Philippe Pétain's Legacy Haunts the Island Where He's Buried

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tags: French history, collaboration, Vichy, World War 2, Philippe Pétain

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 nine-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 like 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 flash point 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.

Read entire article at New York Times

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