PARIS (Nov. 8)
Responding to a large outcry from Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, French President Francois Mitterrand has officially announced that he will no longer lay a wreath at the tomb of Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain.
The ongoing plans to annually honor Petain, a hero of World War I but a villain in the collaborationist Vichy government of World War II, had stoked increased anger throughout France.
Ceremonies were to have been held Thursday for the annual observance of the armistice of World War I.
Opposition to Mitterand’s announced plans came from veterans of World War II and organizations of former deportees and their relatives.
The Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France, an organization founded by Paris lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, had strongly protested the president’s plans since the late 1980s, when it became publicized that the French president had been paying annual tribute to the memory of a man who led the infamous Vichy regime during World War II.
Mitterrand’s annual homage to Petain was also severely criticized by several leaders of his own Socialist party.
Petain was awarded the title of marshal of France following his 1918 victory at Verdun as leader of the French forces. He later became minister of war and then ambassador to Spain.
In 1940, Petain was given complete authority over Vichy France by the French Assembly. Almost immediately, he signed decrees stripping the Jews of their civil rights. In May 1941, he pledged cooperation with Nazi Germany.
MITTERRAND PAID ANNUAL TRIBUTE TO PETAIN
In many ways, Vichy France outdid itself as a persecutor, going above and beyond German requests to arrest and deport Jews. It was the only country to arrest Jews and deport them from areas that were not occupied by the Nazis.
After France’s liberation by the Americans, Petain was condemned to death for his deeds. But his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the island of Yeu, off France’s Atlantic coast. He died there in 1951.
While French Jewish leaders expressed satisfaction over Mitterrand’s decision to stop honoring Petain, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, said the president had bowed to pressures from “the lobbies.”
An adviser to Mitterrand told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the French president had been badly treated over the issue. “Mitterrand’s predecessors also laid wreaths on Petain’s tomb, and nobody ever said anything against it,” the adviser claimed.
But while it is true that former presidents Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d’Estaing did send wreaths to decorate Petain’s grave, they did so only once each.
De Gaulle sent flowers on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the armistice, in 1968.
Pompidou sent a wreath in 1973 after Petain was reinterred, following desecration of his tomb.
Giscard did so for the 60th commemoration of the armistice, in 1978.
In contrast, Mitterrand made the tribute annually.