On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron came under fire for endorsing the idea that France should pay tribute to Pétain during a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I. But by the end of the day, amid a torrent of criticism, the Élysée was forced on the defensive, backtracking from the president’s words and asserting that Pétain would not be honored.
Before he became head of the Vichy government, Pétain was a military hero from World War I, having made his name at Verdun, the longest battle of the war. More than 300,000 soldiers — French and German alike — died in that battle, one of the bloodiest in the war.
“It was never part of the plan to honor Pétain,” an Élysée source told The Washington Post, noting that Pétain will not be included in a Saturday morning ceremony that will honor other World War I heroes.
But Macron’s words had suggested otherwise, and set off a national firestorm.
“He was a great soldier,” Macron said. “It’s a reality.” Pétain, Macron had originally suggested, would be recognized along with seven other marshals who led successful military campaigns during the war. Army sources had also told French media that Pétain was on the list.
“It’s legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led the army to victory,” Macron had told reporters.
“Political life, like human nature, is sometimes more complex than we would like to believe,” Macron said. “I’ve always looked the history of our country in the face.”
Those remarks outraged Jewish groups and a number of historians, who saw the move in keeping with a recent wave of historical revisionism. It also drew coverage from nearly every major French newspaper and elicited widespread condemnation on social media.
Among the loudest critics was Macron’s predecessor, former president François Hollande, who issued a scathing statement on Wednesday night. “History does not isolate a single stage, even a glorious military career,” Hollande wrote, in remarks posted on Twitter. “It judges the immense and unworthy responsibility of a marshal who deliberately used his name and prestige as a cover for treason and the collaboration and deportation of thousands of Jews of France.”
“The only thing I want to remember about Pétain is that in 1945 he was an incarnation of national shame, which makes him ineligible for any tribute,” said Francis Kalifat, the president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations (CRIF), France’s largest Jewish advocacy group, in a statement.
Late Wednesday, the Élysée backtracked from the president’s initial words in response to the criticism, emphasizing in a slew of social media posts that Pétain will not, in fact, be honored in a Saturday ceremony. But the affair, however small, reopened a long-standing debate about the wounds of the past.
The Vichy regime is notorious for having pursued, largely independent of German pressure, its own slew of anti-Semitic legislation in keeping with the “National Revolution” it sought to inspire.
The “Statut des Juifs,” passed in two separate junctures in October 1940 and June 1941, banned Jews from public life and the free professions. Vichy also pursued the agenda of “Aryanization,” under which French authorities liquidated Jewish property to enrich the coffers of the state.
In general, the memory of World War II ranked for decades among the most explosive topics in French public life. For years, admirers — including former French presidents — left flowers on Pétain’s grave every year, on the anniversary of the Armistice.
That practice came to an abrupt end in 1992, when François Mitterrand, a Socialist president who had served in the Vichy administration between 1941 and 1943, succumbed to public pressure. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac ended decades of ambiguity by declaring that Vichy was, in fact, the French state and that the deportation of Jews during the war was France’s fault.
In recent years, however, there has been an attempt to rehabilitate Pétain, mostly on the extreme right.
The convicted Holocaust denier and National Front co-founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, for instance, wrote fondly of the wartime leader in a memoir published earlier this year; the right-wing commentator Éric Zemmour did much the same in a book published in September.
Pétain, Zemmour wrote, was “double-dealing,” somehow attempting to rescue the country and French Jews, from behind the scenes. The vast majority of the Jews deported from France never returned.
These are no longer fringe opinions: Both Zemmour’s book and Le Pen’s memoirs were instant bestsellers.
For many, the question is whether Macron’s since retracted decision would somehow endorse a reconsideration of Pétain. When pressed by journalists, the 40-year-old president went on the defensive immediately. “I’m not hiding any page of history,” 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 the history of Vichy France and the author of a new book on Vichy anti-Semitism. “If the army had sought to commemorate Pétain, no one would have reproached them.
“But there has been a consensus since 1992. What this does is go back on that consensus. It creates ambiguities,” he said.
This story originally published on Nov. 7 and was updated on Nov. 8 to reflect the decision not to honor Pétain.