Police were deployed in the city of Caen last month – just in case – when French youths gathered to lay paper poppies in homage to a Regina Rifles scout who was killed there in 1944.
The local Caen association that organized the ceremony is dedicated to honouring Canada for its role in Normandy. But it is also involved in a legal battle with a notorious French far-right extremist who is using its images in Internet videos denying the Holocaust.
“I wonder what the Canadians who died in France would think,” says Christophe Collet, the French high-school teacher who organized the Caen ceremony. “They liberated France, and 70 years later Nazi ideology is still around.”
A French neo-Nazi ideologue, Vincent Reynouard, has targeted Mr. Collet for his volunteer work at the head of a group that educates youths about Canada’s contribution to the Allied invasion. This association, Westlake Brothers Souvenir, is named after three Toronto brothers – George, Tommy and Albert – who died in combat in June, 1944, a rare occurrence even by world war standards.
For Mr. Reynouard, who has inundated YouTube with more than 120 videos, Mr. Collet typifies what he describes as France’s “state religion” – a cult-like belief, he argues, banning critical thinking about the Holocaust. In one recent 19-minute video, he accuses Mr. Collet of being “intolerant” and “fanatical.”
In an older, 44-minute video, Mr. Reynouard criticizes Mr. Collet’s commemorations for failing to take into account the French civilians who died in the Allied invasion. More controversially, Mr. Reynouard adds there is “no proof” that the gas chambers ever existed.
Mr. Collet stumbled upon this second video when surfing the Net to see what other youth groups were doing ahead of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June. He said he was shocked to see what came up when he searched for the French terms devoir de mémoire (duty to remember) and jeunesse (youth). “I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “The first thing that came up was Nazi propaganda.”
Mr. Collet, who teaches French and geography in a vocational high school, was also distressed to see that Mr. Reynouard had used – he says “hijacked” – some of his association’s images. Most of the footage shows students, some of them tearful, touring the D-Day beaches where so many died, along with other war sites.
Dismissing the notion that taking Mr. Reynouard to court would only publicize his revisionist views, Mr. Collet has decided to take legal action. “What the association is trying to do is to educate young people about the true meaning of citizenship,” he explains. “We can’t say ‘this is Nazi propaganda’ and then turn around and say ‘it’s not so bad.’”
A legal battle was not what Mr. Collet expected in 2006 when he founded Westlake Brothers Souvenir with the aim of paying tribute to the Canadian soldiers who fought and died in his city. “Canada is often overlooked in D-Day commemorations,” he remarks. “A lot is said about the role of the U.S., about the British [but] much less about Canada.”
Westlake Brothers Souvenir last month lodged a complaint in Caen against Mr. Reynouard for alleged denial of crimes against humanity, an offence under French law often referred to as négationnisme. The group filed a second complaint (also in Caen) for illegal use of its images. Six other entities, including a rural municipality and a village, Trévières and Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, where Canadian troops fought against German forces, are co-plaintiffs.
If Mr. Collet wins in court, Mr. Reynouard could eventually be sent to prison. A French court already convicted him for négationnisme in 2007, and he went to prison in 2010 to serve his one-year sentence.
Although he is a marginal figure, Reynouard’s incarceration attracted some international attention. Hundreds signed a petition to press for his release and the repeal of the French law banning the denial of crimes against humanity. Signatories included U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky and French comedian Dieudonné, notorious for popularizing the quenelle gesture, often described as an inverted Nazi salute.
Mr. Reynouard, a mathematics teacher who was sacked by the French Education Ministry for his views in 1997, has also sparked controversy in Belgium. The Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism last month asked Google Belgium and YouTube to withdraw “many” of Mr. Reynouard’s videos from the Internet, arguing they violate Belgian law and YouTube’s “community guidelines” on hate speech. “We’d like to see his clips deleted purely and simply,” explains Joël Rubinfeld, president of the LCBA, the League’s French acronym.
Although Mr. Reynouard’s whereabouts are unknown, it is believed he is living in hiding, in either France or Belgium, with fundamentalist Catholic sympathizers. In one of his recent videos, he declares that he is ready to return to prison, confident his “sacrifice” will not be in vain. “Future generations will know who was the honest man and who were the pathetic liars,” he claims.
Despite the looming court case, Westlake Brothers Souvenir is keen to continue its regular activities. It is set to hold a candlelight vigil on April 12 at the Canadian military cemetery in Bény-sur-Mer, the final resting place of 2,049 people, including the Westlakes and eight other sets of siblings.