Monday, January 03, 2011

The end of the road for Marshal Pétain.

Today's New York Times includes this report from the French village of Tremblois-lès-Carignan, where municipal authorities have recently decided to rename what had been the last public street in France named for Marshal Philippe Pétain, celebrated as a hero of the First World War and condemned as a traitor after the Second:
The municipal council here on the edge of the Ardennes Forest recently voted to change a third of the village’s street names.

Tremblois has only three streets, and they are named for three French heroes of World War I: Marshals Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Pétain.

The problem is that Marshal Pétain had a second act as head of state during World War II, when his administration in the unoccupied part of the country that was known as Vichy France collaborated with Nazi Germany in eliminating its enemies, notably the Jews.

So under pressure from the national government, veterans and Jewish groups, the council voted unanimously to drop the name Pétain from a little street about 600 feet long, renaming it Rue de la Belle-Croix, for a chapel that stands in a wood at its foot.

After World War I, virtually every town in France had its Rue or Avenue Pétain. So vast was his fame that a dozen or so towns and cities in the United States also named streets for him.

But when the signs here change this month, the last street in France bearing his name will have disappeared. Not everyone is happy with the decision.

“It is ridiculous,” said Laurent Joste, 27, an auto mechanic from Belgium who has lived in the village for three years. “Clearly, he was a traitor in the Second World War; but these things happened decades ago. It’s not good to think like that.”

. . .

The commotion around Rue Pétain began last year when a local journalist discovered the street and wrote several articles for his newspaper. At the time, two other towns in northern France had streets named for Marshal Pétain, and his portrait hung in the hall of a third town, in the west of France. Under public pressure, the other streets were renamed, and a court ordered the portrait taken down. Tremblois remained the marshal’s last refuge.

“It was scandalous,” said the journalist, Guillaume Lévy. “I met the mayor. There were different reactions; the arguments were not political.”

First there was the enduring image of Marshal Pétain as the “conqueror of Verdun,” the man who won World War I for the French, Mr. Lévy said by telephone. Then there was also the inconvenience. “I talked to the man on whose house the sign hangs,” he said. “He said how much it would cost, that the postman wouldn’t know where to bring letters.”

“Then,” he said, “it got all polemical.”

Partly, it was town versus country. The village mayor, Jean-Pol Oury, shows visitors the hate mail he got, including threats, for keeping the name Pétain. Mr. Oury, 56, who runs a public relations company when not steering the affairs of Tremblois, said he did a survey among its 114 residents. “A majority said, ‘It doesn’t disturb me,’ ” he said.

Still, Mr. Lévy’s articles caught the attention of Jewish groups and organizations representing the war’s survivors and people who were deported during World War II by Petain’s Vichy government and the Germans who occupied the rest of France. Finally Mr. Oury went before the town council’s nine members. “I explained the situation, that we were the last town with a Pétain street,” he recounted. “I said two other towns had just renamed streets. I said it’s you who decide.” All nine voted to change the name.
To read the rest of the article, click here. AMDG.


At 1/04/2011 6:14 AM, Blogger streicher said...

leftist terrorisme in action !

vive Pétain qui a sauvé trois fois la France

At 1/04/2011 4:26 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Merci pour votre commentaire. Evidemment, il ne reste plus qu'une rue Pétain en France. Toutefois, une d'elles reste aux États-Unis - cet article raconte l'histoire de "Pétain Avenue" dans la banlieue du New Jersey:

At 1/05/2011 4:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Koczera,

I can understand, and even admire the tenacity of, those who wish to rid France of monuments to a man in whose name their kin were sent to their doom.

What I find unfortunate, and even appalling, is that there is no parallel historical revision of the French politicians who sent not thousands, but millions of French to their death, in no small part because of their creed and culture.

I am referring, if I need to explain myself, to the French politicians who got a particularly vicious Kulturkampf going, and then kept their nation in the frenetic violence of World War 1 rather than end the war and then almost certainly having to end the destructive sectarian strife which had brought them to power.

