CHARLEVILLE-MEZIERES, France (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday it was “legitimate” to pay tribute to Marshal Philippe Petain, who led the French army to victory in World War One’s Battle of Verdun but decades later collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War Two.
Macron’s plan to honor Petain alongside seven other French marshals who directed military campaigns during World War One, which ended 100 years ago on Nov. 11, has unleashed criticism from Jewish groups, political opponents and on social media.
“I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory,” Macron said in the eastern town of Charleville-Mezieres that once lay on the front line between French and German troops.
“Marshal Petain was a great soldier in World War One.”
Macron’s office appeared to backtrack later on Wednesday. “Petain won’t be honored on Nov. 10,” an Elysee official said, adding that only the five marshals who were buried at the Invalides monument in Paris would receive an official tribute.
Macron himself later told reporters his intention was not to excuse the crimes committed by Petain during World War Two but to ensure French history was accurately remembered.
“I don’t forgive anything but I don’t erase anything from our history,” he said. “I will always fight against antisemitism.”
Renowned as a “soldier’s soldier”, Petain was promoted to commander-in-chief of the French armies in mid-1917, after victory at Verdun, rebuilding troop morale after a series of mutinies and other setbacks.
Verdun was the longest battle of World War One, killing more than 300,000 French and German soldiers during 10 months of trench battles. Petain emerged from the Great War as a national hero with streets in towns and cities across France named after him.
Two decades later, with France poised to fall to Nazi German forces in World War Two, Petain was appointed prime minister of France. His administration, based in the unoccupied part of the country known as Vichy France, collaborated with Nazi Germany and its deportation and extermination of the Jews.
After the war, Petain was sentenced to death for treason, though then-President General Charles de Gaulle, a longtime admirer of Petain’s military feats of arms, reduced the punishment to life in prison.
“It is shocking that France can pay tribute to a man deemed unworthy of being French in a trial held in the name of the people,” said Francis Kalifat, president of Crif, the body that represents France’s 400,000-strong Jewish community.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hard-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, wrote on Twitter: “Marshal Joffre was the military victor of the 1914-18 war. Petain was a traitor and an anti-Semite. His crimes and his betrayal cannot be erased from history. Macron, this time, you’ve gone to far.”
Petain died in prison in 1951 aged 95.
Reporting by Marine Pennetier in Charleville-Mezieres and Richard Lough in Paris; Writing by Richard Lough and Michel Rose; Editing by Luke Baker/Mark Heinrich