French President Emmanuel Macron caused outrage Wednesday by announcing he would honor General Philippe Petain alongside seven other generals at a ceremony commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War this Saturday.
Petain, who, at the time was considered a national hero for defeating the Germans at Verdun in 1917, was later sentenced to death as a traitor for the role he played during WWII.
Macron, speaking in Charleville-Mezieres, said: “I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory. Marshal Petain was a great soldier in World War I.”
Though Macron admitted that Petain had made “fatal choices during the Second World War,” he added: “My role isn’t to understand that it’s shocking, or to comment about people. My role is to try to explain, to be firm in my convictions, face our history.”
Jewish leaders ‘shocked’
Critics were quick to criticize Macron, pointing to the role that Petain played in history later in life. Francis Kalifat, the president of the Jewish group CRIF, said he was “shocked by this statement by Macron. 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 that Jews were excluded from public function, education and forced to wear the Jewish star.”
‘The Lion of Verdun’
Petain’s star rose within France during World War I, when he became known as “The Lion of Verdun.” He earned the nickname by defending the French city and defeating German forces at what was the longest and one of the deadliest battles of the war; dragging on for almost 10 months and killing some 300,000 men on both sides. Total casualties at Verdun reached almost one million.
Sentenced to death for treason
Petain was appointed commander-in-chief of the French army in mid-1917 and was honored as a national hero. Yet, that would change dramatically two decades later when Petain collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Petain was appointed Prime Minister of France in the face of German occupation and decided to seek peace with the aggressors as head of the Vichy government between 1940 and 1944. The decision directly led to the deportation and death of French Jews.
After the war, Petain was put on trial and sentenced to death for treason. The sentence was commuted to life in prison by General Charles de Gaulle, who was president at the time. Petain died in prison in 1951 at the age of 95.
On Saturday, Petain will be honored alongside seven other French Generals at a ceremony to be held at Paris’ Les Invalides cathedral.
js/aw (AFP, AP, Reuters)