Foreign correspondent focusing on French and European politics and culture
France's Marshal Philippe Petain points out when he orders our photographer from the room during the ministerial meeting in Vichy…
PARIS – In France, the name Philippe Pétain is a synonym of national shame, a stand-in for the darkest chapter in modern French – and even European history.
Pétain was the leader of France’s Vichy government, the reactionary regime that co-operated with Nazi Germany during World War II and participated in the expulsion of 76,000 Jews during the Holocaust. After the war he was tried and convicted of betrayal. Had it not been for his advanced age (was almost 90 in time), he would have been executed.
On Wednesday, President Frank Emmanuel Macron came to fire to support the idea that France should pay tribute to Pétain during a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Army completed in World War II. But at the end of the day, in a criticism of criticism, Élysée was forced to defend, backtracking from the president’s word, claiming that Pétain would not be honored.
Before he became the head of the Vichy government, Pétain was a military hero of World War I, which has made its name on Verdun, the longest war of the war. More than 300,000 soldiers – French and German – died in that battle, one of the bloodiest in the war.
“He was a great soldier,” said Macron . “It’s a reality.” Pétain, Macron had originally proposed, was to be recognized alongside seven other marshals that led successful military campaigns during the war. Army sources had also told French media that Pétain was on the list.
“It is legitimate that we owe the marshals who led the army to victory,” Macron told reporters.
“Political life as human nature, is sometimes more complex than we would like to believe,” said Macron. “I’ve always looked at our country’s history in my face.”
These remarks destroyed Jewish groups and a number of historians who saw the move in line with a new wave of historical revisionism. It also covered coverage from almost all major French newspapers and provoked widespread condemnation of social media.
Among the highest critics was Macron’s predecessor, former president François Hollande, who issued a statement on Wednesday night. “History does not isolate a single step, even a radiant military career,” wrote Hollande in comments published on Twitter. “It assesses the enormous and invaluable responsibility of a Marshal who deliberately used his name and prestige as a cover for treason and cooperation and the expulsion of thousands of French Jews.”
“The only thing I want to remember about Pétain is that in 1945 he was an incarnation of national shame, which makes him unable to pay homage,” said Francis Kalifat, 19459027, the President of the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations (CRIF) France’s largest Jewish advocacy group, in a statement.
Last Wednesday, Élysée returned from the president’s original words in response to the criticisms and stressed in a series of social media that Pétain will not actually be honored in a Saturday ceremony. But the deal, but small, resumed a long-standing debate about previous wounds.
The Vichy regime is famous for persecuting, largely independent of German press, its own random anti-Semitic legislation in accordance with the “National Revolution” attempted to inspire.
“Statut des Juifs”, which passed in two separate newspapers in October 1940 and June 1941, banned Jews from public life and the free professions. Vichy also continued the agenda for “Aryanization”, according to which French authorities liquidated Jewish property to enrich the central government debt.
In general, the memory of the Second World War for decades was ranked among the most explosive subjects in French public life. For years, admirers – including former French presidents – left flowers on the grave of Pétain every year on the Army’s anniversary.
This exercise came to an end in 1992 when François Mitterrand, a Socialist president who served in the Vichy administration between 1941 and 1943, made himself public press. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac ended decades of ambiguity by declaring that Vichy was in fact the French state and that the expulsion of Jews during the war was the fault of France
. In recent years, however, an attempt has been made to rehabilitate Pétain, mostly to the right.
The convicted Holocaust of Holocaust and the Forward Co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, for example, wrote a warrior in a memoir published earlier this year; The right commentary Éric Zemmour did the same in a book published last month.
Pétain, Zemmour wrote, where “double trade” in some way tries to save the country and French Jews, behind the scenes. The vast majority of Jews deported from France never returned.
These are no longer frantic views: Both the Zemmours book and Le Pens memoirs were immediate bestsellers.
For many, the question of whether Macron’s revoked decision would in any way approve a reassessment of Pétain. When the press was pushed by journalists, the 40-year-old president immediately went on the defensive. “I do not hide any story,” he said.
For some historians, however, the problem is the potential effect of Macron’s words.
“The problem is that the statement comes from the President of the Republic,” said Laurent Joly, an expert in Vichy France’s history and the author of a new book on Vichy anti-Semitism. “If the army had tried to remind Pétain, no-one had claimed them.”
“But there has been consensus since 1992. What this is is going back to the consensus. It creates ambiguities,” he said.
This story was originally published on November 7th and was updated on November 8th to reflect the decision not to honor Pétain.