Issued on: 09/12/2021 – 02:11
French leader Emmanuel Macron visited the seat of the French collaborationist government during World War II on Wednesday, becoming the first president to step foot in the town of Vichy in more than 60 years.
The head of state marked a minute’s silence in front of a memorial to victims of a notorious round-up of 6,500 Jews in 1942 in the company of famed French Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.
“It’s an emotional moment and a relief to see a president come to Vichy,” Serge Klarsfeld said afterwards.
Macron’s visit comes at a time of national debate over the legacy of collaborationist leader Philippe Petain, as well as appeals from local Vichy officials for the picturesque town to be freed from its association with one of the country’s most sombre periods.
Far-right pundit and presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has recently reprised his previous statements that Petain saved French Jews by deporting foreign Jews instead to Nazi concentration camps—sparking the ire of Holocaust historians and campaigners.
Aides to Macron insisted that his trip was not intended as a response to Zemmour, but the president said in an interview on Wednesday that “Vichy takes us back to history. This history was lived and has been written by historians. Let us not manipulate it, shake it up or revise it.”
The 43-year-old, who is expected to seek re-election in April, also heard complaints from locals in Vichy about their struggles with the legacy of Petain’s decision to set up his government in the town and collaborate with the Nazis after France’s military defeat in 1940.
Local mayor Frederic Aguilera from the right-wing Republicans party said he wished the widely used expression “Vichy regime” would disappear.
“We feel every day the weight of words, the weight of an unfair stigmatisation. Vichy remains associated with France’s shame, Vichy is France’s shame,” he said during a ceremony with Macron.
The town in central France to the north of Clermont Ferrand is also home to popular natural spas and is seeking to market itself as a wellness and beauty destination.