* Le Pen says France not responsible for wartime mass arrest
* Comments deal setback to her attempts to clean up party's
* Rival politicians, Jewish group condemn her statement
By Adrian Croft
PARIS, April 10 Far-right presidential candidate
Marine Le Pen has touched a raw nerve in France by denying the
French state's responsibility for a mass arrest of Jews in Paris
during World War Two.
Le Pen, a frontrunner in the election being held this month
and next, triggered an outcry with her comments on one of the
darkest episodes of French history when the country was occupied
by the Nazis during the war.
"I think France isn't responsible for the Vel d'Hiv," Le Pen
said in a French media interview on Sunday, referring to the
July 16, 1942 German-ordered roundup by French police of 13,000
Jews in Paris.
Most of the Jews were crammed in appalling conditions into
the Velodrome d'Hiver or Winter Velodrome cycling stadium,
colloquially known as the Vel d'Hiv, before being deported to
the Auschwitz extermination camp.
"I think that, in general, if there are people responsible,
it is those who were in power at the time. It is not France," Le
Pen said in comments that were condemned by other presidential
candidates, a Jewish group and Israel's Foreign Ministry.
"We have taught our children that they had every reason to
criticise France, to see only the darkest historical aspects
perhaps. I want them to be proud of being French once more," she
said in the interview with media organisations Le Figaro, RTL
France has long struggled to come to terms with its role
under the collaborationist Vichy regime during World War Two.
Altogether 76,000 Jews deported from France were killed.
In 1995, then President Jacques Chirac recognised that the
French state shared responsibility for deporting Jews to Nazi
death camps during the war, the first time a post-war French
head of state had fully acknowledged France's role.
Socialist President Francois Hollande in 2012 described the
1942 mass arrest as "a crime committed in France, by France."
Her comments, just as campaigning officially opened in the
election, could set back her attempts to clean up the image of
her anti-immigration National Front and distance it from the
anti-Semitic views of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party's
Le Pen is running neck-and-neck with centrist Emmanuel
Macron in the April 23 first round, according to opinion polls.
The polls say Macron would easily beat Le Pen in the May 7
Le Pen issued a statement late on Sunday saying she
considered that the French state was in exile in London during
the occupation and that her stance "in no way exonerates the
effective and personal responsibility of the French people who
took part in the horrible Vel d'Hiv roundup and in all the
atrocities committed during this period."
The Israeli foreign ministry condemned Le Pen's comments.
"This contradicts the historical truth as expressed in
statements by French presidents who recognised the country’s
responsibility for the fate of the French Jews who perished in
the Holocaust," a spokesman said, adding that the ministry
regretted that anti-Semitism "is raising its head again today."
Rival election candidates also criticised Le Pen.
"Some people had forgotten that Marine Le Pen is the
daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They haven't changed and we must
have no indulgence or minimise what the National Front is today
in our country," Macron told BFM television.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon said there was no longer
any doubt that Le Pen was from the extreme right.
Sacha Ghozlan, president of the French Jewish Students'
Union, accused Le Pen of "revisionism".
In a statement, Ghozlan called on French citizens to
mobilise in the election to block Le Pen "and prevent her from
sullying once again the honour of France and the memory of the
victims of the Vichy regime."
(Reporting by Cyril Camu, Marine Pennetier, Sophie Louet,
Adrian Croft, Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Richard Balmforth)