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Tearing Down the Statues

Embarrassing symbols of American history are being torn down one by one; after removing Confederate flags in the past, the focus has now been turned to statues. A commission in New York has been tasked with identifying exactly which symbols are to be confiscated, starting with the name “Philippe Pétain” engraved on Broadway.

French people will hardly be surprised by the divisive debate in the United States concerning the future of Confederate statues. After all, they experienced the same awkwardness with Marshal Pétain — although this was a more complex issue, as Philippe Pétain was both a glorified hero of World War I and the leader of the abominable Vichy government. In his first role, Pétain was praised and honored until 1940. The city of New York gave him a triumphant reception on October 26, 1931, and his heroic work earned him a plaque on Broadway. This ambiguity persisted even after World War II, and the then French president François Mitterrand continued to lay flowers on the tomb of the “hero of the Battle of Verdun” every year.

The far right is the sole group to continue upholding Pétain’s name in France today, and only because they follow the same nationalistic and xenophobic ideology as the Vichy regime. The mayor of New York has promised to remove the plaque honoring Pétain on Broadway, but what will become of the dozens of other references in the United States, such as “Pétain Street” and “Pétain Avenue”?* And what of Pierre Laval? The leader of the Vichy government’s Militia and the man behind the Vel d’Hiv Roundup also has a plaque on Broadway.

How are we to arbitrate and manage memories of a complex past? This question is partly answered by the fact that history is written by the victors; Pétain was beaten in 1945, and General Lee in 1865. Too bad for them and for their cause — morality triumphs. However, victory alone cannot determine commemorations; morality also has a role to play. The racism of the Confederates and the Vichy regime, now promoted by white supremacists in the United States and the Front National in France, continues to make Blacks and Jews suffer in both countries.

Removing references to Pétain and Lee is therefore not so much a revision of history as an attempt to protect those who may once again become victims of murderous ideologies. That being said, learning about history is not forbidden; rather, it is an essential solution to many a poisonous dispute. As for the statues, they can always be kept in museums. Moscow has one in particular, which serves as a home for the statues of Lenin and Stalin.


* American streets and avenues named after Marshal Pétain:

Pétain Street
Defiance, OH
Ellwood City, PA
Hartselle, AL
Manchester, NH
Monroe, LA
Prichard, AL

Pétain Avenue
Dallas, TX
Abbeville, LA
Milltown, NJ
Carmichaels, PA
Yuma, CO

Source: Google Maps

  • On ne peut pas re-crire l’histoire. Bien ou Mal il faut s’en servir pour eduquer et ne pas refaire les memes fautes. Et surtout ne pas laisser certains groups dicter le future ou demander d’efacer le passé.

  • Très intéressant. J’ignorais toutes ces marques publiques de respect américain au héros français de la Première Guerre mondiale devenu la honte de la Seconde… Merci F-A de nous éclairer avec votre publication. On apprend à tout âge sur l’Histoire de son propre pays, notamment avec le recul bienfaisant qu’octroie la chance de vivre à plus ou moins long terme à l’étranger.

  • Que dire du bilan de Napoléon? Plus que contrasté si on est bienveillant, immonde si on se place au niveau européen. Combien de victimes des guerres napoléoniennes? Entre 1 et 5 millions ? Honte à la France de garder ces pseudo-victoires prestigieuses dans la capitale.

  • The person who wrote this is imagining that he is superior to the others whom he calls racists, white supremacists, xenophobes. But the author is calling other people names. The person who wrote this also sees a humantarian world where all persons are equal. These two thoughts are opposites and create great angst in the mind of the person who wrote this and all who accept it’s premise. The threat to mankind and the planet is in THINKING. Thinking that we are separate from each other. The solution is seeing your brother as yourself. As Martin Luther King said: “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
    I think Martin Luther King would not concern himself with the statues, but with the people around them. And his words of love would rise above both the hate and thejudgment.

  • La personne qui a écrit cela imagine qu’il est supérieur aux autres qu’il appelle les racistes, les suprématistes blancs, les xénophobes. Mais l’auteur appelle le nom d’autres personnes. La personne qui a écrit cela voit aussi un monde humantarien où toutes les personnes sont égales. Ces deux pensées sont contraires et créent une grande angoisse dans l’esprit de la personne qui a écrit ceci et tous ceux qui l’acceptent sont les prémisses. La menace pour l’humanité et la planète est en PENSION. En pensant que nous sommes séparés l’un de l’autre. La solution est de voir votre frère comme vous-même. Comme l’a dit Martin Luther King: la non-violence signifie éviter non seulement la violence physique externe, mais aussi la violence interne de l’esprit. Non seulement vous refusez de tirer sur un homme, mais vous refusez de le haïr.

    Je pense que Martin Luther King ne s’intéresserait pas aux statues, mais aux gens qui les entouraient. Et ses paroles d’amour se lèveraient au-dessus de la haine et du jugement.

    Pardonnez mon français élémentaire.

  • I was surprised to see the reference to Petain Street in Ellwood City, PA, which is not too far from my house. The street is about 2 blocks long! Ellwood City is an old industrial town, not very large, and I’d be shocked if most of the residents have the least idea of the history of Marshal Petain. It’s not practical to rename every street according to whether the person it is named for is currently revered or disdained. Let’s not accord obscure street names with more importance than they deserve. BTW there is also a city named Versailles in PA, which is pronounced Ver-sails by the locals, and a city of DuBois, which is pronounced Due-boys.

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