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"Macron might be right on Pétain, but the French don’t want to hear it" - Dr David Lees

"Macron might be right on Pétain, but the French don’t want to hear it" - says Dr David Lees, of the University of Warwick's School of Modern Languages and Cultures.

Emmanuel Macron might be right about the role of Marshal Philippe Pétain in World War I, but the controversy caused by his remarks demonstrate the unhealed wounds of Vichy

French President Emmanuel Macron sought to praise French First World War military leaders in a commemoration ceremony yesterday (7 November 2018) and argued that even Philippe Pétain deserved some credit for his role in leading French forces. Pétain led the French defence of Verdun in 1916 and is associated with the rotation of front-line troops in response to a threatened mutiny by French conscripts. In describing Pétain as a great soldier, Macron also argued that Pétain had made some ‘disastrous choices’ in the Second World War.

Pétain was appointed Head of the French State in July 1940 having taken control of the French government in June 1940. Despite calls from some within the government, including the junior under-Secretary of State for War, Charles de Gaulle, to continue the fight against Germany, Pétain pursued an armistice with the Nazi invaders and notoriously embarked on the ‘path of collaboration’ with the occupiers from October 1940. The darkest legacy of this collaboration was the rigorous persecution of groups perceived to be ‘anti-France’: Jews, Freemasons and Communists. Although everyday experiences amongst members of these groups were more nuanced than has been previously argued, at least 76,000 Jews were deported to their deaths under Pétain’s regime.

The controversy around Macron’s remarks is rooted in a well-established reluctance in France to openly discuss the Vichy years. Although military leaders on all sides of the First World War have been consistently criticised for their poor strategic choices and failure to engage with the realities of life on the front, without Pétain’s perceived record as the Victor of Verdun he would never have been able to take control of France in the Second World War. Indeed, the widespread relief that greeted Pétain’s appointment as prime minister in June 1940 was down in no small part to Pétain’s war record. The French public was grateful to end hostilities at the request of the calming influence of the Marshal. Public opinion on Pétain was consistently favourable: when his own government’s popularity plummeted in the face of greater restrictions on foodstuffs amongst other unpopular policies, Pétain continued to be revered up until August 1944 at the liberation of Paris.

Some politicians, like the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and some Jewish groups, have argued that Macron did not go far enough in prefacing his praise of Pétain with greater discussion of his role in the deportation of Jews and the persecution of other minorities during the Occupation. Recent evidence suggests that Pétain not only approved of anti-Semitic legislation but also recommended changes to prior drafts. Macron perhaps did not have sufficient time to discuss the full extent of Pétain’s role in the space of a soundbite, but his brief mention of ‘disastrous choices’ could certainly have been more explicit. Pétain’s disastrous choices led to active French involvement in the pursuit of the Final Solution and the Holocaust; France was the only Nazi-occupied country in western Europe to pursue its own official State-approved anti-Semitism.

What the reaction to Macron’s remarks tell us above all is that France continues to find it hard to discuss the nuances of the Occupation and Vichy years. Pétain was revered in 1940 as the hero of Verdun and continued to be revered by the French public—as much for his role in the First World War as anything else—well into 1944. Such nuance does not play well with a French public reluctant to discuss the inglorious Vichy years.

8 November 2018


Tom Frew, Senior Press and Media Relations Manager – University of Warwick:

E: a dot t dot frew at warwick dot ac dot uk
M: +44(0)7785433155