A chance to show President Macron what we think of Pétain

A chance to show President Macron what we think of Pétain


norman lebrecht

November 08, 2018

Many people of French descent are profoundly shocked at President Macron’s decision to honour Marshal Pétain, who sent so many French citizens to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

On November 11, the European Union Youth Orchestra with their chief conductor Vasily Petrenko will mark the centenary of the end of World War 1 with a performance at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe.

The event has been organised by Emmanuel Macron.

We urge the conductor and members of the orchestra to show solidarity with the victims of Marshal Pétain by turning their backs on the collabrationist President Macron. Just for a minute – a gesture of solidarity with the dead French citizens he has shamed.

A bas, Macron!


  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    One could argue that in making an agreement with the Nazis Pétain saved the lives of many but this is cancelled out by the collaborating ‘préfets’ who showed more zeal in rounding up Jewish people than was actually demanded of them.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Deeds are not cancelling each other out as if it is an accountancy book, they stand on themselves. Louis XIV unified France, boosted the country’s economy and artistic level, inspired culture all over Europe, built an utterly remarkable palace, but also took-on entirely unnecessary wars which ruined everything he had created for the country before; that does not mean his earlier efforts go for nothing. The same with Napoleon: he devised a couple of good laws based upon Enlightenment values which are still in place, but they are not ‘cancelled’ because of his crazy war mongering and disastrous Russian expedition. And in music; Beethoven’s Wellingtons Sieg does not ‘cancel’ his Eroica. Ec. etc….

      • Quintus Beckmesser says:

        Napoleon did vastly more than make “a couple of laws”! He saved France from the chaos of the Revolution; he put in place a legal and administrative system which is still in force today – such things as the ‘lycées’ and the ‘préfets’. Most people now name De Gaulle as the ‘greatest Frenchman’ but previous generations tended to name Napoleon.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s complex inheritance. Napoleon destroyed quite much of Europe at the time. If he had stopped at his constructive measures, there would not have been so much death and chaos. And maybe the Eroica would have kept its original title as a symphony in honor of Napoleon, and Beethoven had not needed to violently cross-out the dedication on the manuscript and get into a bad temper.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Quintus writes: “Napoleon did vastly more”.

          Er…the legal and administrative system was a result of the revolution and its aftermath. Even if it is named after Napoleon he really had very little to do with it. The revolution was largely over before he rose to power: the Thermidorians had stopped the chaos.

          And for most of the 19th century he most certainly was not viewed as the ‘greatest Frenchman’ by most French people. It may surprise you but, except under Napoleon III, he was viewed rather ambivalently, and largely ignored. The left ignored him for betraying the revolution and Jacobinism, while the right ignored him for not being royalist.

  • msc says:

    Petain was a vile collaborationist, but in this context he is clearly being remembered for his prominent role in WWI, first as the victor of Verdun and then as French commander in chief. So it is somewhat understandable.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      No excuse. Hermann Goering was a hero of WW1. Should he be honoured, too?

      • msc says:

        “Somewhat understandable”. And I would say there is some difference between Goering’s role in WWI and Petain’s. I definitely don’t approve, but to mention this without the historical context is misleading.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Macron has merely stated historic facts in the context of WW I. He did not excuse Pétain.

          According to BBC News:

          “I’m not forgiving anything, but I’m not going to erase anything from our history,” he said, stressing that Pétain was “complicit in grave crimes”.

          And addressing reporters, he added: “You’re creating controversies by yourselves.”


          People look for reasons to bring down the only brilliant president France had since – yes, since when? Difficult to remember. Also, he is the only European head of state who has a constructive vision of the continent’s future, informed by a long historic perspective. The commemoration is about WW I, not about the psychology of someone who has made catastrophic mistakes as an old man. Macron’s is a rational approach, but it fuels people’s emotions. It seems that you cannot commemorate WW I without WW II intervening.

      • clarrieu says:

        Absurd comparison, Norman. Nobody is thinking to honor the german army for either war, since they were both times the aggressor. Pétain in WW1 was the defender.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Unfortunately this has to be corrected: recently, Herr Gauland, representing the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party in the Berliner Bundestag, held a speech where he insisted that the German armies in both world wars have been heroic fighters for the fatherland and should be honored. It is difficult to find equally absurd and vile and primitive and ignorant expressions by any contemporary politician, including Trump.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Norman writes: “Hermann Goering was a hero of WW1”.

