Emmanuel Macron under fire for calling Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain a ‘great soldier’

Emmanuel Macron has drawn fierce criticism over plans to celebrate Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain’s role as a “great soldier” in the First World War.

Petain led France’s Vichy regime during the Second World War and was sentenced to death for collaboration before then-president Charles de Gaulle, a longtime admirer, reduced the punishment to life in prison.

But he was a hero of the First World War. A 58-year old colonel at the start of battle in 1914, Pétain earned acclaim for stopping the Germans at the Battle of Verdun and assumed command of the French forces in 1917, rebuilding troop morale after a series of mutinies and other setbacks.

A ceremony will be held on Saturday to commemorate the eight marshals who commanded French forces during the First World War, including Petain.

"I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory," Mr Macron, 40, said in the eastern town of Charleville-Mezieres, part of a tour of northern France making the centenary of the Armistice.

"Marshal Petain was a great soldier in World War One, it’s a fact,” Mr Macron said, while stressing that the former leader had made "disastrous choices" during the Second World War.

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

Francis Kalifat of the CRIF association of French Jewish groups said he was "shocked" by Mr Macron’s comments in praise of a man who oversaw the deportation of thousands of Jews.

"The only thing we will remember about Petain is that he was convicted, in the name of the French people, of national indignity during his trial in 1945," said Mr Kalifat said.

"Petain is a traitor and an anti-Semite," tweeted Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far-left France Unbowed party, echoing a flurry of angry postings.

"Macron, this time you’ve gone too far!”

The French president will not attend Saturday’s ceremony at Les Invalides in Paris, instead sending his chief military adviser.

”I’m not overlooking any page in our history," said the centrist president.

"Political life, and human nature, are sometimes more complicated than we might like to believe.”

Mr Macron is not the first French head of state to pay tribute to Pétain.

Former socialist president Francois Mitterrand sparked similar howls of disapproval when he placed flowers on his tomb on the anniversary of the armistice every year. His successor Jacques Chirac put an end to the practice.

A government spokesman dismissed what he called a "fake controversy", adding that even De Gaulle insisted that Petain’s glory earned at Verdun, in which 300,000 French and German soldiers died, "could never be called into question”.