PéTAIN  – WW1 HERO OR WW2 VILLAIN? THAT IS THE QUESTION…

  Shame does stick it’s head out at the most inconvenient and thus embarrassing moments. France is leading the centenary commemoration of the end of WW1 – the Great War. Over sixty world leaders will be here on Sunday, November 11, for the main ceremony at Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. President Trump will be one […]

Petain welcoming Hitler to Paris with a handshake

 

Shame does stick it’s head out at the most inconvenient and thus embarrassing moments.

France is leading the centenary commemoration of the end of WW1 – the Great War. Over sixty world leaders will be here on Sunday, November 11, for the main ceremony at Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. President Trump will be one of them.

Meanwhile, since Sunday, November 4, French President Emmanuel Macron has been visiting the cemeteries where WW1’s fallen soldiers lie buried, not only the French ones, but also those from foreign armies who had died on the battlefields in France.

At each memorial the president has laid a wreath in the colours of France – blue, white and red – and listened, his features drawn tightly in sorrow, to the solemn tones of the Last Post followed by the jubilant national anthem of France.  

On Wednesday, November 7, at the memorial for the slain of Verdun, when silence had again fallen, he closed his eyes for a few seconds and one could only imagine what must have been going through the mind of this 40-year-old who had experienced neither the First nor the Second World War. (Macron was born on Dec 21, 1977.)

However, that Wednesday, during the president’s homage to the fallen, he had mentioned by name the French victor of the Battle of Verdun.

So what was wrong with that?

That man was Marshal Philippe Pétain.

Marshall Pétain, mostly referred to just as ‘Pétain’ by the French these days, was the man who had headed collaborationist France during WW2.

He was the man who had welcomed Adolf Hitler to defeated France, who had welcomed this arch-enemy of France, indeed of the free world, to Paris with a handshake, and who had arrested all those in France who opposed Nazi Germany to have either shot them or deported them to concentration camps, and who had instituted a series of laws under which Jews were arrested and either shot or deported to concentration camps there to be gassed to death.   And this included children, even toddlers and babies.

Said President Macron speaking of a ceremony which will be held on Saturday (November 10) at ‘Les Invalides’ in Paris to honour the eight marshals who had led the French forces to victory in WW1: “I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory.”

Rightly so.

However, one of those eight marshals was – tain.

Said the president: “Marshal Pétain was a great soldier in World War One, it’s a fact.”

He did though add that Pétain had made “disastrous choices” in the Second World War.

Of those eight French marshals who had led the French forces to victory. five lie buried in ‘Les Invalides’ in the proximity of the tomb of Napoléon, and, as France’s presidential palace (the Elysée) pointed out in an effort to calm the anger among the French over the president having included Petain among the country’s glorious WW1 marshals, only those five marshals will be cited during the November 10 ‘les Invalides’ ceremony.

 Marshal Pétain, arrested and tried for ‘treason’ at the end of WW2 in 1945 and sentenced to death, will not be mentioned.  Will not be honoured.

Pétain was however not shot as a military person found guilty of ‘treason’ would have been. This was because General Charles de Gaulle, in 1945 France’s head-of-sate, had commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment because of the condemned marshal’s advanced age of 89. Petain was therefore incarcerated in the Pierre-Levée fortress on the Ile d’Yeu island off France’s Atlantic Coast and there he had died on July 23,1951 aged 95. He was buried on the island, and he still lies buried there.

However, President Macron having mentioned the unmentionable – Pétain – there were angry comments from all the French. From politicians from the ‘left’ and from the ‘right’ and from his own centrist party, and from Jewish groups as well as from the man-in-the-street.

 Said Monsieur Francis Kalifat, head of the CRIF association of French Jewish groups: “The only thing we will remember about Pétain is that he was convicted, in the name of the French people, of national indignity.”

Jean-Luc Melenchon, France’s far-left ‘Unbowed Party’, was more vehement in his criticism of President Macron by tweeting: “Pétain is a traitor and an anti-Semite.”

Monsieur Melenchon added angrily that this time President Macron has “gone too far”. He referred to the President’s continuous faux pas, like when he told an out-of-work young farm worker, who was desperately looking for employment, to ‘just cross the street’ and he will find a job. 

President Macron did try to explain away this latest faux pas regarding Petain by saying: “I’m not overlooking any page in our history.  Political life, and human nature, are sometimes more complicated than we might like to believe.”

He will not attend the ‘Les Invalides’ ceremony on Saturday, November 10, as it will be strictly military, his chief military advisor representing him. His non-attendance is not because of his Petain remarks, but on Saturday, accompanied by German Chancellor Angela Markel, he will be in Compiègne Forest at the railway carriage where Germany had signed their surrender in 1918 – and alas – where in 1940 Hitler had forced defeated France to sign France’s capitulation.

The main commemoration ceremony will be on Sunday, November 11, when the visiting heads-of-state will be present at a wreath-laying ceremony at Paris’s Arc-de-Triomphe.  Afterwards the heads-of-state will attend a peace conference, a ‘Forum sur la Paix’, as it is called in France.

It must be said that President Macron is not the only French head-of-state to have mentioned Pétain, or to have paid tribute to Pétain which is as some here in France and elsewhere, consider he had done.

The first French president to have paid tribute to Pétain was President Mitterrand (1916/1996) when he had placed flowers on Pétain’s grave every November 11 of his time in office (1981/1995).

This practice was stopped by his successor, President Jacques Chirac.

WW1’s number of casualties number 18.6 million. Of this number 9.7 were militia and 8.9 civilians.

France’s soldiers were known as ‘les Poilus’ – the Bearded Ones.

The last surviving Bearded One was Lazare Ponticelli (1897/2008).    He lived in the community of Kremlin-Bicetre south of Paris and it was there that he had died aged 110.   Each year on November 11 his dapper figure was seen at the town’s memorial to those who had ‘died for France’ as those who fall during an armed conflict are called.

Verdun WW1memorial

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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