'Glorious' hero or 'deplorable' traitor? Pétain's legacy haunts French island

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'Glorious' hero or 'deplorable' traitor? Pétain's legacy haunts French island
Marie-Louise Nolleau, who manages the Historical Museum of the Île d’Yeu, with a hotel guestbook that contains a message from Annie, the wife of Philippe Pétainon, at her home on Île d’Yeu, France, Aug. 19, 2022. Pétain, who led France to victory in World War I and then collaborated with the Nazis, is buried on a small island, where his grave is the site of bitter debates over his legacy. (Andrea Mantovani/The New York Times.

by Constant Méheut

ÎLE D’YEU, FRANCE.- On a recent afternoon, three French friends, still groggy from a long night of partying on a tiny island south of Brittany, stopped by a cemetery to snap a photograph of a grave they had heard so much about.

The tomb, flanked by conifers, was nestled at the far end of the burial ground. Once they finally found it, a lively debate ensued.

“He was successful in the 1918 battle,” said Théophile Jamet, 24.

“But who cares, man?” his friend Victor Beaufort sighed. “You saw what he did after.”

The person lying beneath the white stone slab they had come to see is the subject of many similar arguments across France: Philippe Pétain, who led the French army to victory in World War I but later collaborated with Nazi Germany as the head of a nationalist and antisemitic regime.

More than 70 years after Pétain’s death, his grave on the Île d’Yeu — a 9-square-mile island where he was jailed after World War II and where he died — remains a deeply contentious site.

Every summer, scores of tourists visit the grave with varying motivations. Some come to pay their respects. Others to grumble at its foot. Still others to deface the tomb with graffiti or even human waste.

Pétain’s legacy has long bedeviled France, and bitter political disputes regularly erupt over his memory, reverberating all the way to the Île d’Yeu, as if his grave will never cease haunting this otherwise peaceful island.

It has haunted me, too.

I grew up partly on the Île d’Yeu, home to my mother’s family, spending most of my school breaks there. When I was a child, Pétain seemed liked a ghost hovering above the island. He was there when I rode my bike next to the Citadel, the mighty fortress where he was imprisoned. His name would pop up in stories shared by relatives.

But it wasn’t until this year, after Pétain became a flashpoint in France’s presidential campaign and President Emmanuel Macron criticized those who wanted “to manipulate” the legacy of the disgraced leader, that I realized just how troublesome a ghost he was.

Pétain spent the last six years of his life on this rocky island of barely 5,000 inhabitants, about 10 miles off France’s Atlantic coast in the Bay of Biscay and accessible only by boat. Condemned to death after France’s liberation in 1945 for leading the collaborationist Vichy regime, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Citadel.

Marcel Groisard, my 89-year-old great-uncle, a fisherman since his teenage years, said Pétain’s presence on the island when he was alive was met with relative indifference. “It’s only since his death that we’ve really talked about him,” he said.

Pétain died at 95 on July 23, 1951. His last wish was to be buried near Verdun, the place where he led the French army during one of the most dramatic battles of World War I. But the government, anxious not to cast him as a hero, preferred to keep him on the island.

That decision would turn his grave into its own battlefield, with clashes erupting over a question that has long split France: Should Pétain be remembered as the victor of Verdun or the traitor of Vichy?

In my own family, as in so many across France, opinions diverge.

Marcel, my great-uncle, said Pétain “should have been shot,” but his wife, Madeleine, raised in the myth of Verdun, confessed that “she used to like him” and that she had attended Pétain’s funeral as a teenager, slipping into the crowd despite her mother’s objection.

Often the divide is generational, with younger French people, educated at length about the Holocaust, typically considering Pétain a stain on the country’s history, the man whose wartime government sent more than 70,000 Jews to their deaths.

Abroad, his name is more uniformly vilified, but in France, he can be admired and abhorred — sometime by the same person — as captured by this quote from Charles de Gaulle, who described Pétain’s life as “successively banal, then glorious, then deplorable, but never mediocre.”

On one recent summer weekday afternoon at the grave, those who detested Pétain were easy to find.

“Traitor,” said the first woman I met there, a civil servant who could hardly hide her revulsion. Another visitor said the grave symbolized France’s “guilty conscience.”

But there was also a family of three that stood silently by the tomb for two minutes. The father said the history around Pétain had been distorted and that he was a great figure. He asked to remain anonymous to discuss what he called a “hot-button issue,” saying only that his first name, too, was Philippe.

In less than an hour, nearly 20 people visited the grave.

“Quite a puzzling interest,” said Philippe Collin, a journalist who recently produced “The Ghost of Philippe Pétain,” a 10-episode podcast listened to by some 2 million people. He said the current popularity of the subject reflected the identity crisis of a country disrupted by economic and social upheavals and looking for answers in the past.

“What is this France that Pétain embodies, this eternal France?” Collin said some people wondered. “And what kind of French am I compared to that?”

He added that much of this curiosity was also the product of recent attempts by nationalist forces to rehabilitate Pétain. This year, Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and presidential candidate, falsely stated that Pétain had protected French Jews, making headlines for days.

And like every year on the anniversary of Pétain’s death, far-right groups brandishing French flags descended this summer on the island’s crescent-shaped port, walked up its narrow streets to the cemetery and laid wreaths on the grave, proclaiming their nostalgia for the rural, Catholic and conservative France extolled by the Vichy regime.

Worried about this politicization, the island’s authorities have long tried to keep the grave as secret as possible. There is not a word about it in the promotional brochures at the local tourist office.

“The less we talk about it, the better,” said Carole Charuau, the deputy mayor. She added that she knew residents who gave wrong directions to tourists asking where the grave is.

Even the grave’s placement within the cemetery, standing apart and oriented oppositely to all the others, is a point of contention. Some believe it is a sign of dishonor. Others see it as a special treatment.

Jean-François Henry, the island’s historian, said the reason was more simple: The location was initially meant to be temporary, as the local authorities thought Pétain would eventually be buried near Verdun.

As he showed me around the Citadel, Henry stopped at an explanatory panel recounting the fortress’s history — except for Pétain’s incarceration there, which was omitted. “The major, almost worldwide event, is not mentioned,” he said. “The void is even more blatant.”

The island’s silence isn’t total. There’s the Historical Museum of the Île d’Yeu, a mysterious place with closed shutters and a decrepit facade. Even as a lifelong visitor to the island, I had never seen it open, and nobody I knew had ever visited it.

It was founded by the owners of the island’s oldest hotel, the Hôtel des Voyageurs, where Annie Pétain, his wife, settled during his imprisonment.

I finally managed to arrange a visit one recent morning and discovered a room glorifying Pétain. Personal photographs and letters adorned the walls, amid a crowded jumble of banners and gifts from veterans. There was Pétain’s deathbed as well as the suit and hat he wore in jail, his cane and a lock of his hair.

Marie-Louise Nolleau, 87, the museum’s manager, said Pétain’s wife had bequeathed 100 or so items to her father-in-law. Nolleau acknowledged that her family had been “Maréchaliste,” meaning pro-Pétain. At home, she keeps the hotel’s guest book, which includes a rarely seen farewell message from Pétain’s wife.

Nolleau said she opened the museum only sporadically and did not publicize it to avoid any trouble. “For the City Hall, it’s a wart,” she said.

“But it’s also our history,” Nolleau added. “Whether we like it or not.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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