        Er…they had vastly different roles. Both Hitler and Goering were “war heroes” in the sense they fought bravely and were honoured for it. They had no role in military strategy or command.

        Petain was the commanding general in the Battle of Verdun, and his role was crucial in ensuring France won that battle, and stayed in the war. Most French people can recognize his heroic role in WW1 and his rather less heroic role in WW2.

    • The View from America says:

      We can speculate about this until the cows come home.

      If the “Hero of Verdun” had been a little less effective, the Kaiser’s troops would have been in the cafes of Paris for the second time inside of 50 years.

      The war might have concluded quickly after that — with a different victor — making the rise of Hitler 15 years later a complete non-starter.

      • JoBe says:

        Don’t underestimate the likes of Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre, Robert Rivelle (sorry: Nivelle)…

      • SVM says:

        Exactly! If “the Kaiser’s troops” had taken-over Paris in the 1910s, it is unlikely that they would have unleashed horrors comparable to those perpetrated by the Nazis when they conquered France in 1940.

        Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was a more just and more democratic society than the contemporaneous British Empire (and, much as I deplore Bismarck’s foreign policy, especially regarding eastern Europe, the fact remains that it was Bismarck who instigated the modern welfare state). I cannot comment on French society of that period (beyond the fact that they felt aggrieved at the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War), but it seems to me that “the Allies” (funny how English-language usage always calls the UK’s bloc “Allies” or “Coalition”, despite the fact that, prior to WW1, it was the Germans who were in a “Triple Alliance”, whilst the British were in “the Triple Entente”… is this a way to make the UK sound like the righteous nation, I wonder?) had no particular moral high-ground in WW1.

        The rise of Hitler and his party was enabled to a large degree by the instability of the Weimar Republic (NB: I am *not* saying that it were the only factor — the rise of genocidal tyranny is a very complicated phenomenon, and is enabled by many factors, but the fact remains that the conditions prevailing in the Weimar Republic rendered it an easy target), such instability being attributable to the punitive and onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which were dictated by “the Allies” upon winning WW1.

        But of course, Pétain could not have been expected to anticipate WW2 while still fighting WW1 (although some *did* anticipate WW2 with uncanny accuracy, once the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were published). As for Pétain’s actions in WW2, I am afraid I am not sufficiently informed to have a strong opinion either way. That said, I would observe that it is common for a politician to prioritise holding onto a leadership position above his/her principles, whether out of greed or out of some misguided and arrogant belief that he/she is still the lesser evil even after having betrayed his/her principles (Corbyn is an obvious case in point — since becoming a party leader, he has dropped his opposition to the monarchy, his opposition to nuclear weapons, and his opposition to low taxes… in short, the fundamentals of his policies are indistinguishable from the government’s, despite which he persists in poaching voters from the genuinely principled parties).

    • CJ says:

      Also, we have to remember that, when Pétain was called back in 1940 to be the Head of State, he was 84 years old, which was very old at that time. No, that doesn’t excuse everything, but at that age you tend to compromise to avoid another war.
      Even de Gaulle said “Si par malheur, en d’autres temps, l’usure du pouvoir mena le maréchal Pétain à des défaillances condamnables, la gloire qu’il avait acquise à Verdun en conduisant ensuite l’Armée française à la victoire ne saurait être contestée ni méconnue par la patrie.”
      And flowers were laid on his tomb every 11th of November under every President, from de Gaulle to Mitterrand. Chirac was the first to stop it.

  • JoBe says:

    Macron has entered a new stage of provocative remarks, otherwise known as “heavy trolling” (he had been doing “light trolling” for quite a while now and gotten quite a kick out of it, just like his role model, Donald Trump).
    Nevertheless, here is a link to the video where that photo of him with a score in hand comes from:

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nonsense. He merely says what is obviously the case and what is often disguised behind polite hypocrisy, like his casual remark at a trip in Denmark that the french were resistant to change, which is obviously the case, and which remark initiated a new wave of anger in France.

