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Macron provokes anger over tribute to France’s Nazi collaborator Pétain

President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that it was "absolutely legitimate" that France honours the role of Marshal Philippe Pétain for being a "great soldier" in World War One even if he did go on to collaborate with the Nazis in the Second World War before being jailed for treason.

Macron provokes anger over tribute to France's Nazi collaborator Pétain
Macron defends the homage to Pétain (inset) and other French World War One soldiers. and Photo: AFP

Homage will paid to Marshal Philippe Pétain and other World War One French army leaders at a service at Les Invalides in Paris on Saturday as part of the commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.

Macron himself won't be present but the head of France's armed services will be there.

But given that Pétain went on to rule the so-called Vichy France regime which collaborated with the Nazis in World War Two, notably over the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to death camps, questions have been raised over whether Pétain should be among those honoured.

However when asked about he controversial choice Macron defended Pétain – who was later imprisoned for committing treason – as one of the heros of World War One even if he did go on to make “disastrous choices” during World War Two.

“Marshall Pétain was a great soldier during World War One,” said Macron. “That's a reality of our country”.

“French politicians and historians have judged him, but I consider it's absolutely legitimate that we pay homage to those who led the army to victory,” said Macron. “Politics like human nature is more complex than we often believe.

“You can be a great soldier during World War One and then go on to make disastrous choices during World War Two.”

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Philippe Pétain – World War One hero turned Nazi collaborator

As expected Macron's choice of words sparked a furious reaction among many, notably on Twitter where some accused him of “shaming the history of France”.

“In 1945, Pétain is condemned to national indignity. In 2018, the French State pays him a national tribute. On top of that Macron claims to fight against the extreme right. Shameful. Never forget,” said one tweet that was widely liked and shared.
 
CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organisations in France said it was “shocked” by Macron's words.
 
“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,” said in a statement from CRIF.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left France Unbowed party said: “Petain is a traitor and an anti-Semite,” tweeted , echoing a flurry of angry postings.
 
“Macron, this time you've gone too far!”

While veteran France correspondent and columnist for The Local John Lichfield disputed whether Pétain is really deserving of the title “great soldier”.

Petain remains a controversial and disputed figure in France. While he is heralded by the far right most others do not forgot his role in the death of thousands of Jews. Pétain's tomb has been regularly vandalised over the years.

Pétain was a French general officer who attained the position of Marshal of France — a position awarded for exceptional military achievements — at the end of World War One.

During the war he became known as 'The Lion of Verdun' for his role in the Battle of Verdun, one of the Great War's longest and bloodiest battles where some 162,000 French soldiers were killed.

While the Nazis occupied the north of France, Petain led so-called Vichy France in the centre and the south of the country, with its headquarters in the eponymous spa city.

Despite having autonomy from German policies, Petain passed legislation that saw Jews — around 150,000 of whom had fled to southern France believing it to be safer — subjected to severe discrimination similar to that in the Nazi-occupied north.

Under Petain, the Vichy regime put to death up to 15,000 people and helped deport nearly 80,000.

After the war Petain was convicted of treason and condemned to death but General Charles de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life in prison.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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