The French government has backed down over apparent plans to pay tribute to Marshal Philippe Pétain – who collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews from France during World War II – as part of commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
French President Emmanuel Macron came under fire Wednesday after he said it was “legitimate” to honor Pétain’s role as a “great soldier” in World War I.
Hours later, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said in a Facebook post that no tribute would be paid to Pétain in Saturday’s ceremony.
“We had announced that we would honor the marshals of the Great War. Some have deduced that Pétain was one of them; this is not the case. If there was confusion, it was because we were not clear enough on that point,” Griveaux said.
“In the words of the President, there was no question of a tribute, but of historical truth. Pétain served in 1914. He contributed to the victory of 1918. But nothing will obscure or make us forget the Pétain who betrayed, collaborated and infamously signed and implemented the decree on the status of the Jews.”
Pétain was considered a hero when he led the French to victory at the Battle of Verdun in 1916, in which more than 300,000 soldiers died. Pétain later led France’s Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and participated in the deportation of Jews. After the war ended, Pétain was convicted and jailed for treason.
Macron’s comments were made during a visit to the northern town of Charleville-Mézières, part of a tour of former battlefields marking the centenary of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I.
“I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory,” Macron said.
“You can be a great soldier during World War I and then go on to make disastrous choices during World War II.”
Politicians and organizations were quick to criticize his words.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left party France Unbowed, tweeted: “Macron, this time you’ve gone too far! The history of France is not your toy.”
Meanwhile, former President François Hollande tweeted: “History doesn’t isolate a single stage, even a glorious military career. 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 in France.”
The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, known as CRIF, said it was “shocked” by Macron’s words.
“The only thing we will remember about Pétain is that he was the embodiment of the national shame of the French people during his trial in 1945,” CRIF’s statement read.