Emmanuel Macron praises French general who collaborated with Nazis

France’s leading Jewish organisation issued a searing criticism of the president’s stance on Marshal Petain

FILE - This June 9, 1941file photo shows France's Marshal Philippe Petain pointing as he ordered our photographer from the room during the sell-out meeting of the Council of Ministers in Vichy, central France. French President Emmanuel Macron waded onto controversial ground Wednesday Nov.7, 2018 by praising a World War I general who subsequently collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.(AP Photo, File)
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French President Emmanuel Macron waded into controversy on Wednesday by praising a general who helped win the First World War, but became a top Nazi collaborator in the Second World War – comments that triggered outrage among French Jews.

Marshal Philippe Petain's name appears alongside seven other top military chiefs to be honoured this Saturday in a ceremony at the Invalides monument, site of Napoleon's tomb, to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

Touring battlefields before a formal commemoration of the November 11, 1918, armistice that ended the war, Mr Macron said Petain was worthy of the honour for his leading role in the First World War victory.


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"Marshal Petain was also a great soldier during the First World War", even though he made "fatal choices during the Second World War", Mr Macron said in northern town Charleville-Mezieres.

The stop was part of a week-long tour that included Verdun, which Petain defended against a German onslaught.

Petain led the French army to victory in Verdun in 1916, but gained infamy and a conviction for treason for his actions as leader of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944. He is despised for his complicity in the Holocaust.

“I pardon nothing, but I erase nothing of our history,” Mr Macron added.

The French presidency later said that only the five top military chiefs who are interred in the Invalides will be individually honoured and have their names cited in the ceremony – not including Petain.

Mr Macron will not attend the military ceremony.

The French president, 40, who is sliding in polls, is gaining a reputation for making awkward or shocking statements. In September, he told a young out-of-work gardener that he need only "cross the street" to find a job.

But Wednesday’s remarks struck a deep chord in a nation that has lived through two world wars and only in recent decades has acknowledged its collaborationist past.

Former president Jacques Chirac admitted in 1995 that Petain’s Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis, was the French state. Mr Chirac spoke at the Vel’ d’Hiv cycling stadium in Paris, known for a 1942 round-up of French Jews that saw 13,000 people deported to Nazi concentration camps, a third of them children.

France's leading Jewish organisation, CRIF, issued a searing criticism of Mr Macron's stance.

"I am shocked by this statement by Macron," CRIF president Francis Kalifat said. "Petain was the person who allowed the deportation of 76,000 French Jews to death camps. Petain signed the [law on] the status of Jews that meant Jews were excluded from public functions, education and forced to wear the Jewish star."

French politicians voiced outrage and a sense of weariness at Mr Macron’s repeated gaffes, with far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon capturing the sense of indignity.

“Macron, this time, it’s too much. The history of France isn’t your toy,” Mr Melenchon tweeted. “This anti-Semitic traitor cannot be amnestied by the caprice of Macron.”

Mr Kalifat said it was “an insult” that a French president could honour Petain on “the same level as the other generals”, but he acknowledged the marshal’s pivotal role in the Great War that earned him the nickname "Lion of Verdun".

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux insisted the issue was a "false controversy". He quoted Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces in the Second World War and the nation's universal hero, as saying of Petain in 1966 that "the glory he earned in Verdun.... can be neither contested nor go unrecognised by the nation".