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France cancels homage to Nazi-collaborator Petain after outcry

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".

France cancels homage to Nazi-collaborator Petain after outcry
Marshal Pétain and his wife in their car on the Swiss border in 1945 just a few months before he was sentenced to death for collaborating with the enemy. Photo: AFP
“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.
 
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Five things to know about Marshal Philippe Pétain - France's WWI hero turned Nazi collaboratorPétain (2nd-L) meets with Hermann Goering (R), the founder of Nazi secret police Gestapo on December 1st 1941. Photo: AFP   

“He was a great soldier, it's a fact, he added, though he stressed that Petain had made “disastrous choices” during World War II.
   
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.
 
Marshal Philippe Petain. Photo: AFP
   
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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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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