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Controversy

Pierre Laval, a Nazi “Puppet” in New York City

Eighty years after Pierre Laval created the Milice Française, a plaque in Manhattan commemorating the man behind the Vél’ d’Hiv Roundup and France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany is still relatively unknown. As is another one honoring Marshal Pétain.
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Pierre Laval (holding a cane) and former New York governor Al Smith at the top of the Empire State Building, October 1931. © Times Wide World Photo

Anyone would step over the simple strip of black granite set into the asphalt on Broadway without realizing as they walk between a souvenir store and a hotdog stand. The plaque bearing the name of Pierre Laval, unveiled in 2004, was part of the Downtown Alliance’s initiative to revitalize Lower Manhattan by commemorating the almost 200 ticker-tape parades that have been held in the neighborhood since the Statue of Liberty’s inauguration in 1886. These events and their flurries of confetti have celebrated such figures as Theodore Roosevelt (in 1910), Amelia Earhart (1928), Charles de Gaulle (1945 and 1960), Elizabeth II (1957), Buzz Aldrin (1969), Pope John Paul II (1979), Nelson Mandela (1990), and healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 pandemic (2021).

The parade on October 22, 1931, was to commemorate Pierre Laval, the president of the French Council of Ministers. As a leading name in the anti-Communist right, a fervent pacifist, and the representative of an economic power that had so far avoided the Great Depression, he was invited for a state visit by President Herbert Hoover. He arrived in the port of New York on the Ile-de-France ocean liner at dawn and was greeted with a 19-gun salute – a rare honor. Accompanied by Mayor Jimmy Walker and French ambassador Paul Claudel, Laval was driven up Broadway to City Hall with great pomp and circumstance. But despite the celebrations, a journalist from Le Petit Journal reported “a small crowd – perhaps due to the early hour of the event – with a reserved atmosphere, quite civil but expressing little warmth.” Not to be put off by this tepid reception, Laval was already on his way to Washington D.C. four hours later.

That evening at the White House, Laval sat to the right of President Hoover. By coincidence, October 1931 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, a decisive French-American victory. Another French statesman was also at the table: Philippe Pétain, marshal of France, a World War I hero, the soon-to-be president of the Council of Ministers, and the future leader of the Vichy Regime during World War II. This was the very first time the two men had met, although they would remain associated in the collective imagination for many years to come. The “Lion of Verdun” was given his own parade in Manhattan on October 26, 1931 (and was granted his own commemorative granite plaque). Several months later, in light of the success of his trip to America, Laval was voted Man of the Year by Time magazine. To this date, he and de Gaulle are the only French people to have received this accolade.

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Nine years later, in October 1940, Pétain had become the French head of state. He was photographed shaking hands with Adolf Hitler, and together they negotiated France’s collaboration with Germany. This encounter was set up by Laval, who gained a reputation for his zeal throughout the war. He even declared that he “hoped Germany would be victorious” in June 1942. A month later, after enacting new racial laws, he orchestrated the Vél d’Hiv Roundup, an operation in which more than 13,000 Jews were arrested by the Paris police and deported. On January 30, 1943, following orders from Hitler and trying to fight the Resistance more effectively, Laval created the Milice Française, a police force to support the Gestapo. A caricature published by France-Amérique in August of that year portrayed him as a puppet controlled by Nazi occupiers.

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Pierre Laval (right) and Philippe Pétain (left), depicted as poupées (“dolls”) of the occupying Nazi regime, August 15, 1943. © Ezekiel Schloss/France-Amérique
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Pierre Laval’s plaque on Broadway, unveiled in 2004. © Brice Rosier-Laperrousaz

Laval was considered responsible for the Milice’s acts of violence, including random arrests, torture, rape, summary executions, and massacres. After the Liberation, while trying to escape to Spain, he was arrested, sentenced to death for high treason and plotting against the security of the state, charged with “national indignity,” and executed by firing squad at Fresnes Prison near Paris on October 15, 1945. “No one escapes fate,” read the accompanying headline in France-Amérique. Yet in 2004, Pierre Laval’s name was engraved on a sidewalk in Manhattan. The plaque is in the Canyon of Heroes, not far from plaques commemorating Pétain, de Gaulle, and the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.

Written in Stone? A Controversial Commemoration

What was the reasoning behind the decision? The memorial project developed as a “walk of fame” in 2000 was spearheaded by a mainly economic organization, the Downtown Alliance, indiscriminately and with no historical consultation. And, of course, no context. Laval’s plaque explains that he was the “Premier of France” in 1931, but there is nothing explaining his contribution to deporting 75,000 Jews from France between March 1942 and August 1944. It is true that World War II classes in the United States mainly focus on the Pacific and the Normandy landings, without much attention paid to the Vichy Regime (with whom Washington maintained diplomatic relations until 1942). It is also true that visitors to New York City generally look to the skies, not the ground. Nevertheless, this commemoration is still upsetting.

The scandal exploded in 2017. During the wave of toppled statues and other controversial monuments that swept across the United States, The Jerusalem Post decried the existence of a plaque bearing Pétain’s name in New York. The city “has inadvertently honored a mass murderer,” wrote a Brooklyn politician, whose parents had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. He demanded the immediate removal of the plaque to “send a message” to Marine Le Pen, who had declared in her presidential campaign that France had played no role in the Vél’ d’Hiv Roundup. “We can’t […] whitewash history,” replied the Downtown Alliance. “Instead, we hope that [these plaques] give us pause and animate important discussions and teachable moments.”

City Hall then weighed in on the debate. “The commemoration for Nazi collaborator Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will be one of the first we remove,” promised Bill De Blasio, who was then campaigning for his own reelection, on Twitter. “There is no space for hate in New York City.” But almost six years later, the plaque has not budged. Worse still, the commission formed to identify problematic markers published a report drawing attention to Pétain, but not Laval, who is not mentioned at all. “If a marker is accurate, and not celebratory of egregious values or actions,” concluded the panel of experts, “it should not be removed.”

On January 27 this year, as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Manhattan borough president demanded that the city remove these plaques. History may well prove him right. However, in the meantime, the City Hall commission recommends that the Canyon of Heroes be renamed, and that “context” and “historical information” be added for each person. In Laval’s case, his plaque could read as follows: “French politician. Welcomed with a parade on October 22, 1931, when he was president of the Council of Ministers. Sentenced to death on October 9, 1945, for war crimes and collaboration with the Nazis. Executed six days later.”

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