French mayor accused over portrait of wartime leader

 

A SMALL town in northern France has become the unlikely setting for the latest row over Marshal Philippe Pétain’s place in French history after the town’s mayor refused to take down a portrait of the leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Bernard Hoyé, the mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer in Normandy, has been accused by anti-racism campaigners of seeking to rehabilitate Pétain by insisting he will not remove the portrait from a wall in his town hall.

The international league against racism and anti-semitism, Licra, accused Mr Hoyé of justifying his decision on the “false pretext” that the portrait hung in a gallery of heads of state. “I don’t know of any town hall in France that displays a portrait of Pétain,” Licra’s general secretary, Richard Séréro, said.

“It is disrespectful towards the memory of the victims and their families who suffered due to the political decisions taken by Philippe Pétain,” he said, adding that the group would make a complaint to the prefect – the regional representative of the state.

Mr Hoyé said Pétain’s portrait had been in the town hall for decades and was displayed in a gallery devoted to “French heads of state, whether controversial or not. I’m not an historian.”

Asked if he disputed the fact that Pétain collaborated with Nazi Germany, Mr Hoyé said: “Pétain was convicted. We can’t question a judicial decision.”

Pétain’s legacy and France’s memory of the Vichy regime remain live issues in modern political life. A first World War hero credited with outstanding leadership in battle, Pétain set up an authoritarian French regime in the spa town of Vichy after the military defeat of France by Nazi Germany in 1940.

The reactionary regime collaborated with the Nazis in mass deportations, though for decades France’s memory of the war was dominated by the popular portrayal of the country as a nation of resisters.

As recently as September 1994, the late president François Mitterrand said: “France is not responsible, nor is the Republic” for the Vichy regime. The former president Jacques Chirac broke the taboo, becoming the first high-ranking French official to admit France’s role, in July 1995.

Mr Chirac apologised for “the dark hours which will forever tarnish our history” and regretted that “the criminal insanity of the occupying power was assisted by the French, by the French state . . . On that day France delivered those she was protecting to their executioners.”

Last February the council of state, the country’s highest administrative tribunal, formally recognised the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps between 1942 and 1944. Fewer than 3,000 survived.