May pays WWI respects in France with Brexit in background

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Renowned as a "soldier's soldier", Petain was promoted to commander-in-chief of the French armies in mid-1917, after victory at Verdun, rebuilding troop morale after a series of mutinies and other setbacks.

Macron stated on Wednesday that Petain "was a great soldier in World War I, it's a fact", but did highlight that the former leader had made "disastrous choices" during World War II.

President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday (Nov 8) there would be no official homage to Nazi collaborator Philippe Petain as part of World War I ceremonies this week, a day after sparking outrage by saying his inclusion would be "legitimate".

"I pardon nothing, but I erase nothing of our history", Macron added.

Macron, who spent the past week touring former battlefields of eastern and northern France, was to meet May at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, near the Belgian border.

"We have to recognise the historical truth, but also our duty to remember, and the consequences of the indignity which was established" at Petain's treason trial in 1945, he said.

But Wednesday's remarks struck a deep chord in a nation that has lived through two world wars and only in recent decades has acknowledged its collaborationist past.

France's leading Jewish organization, known by the initials CRIF, issued a searing criticism of Macron's stance.

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But as head of the Vichy regime, he actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, pursuing French resistance fighters while enacting second-class status for Jews and helping German soldiers round them up for the death camps. "It judges the enormous and unworthy responsibility of a marshal who deliberately used his name and prestige as a cover for treason and the collaboration and deportation of thousands of Jews in France".

For years French leaders have treaded lightly when dealing with Petain's tortuous legacy, which his critics say left an indelible stain on the country.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, head of the hard-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, wrote on Twitter: "Marshal Joffre was the military victor of the 1914-18 war".

After a record year in 2015, anti-Semitic acts fell by 58 percent in 2016 and went down a further 7 percent last year; however, there has been an increase in violent acts targeting Jews.

But his comments drew fire from the opposition as well as Jewish leaders on a still painful chapter in France's history.

The ceremony is another symbol of reconciliation between France and Germany, as Rethondes was also the site imposed by Nazi Germany on the French when accepting their surrender in 1940 during World War II, the Elysee said.

After the war, Petain was sentenced to death for treason, though then-President General Charles de Gaulle, a longtime admirer of Petain's military feats of arms, reduced the punishment to life in prison.

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