There is an sickness spreading across France. It isn’t due to the wonderfully rich French cuisine – but rather to its leaders’ unsavory relationship to history.
On Wednesday (November 7) President Emmanuel Macron announced that it would be "legitimate" to honor Philippe Pétain – along with seven other marshals – for his service on the centennial commemoration of the armistice that ended World War I. Not wanting to respond to a "bad polemic" - i.e. the response to Macron's comments - the French government spokesperson excused the decision by quoting Charles de Gaulle: "Pétain served the nation in 1914 and betrayed it in 1940." Nevertheless, controversy unfolded.
France’s leading Jewish representative organisation, Crif, expressed its "shock" that we can honor a man who...was himself responsible for the deportation of Jews from France," and Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett urged Macron "not to offer excuse or defense for the Nazis and their supporters – in the past, present, or future."
Right-wing Republican Senator Alain Houpert wrote on Twitter that "There is nothing worse in history than a failure of memory," and far-left leader and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon wrote on Twitter that "Petain was a traitor and an anti-Semite" and directly to Macron that "France’s history is not your toy!" Finally, the Elysée retracted and announced that Pétain would not be honored.
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Yet toying around with historical memory isn’t new to France.
There are no museums in Paris to explore the crimes of colonialism, as one finds in Washington D.C. to delve into the cruelties of the era of slavery and the confederacy. France was in Vietnam before the Americans were, and their loss of 55,000 soldiers was almost as bad (though France's population was just a quarter of that of the U.S.) until it left after the miserable siege of Dien Bien Phu.
It is no coincidence that even educated French citizens are hardly aware of their country’s role in the Indochina war. Compare the massive black marble wall in the heart of Washington D.C. that commemorates the fallen soldiers in Vietnam, with the pale wall in the remote town of Frejus, that is seldom visited.
Compare the fierce public debate in the U.S., which peaked in 1968 and remains strong in contemporary discourse, with the frail opposition in France to the "dirty war," sealed off by a refusal of President Mitterrand to acknowledge it had been a mistake. Neither the Indochina wars nor the invasions and exploitations in West and North Africa (not to speak of atrocities such as the 1944 Thiaroye massacre in Senegal) are taught in French schools.
Even the killing of 1.5 million Algerians during the aerial bombings and ratissages (army units "combing through" towns and slaughtering whoever was in their way) and the torture of hundreds of thousands remain a sensitive matter. In the last presidential elections both Macron and far right leader Marine Le Pen tried to approach it from opposite directions, but were equally burnt by the public backlash.
Unlike many countries that have acknowledge their guilt and paid reparations to their victims, there is precious little soul-searching among the French about their past; it remains a taboo and a threat to a still infantile national identity.
"Marshal Pétain was a great soldier of the Great War, that is a reality...it is legitimate that we render homage to the Marshals that led the army to victory," said Emmanuel Macron. Yet Pétain was also an enthusiastic collaborator with the Nazis. Just as nobody would consider honoring a pedophile for having previously been a devoted father, nobody should honor the leader of the Vichy government just for having previously defended the border in Verdun.
Under his rule, anti-Semitic decrees were established and 75,000 Jews rounded up – with the help of the Vichy regime's police and facing no protest from the French public – and sent to extermination camps.
Macron has, ironically, begun an important process of recognizing France’s complicity in the Holocaust. This comes after decades of its leaders punishing only individual war criminals, but absolving the French nation of blame, of characterizing France solely as a victim of Nazi Germany and reframing the Vichy government as an externally imposed evil. Macron’s recent attempt to honor Pétain, however, demonstrates the fragility of the recognition process he himself initiated.
While historians must be meticulous in recognizing all the facts of a historical period, national memory is constituted by those in power, by political decisions - of inclusion and exclusion, as the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out.
Taking national responsibility for past crimes may evoke a feeling of malaise, but it is essential for a healthy transition to adulthood. Macron’s wish to honor Petain is symptomatic of a nation that still refuses to grow up.
Tal Harris is a PhD candidate in the field of migration at the Frankfurt Goethe University and a human rights activist, and a grandson of Holocaust survivors. Twitter: @talharris1