The Chronicle of
August 13, 1999
Over Holocaust Denial Sparks Furor at 2 French
call for punishment of two professors who advised a
By BARBARA GIUDICE
A court case involving writings
denying the existence of the Holocaust has sparked a new
controversy at two French universities where such
theories have been propagated in the past. Jean
Plantin, editor of a right-wing political magazine
-- the name is Greek for "exactitude" -- was fined and
given a six-month suspended jail sentence in May by a
court in Lyon, in southeastern France, for publishing
excerpts from books banned for their negationist content.
(The term "negationist" is used in France to refer to
theories and writings that question the Holocaust or
aspects of it.)
The trial brought to public attention Mr. Plantin's
own Holocaust-related writings, including work that
helped him earn graduate degrees at the Universities of
Lyon II and III. In the aftermath of the trial, the two
history professors who directed his graduate work
resigned as research advisers, although they have
remained on the faculties of their respective
institutions and continue to teach and do research. Some
student leaders have called for the professors to resign
their faculty posts.
Among academics who have supported the professors,
concern is now mounting that the public outcry might
pressure French scholars of the Holocaust to put limits
on their research. The integrity of the two professors --
Regis Ladous, of the University of Lyon III, or
Yves Lequin, of the University of Lyon II -- has
not been called into question. But their judgment has.
Critics say the scholars were negligent in allowing Mr.
Plantin to be awarded advanced degrees.
"I don't think either
professor should be penalized -- both have long been
adversaries of negationist theories," says Herve
Joly, a professor of contemporary history at Lyon
II. "But they have committed serious professional
errors. The question is whether other students will
want to work with them in the future."
Mr. Joly says that Mr. Lequin "should have interviewed
Mr. Plantin more closely before agreeing to be his
adviser, so as to know how he stood on the Holocaust."
Mr. Lequin worked with Mr. Plantin on his research and
essay for his advanced degree, known as the D.E.A., which
in France is completed in preparation for the doctorate.
The essay was a study of typhus
in Nazi concentration camps. Negationist literature often
attributes the deaths of the Jews in the camps to the
spread of typhus, rather than to a deliberate act of
extermination by gas.
Mr. Lequin acknowledges that he was wrong to approve
Mr. Plantin for his D.E.A. He says he did not know Mr.
Plantin's views on the Holocaust. "I was tricked by this
student, and that means I made a mistake," he says in an
interview. "That is why I have stepped down as research
director." Mr. Lequin adds, however, that his approval of
Mr. Plantin's work was qualified. "His work was of
mediocre quality, and I did not give him a high enough
grade for him to continue his studies toward a
French universities are not required to keep D.E.A.
essays on file, and at Lyon II, no trace exists of Mr.
Plantin's study. At the University of Lyon III, Mr.
Ladous directed Mr. Plantin's 1990 master's essay on the
writings of Paul Rassinier, who in the 1950s wrote
several books expressing doubt about the existence of gas
chambers at Nazi concentration camps. Mr. Ladous could
not be reached to comment on the controversy. However,
the French news media have quoted him as saying that Mr.
Plantin's essay "was so grotesque that I thought that no
one would ever take Rassinier seriously again after
that." He has defended his decision to grant the degree
to Mr. Plantin, noting that the essay itself did not
espouse Rassinier's views.
The University of Lyon III is investigating the
circumstances surrounding the granting of the master's
degree to Mr. Plantin. Students are now calling for the
annulment of Mr. Plantin's two graduate degrees, as well
as the formation of a national commission to look into
negationism at French universities.
"Our universities' respectability is at risk," says
Mathieu Pasquio, the chairman of the largest
student association at Lyon II and III. "Our diplomas
have been devalued because people like Plantin have
gotten degrees from Lyon." He worries that, because Mr.
Plantin has advanced degrees and can call himself a
historian, his ideas attract attention and win
credibility that would otherwise be denied.
Over the past three decades, the two universities --
which at one time were a single institution -- have
earned a reputation as a stronghold of negationist
studies. Roger Faurisson, an assistant professor
of history at the University of Lyon II in the late
1970s, who subscribed to theories questioning the
extermination of Jews at Auschwitz, had followers around
the world. In the 1980s, a group of right-wing professors
at Lyon III established a controversial research center
called the Institute of Indo-European Studies, which
critics denounced as an ideological laboratory for the
extreme right. Under pressure from students -- and under
review by an international committee of scholars -- the
institute closed its doors last October.
Bruno Gelas, the president of Lyon II, is
critical of Mr. Lequin for the way he handled his
dealings with Mr. Plantin. But he has refused to annul
the diploma. "I am not going to cancel a degree just
because a student, eight years later, has done something
that is against the law," he says. "I have no proof at
this stage that the D.E.A. essay was negationist. The
document no longer exists." But Mr. Gelas has decided to
change how things are done at the university. "From now
on," he says, "Lyon II will keep all D.E.A. essays on
file, even though the law does not require us to do so.
And, as of the fall, all subjects of D.E.A. essays will
be publicized" on the university's site on the World-Wide
Noting that most negationist scholarship in France has
originated at the Universities of Lyon II and III,
critics say that even if it is proved that Mr. Plantin's
essays did not overtly express negationist theories, the
two institutions remain a magnet for those who want to
explore such ideas. In an attempt to head off future
problems, Mr. Gelas, has set up a commission for both
universities that will try to answer questions such as,
What is negationist discourse? Made up of historians from
the two institutions, the panel also will examine the
relationship between negationist theory and the extreme
right in France.
Arnaud Burtin, the
national president of the French Jewish Students
Union, says that the actions taken by the two
universities do not go far enough. His organization is
calling for the two professors to step down. "This
incident shows that Lyon has a problem," he says.
"Lyon is the capital of negationism, and any
Lyon-based commission will just not be credible. The
commission has to be national."
Many professors at both universities are now asking how
all this could have happened. They want clearer guidelines
on how many students one research adviser should take on,
saying that the negligence in the two cases involving Mr.
Plantin may have been partly caused by the excessive
workloads of professors. They have noted that one of the
Lyon II professors who served on the jury for Mr. Plantin's
advanced degree admits to not having read his
now-controversial essay. Several prominent historians in
France are now circulating a petition in support of Mr.
Ladous, accompanied by a strongly worded note of caution
about the need for scholars to feel free to pursue any
avenues of research. "The existence of taboo subjects of
research," their statement said, "can only lead to the
stagnation of academic reflection."