(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron has done it again.
The French leader, whose popularity has been hit by a series of comments interpreted as insensitive, provoked controversy again Wednesday when he defended his decision to include WWII Nazi-collaborator and Vichy leader Philippe Petain in a ceremony for military leaders from the first World War.
Macron -- who’s on the road in Eastern and Northern France to commemorate the centenary of the WWI armistice -- called Petain a “great soldier” during WWI when asked by reporters why he’s being included in a Saturday commemoration of France’s “Marshals.”
Petain was named “Marshal,” a distinction given to top French generals, for his role in leading French troops to victory in WWI. He was sentenced to death by a French court in 1945 for leading a collaborationist government during WWII that handed Jews over to Nazi occupiers. He died in 1951 at the age of 95 with successive French governments reluctant to execute a WWI hero who by then was senile.
“It’s legitimate that we render homage to the Marshals that led the army to victory” even if Petain later “made disastrous choices,” Macron told reporters in Charleville-Mezieres near the Belgian border where he held his weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday. “I don’t hide from history. Political life and human nature are more complex than we would like to think.”
Jewish association CRIF said it was shocked by the comments. “The only thing we will remember from Petain is that he was, in the name of the French people, stripped of his national honors in his July 1945 trial,” it said in a statement.
Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate in last year’s elections, said in a post on Twitter that “nothing justifies such a disgrace. When one presides over France, one must measure up to its history.” Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Twitter that “Petain was a traitor and an anti-Semite. Macron, this time it’s too much. French history is not your toy.”
Confronted by a flurry of criticism, Macron tried to clarify his earlier comments.
“Petain has been an accomplice in terrible crimes,” he said. “But Petain was a marshal in the Great War. I forgive nothing but I won’t erase bits of our history. I will always fight antisemitism.”
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters Wednesday that he wouldn’t respond to a “bad polemic.” He said Petain was a “hero” during WWI and a “traitor” during WWII. He cited General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French during WWII, who as France’s postwar leader put Petain on trial and yet praised his “glory” in the first war.
Macron’s approval levels are hovering around 30 percent, hurt in part by some of his past comments such as when he suggested that the French complain too much and could find work if they looked harder.
His sallies about French history have also created more fuss than he might have anticipated: as a candidate in February 2017, he stirred controversy when he referred to French actions during Algeria’s War of Independence as a “crime against humanity,” and as president in September 2018 he was the first French head of state to acknowledge the systematic use of torture in that conflict.
(Update with new comments from Macron in 8th paragraph.)
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