VICHY, France — The weight of France’s checkered World War II history still bears down on Vichy, the middle-sized city in the heart of the country that was the seat of collaboration with Adolf Hitler.
Locals have been fighting for years to dissociate the name of their quaint, bourgeois city with the collaborationist regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain, which enacted a law in October 1940 depriving Jews from exercising most professions, even before Hitler’s government required it.
Now, the city and Pétain’s rule have been dragged into one of the central battles in the presidential campaign.
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour has repeatedly spurred controversy by attempting to whitewash the extent of Pétain’s collaboration. His erroneous claims appeal to ultra-nationalists who refuse to admit that not all of France’s history is glorious.
When French people hit the polls in April 2022, the stakes will go beyond simply choosing between candidates with different economic, fiscal or social policies. They will be choosing between two radically different visions of their country, their history and their values, and Vichy is the ground zero of that battle.
It is no coincidence that on Wednesday evening Emmanuel Macron will be the first French president to honor in Vichy the memory of the Jews deported by the Pétain regime and the 80 French MPs who refused to give full powers to Pétain in July 1940.
The highly political move is the closest he has gotten to openly engaging in the presidential campaign.
“Vichy reminds us of a history … I think we are better off respecting, studying history and allowing historians to build a historiographic truth based on evidence and documents, and let’s avoid manipulating it, agitating it, revising it,” Macron said Wednesday ahead of the visit, punctuating each phrase with a dramatic pause, in a clear rebuttal of polemicist-turned-presidential candidate Eric Zemmour.
In an interview, the last resistance fighter from the Vichy area, 97-year-old André Crétier who was part of the group that liberated Paris, also rejected Zemmour’s revisionism.
“The anti-French attitude of a World War I hero like Pétain cannot be excused,” said Crétier.
Macron’s visit was cheered by local officials and veteran associations.
“The commemoration will be at the foot of where the ministries were, where the Pétain regime’s decisions were taken, Emmanuel Macron’s visit is a historic first,” said Frédéric Aguilera, mayor of Vichy.
The French president is not expected to announce his run for reelection until February, at the earliest, once he has launched the French presidency of the Council of the EU. His decision to respond to Zemmour without naming him is his attempt to remain above the fray, while drawing a contrast between his presidential stature and that of the polemicist attempting to become more presidential.
“Emmanuel Macron is drawing up a vision of France that is radically different to the one Zemmour carries … he is also underlining the contrast between himself, a president who despite having had a difficult mandate is still able to tour France without any violence or incidence, and Zemmour who is unable to go anywhere without incidents,” said Chloé Morin, an expert on politics at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.
Zemmour, who is running on a xenophobic, clash-of-civilization platform based on a glorified history of France, has repeatedly claimed that Pétain “protected French Jews and gave away foreign Jews” and that his collaboration with Hitler was the lesser evil, allowing him to save the French and give time to Charles de Gaulle, who was leading the resistance from exile in London, to liberate the country.
“Pétain certainly did not do that!” said Crétier: “The French police [under Pétain] dressed in civilian clothes, arrested my fellow resistance fighters and handed them over to the Gestapo, they weren’t exactly great Frenchmen.”
Zemmour, who is Jewish, has also sparked the ire of the Jewish community in Vichy with his revisionism of the role that Petain played.
“What a certain someone whose name starts with Z said is particularly shocking to French Jews,” said Michelle London, the president of the Jewish community in Vichy. “How can someone who aspires to be president say something like that? One must be representative, have poise.”
There is a square in Vichy that bears the name of Michel Crespin, a French Jewish newborn who was deported by the Pétain regime in May 1944 and died along with his parents at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Zemmour’s view of Pétain’s regime hasn’t found support among the wider Vichy population. The city has a mainstream conservative mayor and Macron was narrowly beaten in the first round of the presidential election in 2017 by the conservative candidate François Fillon, before getting 70 percent of Vichy votes in the run-off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“He is too monothematic, he is obsessed with immigration and unable to provide vision about anything else,” said Isabelle, a middle-aged hotel manager, whose elderly mother lives in a countryside manor and does support Zemmour.
“Zemmour has it all wrong about Pétain, he’s not my cup of tea,” said Cyril, a thirty-something old bar owner in the center of Vichy.
The visit to Vichy is the last stop on a two-day tour through two regions in central France where Macron spent a lot of time in close contact with crowds, officially to discuss the post-COVID-19 economic recovery plan.