aliot said on BFMTV that Mr. Jalkh wanted to “defend himself; he’s going to press charges because he believes that his honor is being sullied, and I can tell you that he firmly and formally contests what he’s being reproached with.”
Ms. Le Pen’s temporary departure from the helm of the party was part of an effort to extend her reach to the disillusioned supporters of the firebrand leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who failed to reach the run-off stage of the election. Many of his supporters share a distaste for elites, and for globalization, if not for the rest of her positions, like on immigration.
Few of Mr. Mélenchon’s voters are expected to switch to Ms. Le Pen. But high abstention in their ranks could favor her.
Mr. Mélenchon, who faced harsh criticism for refusing to endorse Mr. Macron after the first round of the election, said in a YouTube video posted riday that he would not vote for Ms. Le Pen, but refused to say whether he would vote for Mr. Macron or cast a blank ballot.
“You don’t need me to tell you what you have to do,” Mr. Mélenchon said, before adding he would organize the upcoming legislative elections for his movement, Unbowed France, without saying whether he would run in those contests.
In a video posted on Twitter, Ms. Le Pen called on Mr. Mélenchon’s supporters voters to “obstruct” Mr. Macron.
Acknowledging “profound disagreements” with her opponent, she added that she, too, aimed to rein in “the world of finance, of powerful lobbies and of “European technocrats.”
It was difficult to estimate the impact of the Jalkh controversy on Ms. Le Pen’s campaign, which has centered thus far on a bitter competition between Ms. Le Pen’s protectionist views and Mr. Macron’s support for globalization and the European Union. The economy is at top of the country’s priorities and security is also a major issue.
While Ms. Le Pen was still trailing in opinion polls, which forecast that she would not get more than 38 to 40 percent of the votes, her campaign had gained momentum after the first round.
“French politics are not only about the Holocaust. It’s an important topic, because it has to do with the memory of the Second World War, but it’s not an everyday issue when you are president,” Jean-Yves Camus, a scholar of far-right politics and director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, told the Anglo-American Press Association on Thursday.
On the same day, Ms. Le Pen’s father emerged from the shadows. In a video published on his blog, he expressed disapproval of a speech made by the civil partner of a gay police officer who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris last week, saying the eulogy had honored “the homosexual” rather than “the policeman.”
Ms. Le Pen reacted by telling reporters that she had been “deeply touched” by the speech given by the slain officer’s civil partner at a ceremony on Tuesday honoring him.
On Wednesday, Ms. Le Pen appeared to upstage Mr. Macron when she visited a threatened Whirlpool plant in northern France, snapping selfies with amiable workers while he spoke with union members nearby.
Mr. Macron traveled on Friday afternoon to Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in central France, where an SS division set the town on fire in 1944 and killed 642 people. There Mr. Macron met Robert Hébras, the only remaining survivor of the massacre.