Argument

Macron Finds the Immoral Way to Remember World War I

There’s no good reason to pull Marshal Philippe Pétain from the dustbin of history.

French War Minister Andre Maginot, Marshal Joseph Joffre, and Marshal Philippe Petain at the inauguration of Joffre's monument in Chantilly, France on June 21, 1930. (AFP/Getty Images)
French War Minister Andre Maginot, Marshal Joseph Joffre, and Marshal Philippe Petain at the inauguration of Joffre's monument in Chantilly, France on June 21, 1930. (AFP/Getty Images)

On April 24, 1956, a solemn ceremony took place in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of France’s greatest soldiers: Marshal Philippe Pétain. Socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet spoke movingly of Pétain’s compassion for his soldiers during the bleakest days of World War I, tactfully neglecting to mention the marshal’s flirtations with the extreme right in the years before his death in 1939. Gen. Charles de Gaulle praised Pétain as a great French patriot and superb tactician, tactfully neglecting to mention his own highly contentious relationship with his former mentor. Middle-aged veterans of the Great War came by the thousands to pay respect to the commander who had, after a series of mutinies by desperate French soldiers on the western front, resisted further massive infantry offensives against entrenched German positions. At the end of the ceremony, many in the crowd returned home via the Boulevard Pétain, or the Pétain metro station.

This scene, of course, never took place. Instead of dying a French hero at the ripe old age of 83, Pétain lived another 12 years and died while serving a life sentence for treason on the tiny Île d’Yeu off the French Atlantic coast. In 1940, after the Nazis had broken the French armed forces and entered Paris, Pétain took the helm of the French government and requested an armistice. Initially, he received massive support from the population, which saw him as a shield protecting the country from the sort of brutality the Nazis were visiting on Poland. But the elderly Pétain served France very badly. Between 1940 and 1944 he presided over the collaborationist Vichy state, which actively aided the German war effort and attempted to impose an authoritarian, ultraconservative social order on the country. On its own initiative, Vichy hunted down members of the Resistance, passed anti-Semitic legislation, and, most notoriously, rounded up approximately 76,000 Jews for deportation to Nazi camps, the great majority of whom were killed.

Since the end of World War II, no French leader has wanted to be associated with Pétain, but this week President Emmanuel Macron managed, in a remarkable political blunder, to start a controversy over Pétain’s memory. As France prepared to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, Macron suggested that the ceremonies should honor Pétain for his military service, including particularly his role in preventing a German breakthrough in the horrific battles around Verdun in 1916. “It’s legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led the army to victory,” Macron told reporters. “He was a great soldier—this is a reality.” The comments provoked a torrent of criticism from left and right alike. Left-wing opposition leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called Pétain’s treason “indelible,” adding: “Macron, this time it’s too much! The history of France is not your plaything.” On Wednesday, Macron backed off from the proposal. Pétain will not be honored after all.

In an era of a resurgent French far-right, did Macron intend his comments as a dog whistle? Was he signaling to the 34 percent of the electorate who supported the National Front’s Marine Le Pen against him last year that he sympathizes with their vision of history? In recent years, more voices have been heard on the margins of French politics defending Pétain and the Vichy state. Éric Zemmour, a Jewish writer who functions as a somewhat more literate French version of Dinesh D’Souza, insists—with no credible evidence—that Pétain was secretly working for an allied victory and bears no guilt for the death of Jews. Zemmour’s polemics have repeatedly topped the French best-seller lists.

The dog-whistle theory is possible. Yet to the extent that Macron has ventured into the heavily mined territory of French historical controversies, it has mostly been to express contrition for French imperialism, to the far-right’s consternation. During a visit to Algeria in early 2017, he called the French colonial venture “a crime, a crime against humanity, a true barbarism.” By all indications he sincerely believed what he said then, and he most likely sincerely believes what he said about Pétain’s World War I service as well. Macron takes everything to do with the French state—and his leadership of it—with a rigid gravity that often results in political tone-deafness. He has invited ridicule on many occasions, including by summoning the two chambers of Parliament to a joint session in the splendor of the former royal palace of Versailles, and for sternly scolding a teenager who jokingly addressed him by the nickname “Manu.” Most likely, he sincerely believes that Pétain deserves to be honored for doing so much to save France from 1914 to 1918, whatever his later crimes.

Is he right on this score? At a certain point, a person’s crimes reach a magnitude of monstrosity that cancels out their previous deeds, however meritorious. To take an even more extreme example, the German state would never consider including Adolf Hitler in a list of World War I heroes, despite the fact that he won the Iron Cross, first class, during his military service. And in any case, the French state, in the person of Charles de Gaulle, has already shown more than enough recognition of Pétain’s World War I record and of his impairment by age during Vichy. After a postwar tribunal condemned Pétain to death, de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. And while Pétain was stripped of nearly all his titles and honors, he was allowed to keep the title of marshal of France. “Old age is a shipwreck,” de Gaulle later wrote. “And so that we would be spared nothing, the old age of Marshal Pétain became bound up with the shipwreck of France.”

Nothing divides a country like its own history, and this is perhaps especially true of the people the great sociologist Charles Tilly once called “the contentious French.” Even today, a French person’s views on the Revolution of 1789 generally says a great deal about their political beliefs. The 19th-century historian Augustin Thierry traced the conflicts all the way back to the days of the Franks and Gauls, writing: “We believe we are one nation, but we are actually two nations on the same soil, two nations at war in their memories and irreconcilable in their hopes for the future.” The great French philosopher Ernest Renan insisted that for a nation to hold together, it is necessary both “for individuals to have a great deal in common, and also to have all forgotten many things.”

Renan spoke these words in 1882. But in the 20th century, the French (and not just the French) learned the painful lesson that a collective exercise in forgetting is generally followed by the return of the repressed. After World War II, Charles de Gaulle presided over a grand exercise in oblivion, punishing high-level collaborators but burying the truth about the full extent of collaboration under the myth that all of France was in the Resistance. A generation later, the country had to undergo a painful exercise in historical excavation, culminating in President Jacques Chirac’s emotional expression of repentance, in 1995, for French complicity in the Holocaust—actions that “forever sully our history.”

Macron did not call for forgetting anything about Philippe Pétain, but his remarks this week made the case for a rigid compartmentalization of memory that is unworkable in practice and wrongheaded in principle. Pétain will always be the leader of Vichy, and his war record cannot be antiseptically separated from this massive moral offense. And while Macron’s stumble on the issue is not the stuff of which major political crises are made, it will have the unfortunate effect of overshadowing ceremonies honoring not just Pétain’s fellow commanders, but also the millions of people who fought and who died under their command. If the French president’s ailing popularity ratings take yet another hit as a result of the controversy, he has only himself to blame.

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus professor in the Department of History at Princeton University, and, in 2018 to 2019, the John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

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