The dispossession of French monasteries in 1905 was theft on a scale rarely seen, and the expulsion of French religious out of their own country (!) (, and the systematic denial of promotions to Catholics in the French armed services ( to name but two pieces of nastiness, are not in keeping the notions of civil rights we expect from a republic or democracy, much less loudly proclaimed liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Using wars with Germany to keep France united is an old trick, which was already tried when the French Revolution seemed to falter. It cannot be a coincidence that the French farmers who were sent to do a disproportionate share of the dying as cannon fodder were largely Catholic, and thus least likely to support, and most likely to oppose, the circles that sent them to their senseless doom. The evil that these men did brought grief to all of Europe; in 1913 Germany was far and away the European nation most tolerant and welcoming to Jews. The Treaty of Versailles, on whose unjust terms the French warmongers insisted to save their careers, brought an end to all that.

Perhaps someday the followers of the Prince of Peace will unite with other friends of peace, and seek to consign all monuments to Clemenceau and those who did his bidding to the dustbin of history.


At 1/05/2011 11:02 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Good point. Historical memory is always selective, but it does seem unfair to expunge the names of some while leaving others whose legacies are equally debatable untouched.

On a broader level, though, I do have some reservations about the push to completely remove the names of controversial historical figures from public places. It seems to me that doing so help speed the process of historical forgetting. If the names of Pétain and Clemeanceau (or, for that matter, Franco and Lenin, or, in the United States, Lee and Davis) are to be totally banished from the public sphere, it may be easier for the societies in question to forget about the individuals involved and to stop asking the hard questions about why they acted as they did and why so many others followed them.

Of course, it's also worth noting that keeping certain names in the public sphere is not necessarily a guard against forgetting - the politics of memory are always very complex. To cite an example from the United States, there is a statue of Roger Taney in front of the Maryland state capitol building. As chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Taney authored the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which held that African Americans had no right to U.S. citizenship. From time to time, some have argued that the statue should be removed - not simply because it is a memorial to Taney, but also because it was erected after the Civil War by defiant segregationists. So far, the argument that always wins the day is that the statue provides an important reminder of a dark period of American history that should be remembered.

The standard 'memory argument' offered above may sound good in theory, but I am concerned that there may be many who simply ignore the statue and have no idea who Taney was or why a memorial to him could excite controversy. Debates about whether or not the statue should stay have been relatively infrequent, but some might suggest that the occasional discussions that the memorial provokes are a greater help to coming to terms with the past than mere silence would be. Of course, one could also argue that such discussions could still occur in other fora (as part of school curricula, for instance) even if the names of people like Taney were removed from public view. It's a fascinating question, I think, but I've yet to find a completely satisfying way to answer it.

At 1/08/2011 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Koczera,

I can only agree with you. I know I risk appearing to be a pedant, but I am not happy with my comment.

France's politics since the Revolution and the mass murder in the Vendée have been different from American politics insofar as they have often quite literally been a blood sport, in which the winner has often taken all, and then sought to thoroughly trample the loser underfoot.

Without justifying Vichy's injustices, it is fair to note that many of them, such as deporting politically inconvenient citizens en masse, expropriating political enemies, banning potential political enemies from jobs, banning politically inconvenient organizations, and even finding ways to get one's political opponents killed en masse all had precedents in the decades preceding Vichy, when the shoe was on the other foot. Notwithstanding its reputation, Vichy was a good deal more moderate in some respects. Historiography that doesn't reflect this is junk food for the mind.

Today these feuds seem to be continued by other means, such as in this episode when the last memorial to Marshal Pétain in some remote hamlet is extirpated and the world's press is brought to cover the event, and when Le Pen, the runner up in the penultimate presidential election, makes nauseating comments about the era's history.

I suppose every nation has its idiosyncrasies, but I, for one, discern a tragic moment in this one.


At 1/08/2011 10:18 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Thanks for the follow-up - I agree with your analysis, and I would merely add that past events have long been subjected to a lot of abuse and misuse to serve contemporary political ends, in France and elsewhere. The massacres in the Vendée, for example, have long been a rallying cry for the Catholic right in France.

I suspect that we're reaching a critical point in time with respect to the memory of events of the Second World War, including but not limited to Vichy. As those with first-hand experience of the period disappear, constructions of the events will necessarily change. On the one hand, this may make it possible for some historians to evaluate the past with less prejudice (naturally, though, others will continue to be quite partisan - I note again the use of the Vendée). At the same time, though, the absence of living witnesses may make it easier for past events to be abused for political ends - if there is no longer anyone around who can say, 'no, it wasn't like that' or, 'you're leaving out something important,' it may become a bit harder to tell the whole story.


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