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France says no Petain homage after 'great soldier' outcry

Le président Emmanuel Macron au cimetière de Douaumont, près de Verdun, le 6 novembre 2018
LUDOVIC MARIN (POOL/AFP)
Historians consider Petain a brilliant tactician during WWI, but he actively collaborated with Nazis in WWII

The French government said there will be no official French homage to Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain at World War I ceremonies this week, after President Emmanuel Macron drew fire for calling the Vichy leader a "great soldier".

"The marshals whose honour has not been tarnished, and only those, will be honoured by the republic," spokesman Benjamin Griveaux posted on Facebook late Wednesday.

"If there was a confusion, it's because we weren't sufficiently clear on this point," he said.

A chorus of protests had erupted after Macron indicated Petain would be among the eight marshals honoured Saturday for their role in leading the French fight, saying he had earned the country's gratitude.

"It's right that we honour the marshals who led France to victory," Macron said in the town of Charleville-Mezieres, part of a tour of northern France marking the centenary of the end of the 1914-18 war.

"He was a great soldier, it's a fact, he added, though he stressed that Petain had made "disastrous choices" during World War II.

INP/AFP/File

His comments set off a storm of criticism from rival politicians as well as Jewish leaders, who accused the president of discounting Petain's treasonous collaboration with the Nazi occupiers in the 1940s.

"The only thing we will remember about Petain is that he was convicted, in the name of the French people, of national indignity during his trial in 1945," Francis Kalifat of the CRIF association of French Jewish groups.

Macron himself tried to tamp down the controversy later Wednesday, acknowledging that Petain was complicit in "grave crimes."

"I'm not forgiving anything, but I'm not going to erase anything from our history," he said.

- Uneasy legacy -

French army officials had announced that all eight WWI marshals would be commemorated at the Invalides military hospital and museum in Paris on Saturday.

Macron will be represented by a general who is his top military advisor.

Petain is not among the marshals at the Invalides, having been buried on the Ile d'Yeu off the Atlantic coast.

For years French leaders have treaded lightly when dealing with Petain's legacy, which continues to divide the nation decades on.

(AP Photo)

Historians generally consider the marshal a brilliant tactician during World War I, not least for halting the German advance at Verdun in 1916.

He also earned soldiers' admiration by advocating strategies which avoided unnecessary fighting and deaths -- though he nonetheless condoned the execution of attempted deserters.

Hailed as a hero after the armistice, Petain would be called on to lead again after Germany invaded in 1940, taking over much of France.

But as head of the Vichy regime, he actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, pursuing French resistance fighters while enacting second-class status for Jews and helping German soldiers round them up for the death camps.

After the war's end he was arrested for treason and given the death sentence, which was commuted to life imprisonment given his age. He died in 1951, aged 95.

The debate over his legacy reflects a longtime divide along political lines, with rightwing groups often praising Petain's endorsement of what he considered traditional Catholic values.

As head of Vichy France, he replaced the country's motto of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" with the more imperious "Work, Family and Country".

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