Village wipes wartime hero and collaborator off the map
January 4, 2011
Wartime hero and traitor Petain wiped from French map
Marshal Petain's name is to be rued no more, reports John Tagliabue from Tremblois-les-Carignan, France.
THE local council in a village 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 French heroes of World War I: Marshals Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Petain.
The problem is that Petain 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 Germany's enemies, notably the Jews.
So under pressure from the national government, veterans and Jewish groups, the council voted unanimously to drop the name Petain from a street about 200 metres long, renaming it Rue de la Belle-Croix.
After World War I, virtually every town in France had its Rue or Avenue Petain. So vast was his fame that a dozen or so towns and cities in the US also named streets for him.
But when the signs in Tremblois change this month, the last street in France bearing his name will have gone. Not everyone is happy with the decision.
''It is ridiculous,'' said Laurent Joste, 27, a 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.''
World War I left deep scars in the village, which lies among the killing fields of 1914-18, near the Belgian border.
It is hard by the Marne River and Chemin des Dames ridge, where the slaughter of French troops in 1917 incited mutinies that only the calm but firm hands of marshals Foch and Petain put down.
By comparison, World War II left the village relatively untouched. For Jean Ponsart, who was 13 in 1945, the principal memory is of the endless column of US trucks and tanks rumbling along Rue Foch, the main street, stopping now and then, out of precaution, but usually long enough to give sweets to the village children.
His house bears the sole sign for Rue Petain and he is comfortable with it.
He opposed a proposal to rename the street Rue Charles de Gaulle, for the leader of the French resistance in World War II and postwar president.
The commotion around Rue Petain began last year when a journalist discovered the street and wrote about it. At the time, two other towns in northern France had streets named for Petain, 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 Levy. ''I met the mayor.
There were different reactions; the arguments were not political.''
Partly, it was town versus country. Village mayor Jean-Pol Oury shows visitors the hate mail he received, including threats, for keeping the name Petain. Mr Oury, 56, conducted a survey among its 114 residents. ''A majority said, 'It doesn't disturb me,''' he said.
Still, Levy's articles caught the attention of Jewish groups and organisations representing war survivors and deportees.
Finally, Mr Oury went before the town council's nine members, all of whom voted to change the name.
Many historians consider Petain as more of an enabler of the Nazis than an instigator of their designs, although that view was tinted by the discovery last year of papers suggesting he was active in writing the Vichy government's anti-Jewish laws.
Historians have long blamed him for not deserting the Nazis once their policies of exterminating the Jews became clear. He was sentenced to death in a postwar trial for treason. De Gaulle commuted the sentence to life in jail.