- Marine Le Pen says France was not responsible for the wartime round-up of Jews who were later sent to Nazi death camps
- Her comments have been criticized by presidential rival Emmanuel Macron and Jewish groups
- The first round of voting in the presidential election takes place on April 23, with run-off likely on May 7
Paris (CNN)Marine Le Pen's attempts to convince voters that she has modernized the views of her far-right Front National party have come into question after she questioned the French state's role in the Holocaust.
Le Pen suggested France was not responsible for the wartime round-up of Jews who were sent to Nazi death camps. With just 13 days until the first round of voting in France's presidential election, her remarks have been met with widespread condemnation.
Her stance is at odds with former president Jacques Chirac and current premier Francois Hollande, who have both apologized for the role played by French police in the rounding up of 13,000 Jews at the Vel d'Hiv cycling track in Paris, ordered by the Nazis in July 1942.
"I don't think France is responsible for the Vel d'Hiv," Le Pen told French broadcaster LCI on Sunday, arguing that the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime "was not France."
"I think that generally speaking if there are people responsible, it's those who were in power at the time. It's not France," she added.
According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, some 1,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz every two or three days in the two months following the arrests at Vel d'Hiv. Nearly 38,000 Jews had been deported to Auschwitz from France by the end of September 1942. By 1945, just 780 of them remained alive.
Le Pen's comments led French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to suggest that the far-right party leader had "showed her true colors."
Le Pen later defended her comments in a statement, claiming: "I consider that France and the Republic were in London during the occupation and that the Vichy regime was not France."
"It does not in any way exonerate the personal and personal responsibility of the French who participated in the vile round-up of the Vel d'Hiv and all the atrocities committed during that period," she said.
On Monday, she added on Twitter: "I condemn, without reservation, the collaborationist Vichy government. I do not want to give it any legitimacy."
Le Pen's latest remarks will do little to disprove her rivals' belief that she has failed to the Front National's image and move it away from the anti-Semitic rhetoric employed by her father, the party's former leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Her attempt to persuade voters that her party had reformed its views was hit last month, when one of its counselors was suspended over allegations of Holocaust denial, after he was caught on camera playing down the systematic murder of six million Jews.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National, was expelled from the party in 2015 after describing the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, as a "detail of history."
Macron seized on that incident during last week's televised debate, telling her: "You repeat the lies that were heard in your father's mouth."
And he repeated his accusation after Marine Le Pen's latest comments, telling CNN affiliate BFM TV: "Some had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen."
"We must not be complacent or minimize what the Front National is today," he said.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist party's presidential candidate, also criticized Le Pen, telling French radio channel RTL: "if some people were still doubting that Marine Le Pen is from the far right, from now on they cannot do so anymore."
Israel condemned Le Pen's words as "contrary to historical truths."
And Le Pen's comments were also heavily criticized by French Jewish organizations.
"On this issue Marine Le Pen is exactly the same as her father," said Jonathan Arfi, vice-chairman of CRIF, an umbrella body for France's Jewish organizations."It is a traditional position of the Front National."
"It is a way of inscribing the Front National into its Vichy and collaborative tradition," he said, adding that Le Pen's words were "a huge step backwards."
More problems for Le Pen?
Le Pen is already under fierce scrutiny after members of her staff were accused by officials of being paid for non-existent jobs at the European Parliament
She initially admitted they had been paid while not working, according to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). But she later denied having said so.
And her fractious relationship with Europe was exacerbated when European lawmakers voted to rescind her parliamentary immunity over a case involving violent images she posted on Twitter.
An inquiry was opened under a French law which bans the distribution of violent images, after Le Pen tweeted images of killings by ISIS militants in December 2015.
But with the first round of voting due to take place on April 23, Le Pen is still neck-and-neck with Macron, according to the latest polls; the pair are expected to progress to the May 7 run-off vote.
Margaux Deygas and Maud le Rest reported from Paris. CNN's James Masters wrote from London. Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem contributed to this report.