In search for French heroes, Macron blunders – again
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France’s embattled leader saw a week of World War I commemorations as a chance to reconnect with the French and highlight the danger of nationalism. Instead, his comments about Marshal Pétain gave further evidence of his tendency to shock and dismay.
As he embarked on a seven-day tour of the battlefields of northern France this week, part of commemorations of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended the Great War, Emmanuel Macron spoke of the enduring need for “heroes” to inspire the nation and its youth.
“We were wrong to believe that our contemporary democracies had no need for heroes,” Macron told local daily La Voix du Nord. “Our societies need a chance to identify with people who did extraordinary things,” he added, warning of “dramatic consequences” when youths are left to seek inspiration from the forces of extremism.
Calling at the village of Eparges on Wednesday, the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the war, the French president announced that the remains of writer Maurice Genevoix, who was injured there in 1915, would be transferred to the Panthéon mausoleum in Paris next year. Along with Genevoix, a whole “nation at arms” will symbolically enter the domed memorial to France’s heroes, he said.
Later in the day, Macron paid tribute to Marshal Philippe Pétain, the wartime general who would go on to lead France’s infamous Nazi-allied Vichy Regime. Despite his “fatal choices” during World War II, “Pétain was also a great soldier during the First World War”, the French president explained. As such, he added, the man who led French troops to victory at the Battle of Verdun is worthy of being honoured alongside other military chiefs on the war’s centenary.
Predictably, that part of the visit raised eyebrows across France – and beyond.
Pétain, who was found guilty of treason for his actions as leader of Vichy France, is the archetype of the disgraced hero – which is why the president’s words of praise triggered a furious backlash from opposition politicians and Jewish organisations.
"I am shocked by this statement," said Francis Kalifat, the head of France’s leading Jewish group, the CRIF, noting that Pétain authorised the deportation of 76,000 French Jews to Nazi death camps. “It’s hard to imagine what would happen if [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wanted to honour Marshal [Hermann] Goering, who was also a war hero on the German side,” added Haim Messika of the World Jewish Congress, referring to the former senior Nazi official, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Politicians from across the political spectrum described the comments as a gaffe too far for the French president. “This anti-Semitic traitor cannot be amnestied by the whims of Macron,” said far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, while Xavier Bertrand, the conservative president of the northern region where most of the fighting took place, argued that Pétain’s “infamous deeds” after 1940 “cancel out all the rest”.
Also wading into the row, Macron’s predecessor François Hollande stated: “History does not set apart a single episode, however glorious, in a military career. It judges the immense and shameful responsibility of a marshal who deliberately covered with his name and prestige the betrayal […] and deportation of thousands of France’s Jews.”
In an attempt to defuse the row, Macron’s office said Pétain would not be individually honoured in a memorial ceremony for the eight marshals of World War I, held at the Invalides military museum on Saturday. Five of the eight marshals are buried there, but not Pétain.
Meanwhile, French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux has described the debate as a "false controversy" and accused the opposition of taking cheap shots at Macron. He quoted General Charles de Gaulle, France’s World War II hero, as saying of Pétain in 1966 that "the glory he earned at Verdun […] can be neither contested nor go unrecognised by the nation."
Some historians say the president’s defenders have a point. But as with many of Macron’s recent gaffes, the melee over Pétain’s legacy begs the question of just why the French leader felt the need to wade into such treacherous territory. To his critics, Macron’s latest self-inflicted pain is evidence of his seemingly irrepressible tendency to provoke, shock, upset and annoy.
Even before Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory appeared to validate the notion that “all news is good news”, Macron had honed the tactic of securing maximum media exposure with repeated provocations. In the chaotic years of Hollande’s presidency, his un-Socialist jabs at the 35-hour working week made him a fixture of the press, as did his put-downs of T-shirt-wearing strikers (“the best way to buy yourselves a suit is to work”).
France’s youngest ever president is no longer an untested first-time minister in need of notoriety. But he has continued to build on his reputation as an inveterate provocateur. In September he told a young unemployed man that he need only "cross the street" to find a job. In other recent outings, he has complained about the “crazy money” France spends on welfare for the poor, while telling pensioners they should “complain less” about their shrinking allowances.
At the height of the scandal involving his former bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who was filmed beating protesters while posing as a policeman, Maron's response was to challenge the opposition with a pugilistic “come and get me” and then berate the press for “brewing a storm in a teacup” and “not looking for truth any more”. He had another go at journalists over the Pétain dispute on Thursday, telling them France deserved better than the “insanity box you are all holed up in”.
Europe’s flagging hero
The controversy over the former “hero of Verdun” is only the latest snag in Macron’s Great War pilgrimage, which has been marred by a series of heated exchanges with disgruntled locals. In villages along the trail, the French president has been accused of punishing pensioners, poor households and rural folk, while handing tax breaks to the rich. A new hike in fuel prices has compounded the anger, appearing to confirm the widely held view that Macron cares only for urban elites and is out of the touch with the rest of the country.
“Try to sense it, from Paris, the anguish that is mounting everywhere else,” a pensioner told the president as he visited Verdun on Tuesday, the site of Pétain’s most famous victory.
It is not only Macron supporters in France who have reason to be alarmed by his continuing slide in the polls. France’s Europhile president has portrayed next year’s European parliamentary elections as a reckoning between him and the populist, nationalist forces on the ascendancy around the continent. He has made that opposition a central theme of his memorial tour of northern France, warning that the “nationalist disease” threatens to drag Europe back to the fateful divisions of the 1930s.
"I am struck by similarities between the times we live in and those between the two world wars," he told Ouest-France newspaper at the start of his weeklong trek. The very next day, a poll of voting intentions for next May’s European elections said his party had for the first time slipped behind Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (formerly known as the National Front), squandering a 10-point lead in just six months. According to some opinion polls, Macron’s is now even more unpopular than the famously unpopular Hollande. If the slide continues, Europe’s liberal camp may soon be looking for another hero.