French President Emmanuel Macron waded into controversy Wednesday by praising a general who helped win World War I but became a top Nazi collaborator in World War II —comments that triggered outrage among French Jews.
Marshal Philippe Petain will be honored alongside other top military chiefs this Saturday in a ceremony at Les Invalides monument, the site of Napoleon's tomb, to mark the centenary of the end of World War I.
Touring battlefields ahead of a formal commemoration of the November 11, 1918, armistice that ended the war, Macron said Petain was worthy of the honor for his leading role in the World War I victory.
"Marshal Petain was also a great soldier during World War I" even though he made "fatal choices during the Second World War," Macron said in the northern town of Charleville-Mezieres.
The stop was part of a six-day tour that included Verdun, which Petain defended against a German onslaught in 1916. It was the longest battle of World War I, 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 for his actions as leader of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944, though then-President General Charles de Gaulle, a longtime admirer of Petain's military feats of arms, reduced the punishment to life in prison.
"I pardon nothing, but I erase nothing of our history," Macron added.
The 40-year-old French president, sliding in polls, is gaining a reputation for making awkward or shocking statements. In September he told a young out-of-work gardener that he needs only "cross the street" to find a job.
But Wednesday's remarks struck a deep chord in a nation that has lived through two world wars and only in recent decades has acknowledged its collaborationist past.
Former President Jacques Chirac admitted in 1995 that Petain's Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis, was the French state. Chirac spoke at the Vel' d'Hiv cycling stadium in Paris, known for a 1942 roundup of French Jews that saw 13,000 people deported to Nazi concentration camps, a third of them children.
France's leading Jewish organization, known by the initials CRIF, issued a searing criticism of Macron's stance.
"I am shocked by this statement by Macron," CRIF president Francis Kalifat told The Associated Press. "Petain was the person who allowed the deportation of 76,000 French Jews to death camps. Petain signed the (law on) the status of Jews that meant Jews were excluded from public functions, education and forced to wear the Jewish star."
French politicians voiced outrage and a sense of weariness at Macron's repeated gaffes, with far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon capturing the sense of indignity.
"Macron, this time, it's too much. The History of France isn't your toy," Melenchon tweeted. "This anti-Semitic traitor cannot be amnestied by the caprice of Macron."
Kalifat said it was "an insult" that a French president could honor Petain on "the same level as the other generals." But he acknowledged the marshal's pivotal role in the Great War that earned him the nickname "Lion of Verdun."
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux insisted the issue was a "false controversy." He quoted Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces in World War II and the nation's universal hero, as saying of Petain in 1966 that "the glory he earned in Verdun .... can be neither contested nor go unrecognized by the nation."