President Emmanuel Macron faced a wave of criticism Wednesday after defending Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain, who led France's authoritarian Vichy regime, as a "great soldier" during World War I.
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The army announced late Tuesday that a ceremony would be held Saturday to commemorate the eight marshals who commanded French forces during WWI, including Petain.
"It's right that we honor 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 war's end. "He was a great soldier, it's a fact," Macron said.
His comments drew fierce criticism from rival politicians as well as Jewish leaders, reopening a painful chapter in France's history which continues to divide the nation decades on.
Francis Kalifat of the CRIF association of French Jewish groups said he was "shocked" by Macron's comments praising a leader who helped deport thousands of Jews to their deaths.
"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," Kalifat said in a statement.
"Petain is a traitor and an anti-Semite," tweeted Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left France Unbowed party, echoing a flurry of angry postings, many posting an infamous photo of Petain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. "Macron, this time you've gone too far!"
For years French leaders have treaded lightly when dealing with Petain's legacy, which his critics say left an indelible stain on the country, while the marshal has long been considered an excellent tactician during the Great War.
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.
"You're creating controversies by yourselves, my children," Macron said later Wednesday admonishing journalists — echoing, intentionally or not, the paternalistic "my children" used by Petain to close a Christmas address from 1940.
Rightwing groups and far-right sectors often praise 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."