      • JoBe says:

        Nonsense? Alas, poor Borstlap, he told an unemployed man “I’ll go and cross the street and find you a job right on the spot”. If that is not trolling, what is it? See for yourself: http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/le-scan/2018/09/16/25001-20180916ARTFIG00043-macron-a-un-jeune-chomeur-je-traverse-la-rue-je-vous-trouve-du-travail.php

        • John Borstlap says:

          Alas, poor JoBe, there is more to that story. French media found-out that the young man in question had followed-up Macron’s advice and found a job in a restaurant or café. This unemployed guy had specialized in gardening where he could not find the job he wanted. The advice was meant as: maybe you should look into another direction for a while. And maybe he could find something more to his liking later in life. Anybody young may be confronted by situations where you have to accept work you did not particularly like. It is ridiculous to locate every mishap in life as the failure of responsibility by the state, that is a leftish and juvenile idea.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Pretty stupid decision of Macron to honour this guy, but whatever his role in WW1 it was erased by his treachery in WW2. Shows Macron is singularly lacking in any form of common sense.

  • jan neckers says:

    I wonder how many of the politically correct crooks, of which there are a lot on this list, are professional historians. I wonder too how many of them are able to order a cup of coffee in French? The opinion of Macron is not only historically correct but is almost (with the exception of a few activists) universally accepted in France. Witness the many historical publications and documentaries to be seen on French Public Television TF2 and TF3 (which most of you cannot watch or are unable to understand). People who nowadays want to rewrite history to feel morally superior are advised to consult schoolbooks produced in Germany (1933 -1945) and the Soviet Union (1917-1990). They will be glad to learn they have worthy predecessors.
    Is Macron totally without fault? No, he isn’t. He shouldn’t honour incompetent military butchers like Foche, Joffre and Nivelle. He shouldn’t honour Pétain though he was the best of them because he understood his soldiers should be better cared for as otherwise they would give up in senseless fights . Pétain definitely was not a humanitarian or a pacifist but his methods to win were more efficient. Macron should honour the poilus of the French army and the French women and children. And only them. On Wednesday there was once more a magnificent documentary (TF3) on the unspeakable suffering of common people: “La guerre de tous les Français”. I am glad to note that this is the melody heard for many many years in France. What a contrast with the ridiculous charade on BBC2 (“100 days to victory”) that would us to believe the final offensive was won only by Brits, Canadians and Australians.

    • Bill says:

      I don’t care he was a good military officer earlier in his life; he collaborated with a regime that sent many people like me, Jews, to their deaths for no other reason other than that they were Jews. He needs to be reviled, end of story.

      Whatever “good” he may have done is negated in his poor decision to collaborate later.

      Hitler “made the trains run on time” as they like to say in his defense. So what…

      You should be ashamed of yourself, but I know you won’t be. In fact, I await your smug response.


  • V.Lind says:

    Macron may be ignorant, or malicious, or mischievous. He is not wrong in remembering Petain’s contribution in WW1, but he ought to have some empathy for the living, the older of whose memories will only extend to Petain in WWII. There may be contexts — history books, biographies, even TV docs, as suggested — to look at Petain’s entire life. But this is not the time or the place, even though the commemoration is of the Armistice.

    However, I think calling him a collaborationist is a step too far.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Pity. Macron, like his EU partner in arms Merkel, are squandering (or have squandered) their gifts, their stupidity making it much more difficult than necessary for the rest of the world. Their unpopularity is on the up and up and not without reason. Merkel is already on the way out. Macron may not be far behind.

    • Altfloete says:

      “Their stupidity”? How much do you actually know about Merkel, her background and her politics? Who is “the rest of the world”?

  • John Rook says:

    If you want to pillory someone for honestly honouring Maréchal Pétain, then look no further than the saintly ‘socialist’ François Mitterand, who revered him. Mitterand also deposited a wreath on the Marshall’s grave every year until very late in his own life. Vichy’s Chief of Police, René Bousquet, was appointed to the Council of Administration of La Dépêche du Midi, a southern French left-wing daily, in 1959. Unsurprisingly, the paper supported Mitterand’s 1965 tilt at the French presidency. The two remained close with Mitterand ending their friendship when it became politically expedient for him to do so.

  • Quintus Beckmesser says:

    People criticize Pétain but fail to suggest what he should have done. De Gaulle said that with a brigade he could have stopped the Germans entering Paris. The more likely outcome would have been destruction not only of the brigade but of the city and many citizens. Pétain at least achieved the compromise of a free zone and both “sides of the political divide”, as Richard Osborne put it, were able to be swept away by Karajan’s “Tristan” ,though most of one side were fleeing by car, cart or on foot, bombarded by low-flying Nazi planes. Most music-lovers enjoy von K’s music making and quietly forget how he celebrated the fall of Paris. At least Pétain believed he was doing his best for his fatherland.