Paris: At 9 am local time on Monday, Elie Buzyn leaned on his walking stick, a miniature French tricolour sticking out of his coat pocket, and watched from the side as a group of young activists agitated energetically in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Emmanuel Macron had won the French presidential election on Sunday night, capturing 66% of the vote and in the process defeating extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, and Buzyn, 88, was among those who had exhaled in relief at the result.
In his ninth decade, Buzyn showed no signs of tiredness, having made it a point to come out and join the activists celebrating the Macron victory on a rainy Monday morning. “I have come to warn the young people to oppose any regime of extremism, the extreme right or the extreme left,” he said, wrapped in his blue hat and blue scarf. “They have to resist. Europe is in danger and we have enemies who are not easy to fight against.”
Buzyn would know. As a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust he has seen a previous round of corrosive extremism rip through Europe.
In August 1944, at the age of 15, Polish-born Buzyn was deported to Auschwitz along with his parents. His mother and father were sent to the gas chambers on the day of their arrival in the camp. Buzyn was sent to work in the fields at the camp, then as a stone mason. “I told my mother I would stay alive and fight,” he said. “My parents said you have to resist. Tell the family what happened.”
Before Auschwitz was liberated by Allied forces in January 1945, the Germans marched the remaining detainees in the snow to the camp in Buchenwald. Buzyn finally walked out a free man in April 1945 when the war ended and moved to France to try and locate surviving members of his family.
He later left to work for the newly-formed state of Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, returning to France again at the age of 25. He had left school at 11, when he came back, he finished his education, studied medicine and became a surgeon.
France’s minorities were especially concerned about a Le Pen victory, given the party’s record of anti-Semitic, intolerant remarks. The party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was fined by a French court and dismissed from the party by his daughter following his Holocaust denialisms. Though the younger Le Pen has sought to sanitise the party of its more virulent tendencies, she has herself tried to downplay the role of the French police in rounding up Jews in 1942 to deport them to the camps.
Buzyn said the fight against extremism did not end with Sunday’s victory. “We have to go on fighting,” he said. “The parliamentary elections are next. And Le Pen is going to make it hard for the new president. It will be hard if people don’t fight for him.”
Monday’s gathering by Avaaz, group of activists from different countries, was a call to consolidate the incremental victories against the march of the far-right through Europe. Earlier this year, extreme parties in both the Netherlands and Austria were defeated at the polls.
“Austria said no, the Dutch said no, now France said no, that is why we are celebrating,” said Julie Deruy, 29, a campaigner with Avaaz. “We will keep campaigning against divisiveness and far right ideas. Hopefully Germany will do the same [when they vote in September].”
The group waved French and EU flags and placards that said “France tells hate: Never again!”. It was particularly fitting that it was May 8, or Victory Day, marked in France as the day in 1945 the Second World War officially ended with Germany’s surrender. “That was the celebration of the end of the war of hatred,” said Stephanie Gilabert, 32, a physiotherapist. “And we would today like to send a message to say we are united against hatred. Keep Europe united. We want peace to win, not hate.”
Macron wants to stay in the EU; Le Pen on the other hand wanted to tighten borders and leave the union.
Activist members from other countries in Europe were also part of the Monday gathering. Germany goes to polls in September, another country where the influence of the far right has been growing slowly. “Today we celebrate hope over hate,” said Christoph Schott, 30, a Berlin resident who came on Monday. “Three countries have said no to the far right. Hopefully Germany will do the same.”