French leader Emmanuel Macron visited the headquarters of the French collaborationist government during World War II on Wednesday, becoming the first president to set foot in the city of Vichy in more than 60 years.
The head of state observed a minute’s silence in front of a monument to the victims of a notorious raid of 6,500 Jews in 1942 in the company of famed French Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld.
“It is an emotional moment and a relief to see a president come to Vichy,” Serge Klarsfeld said afterward.
Macron’s visit comes at a time of national debate over the legacy of collaborationist leader Philippe Petain, as well as calls by local Vichy officials for the picturesque city to break free from its association with one of the country’s darkest periods. .
Far-right pundit and presidential candidate Eric Zemmour recently repeated his earlier statements that Pétain saved French Jews by deporting foreign Jews to Nazi concentration camps, drawing the ire of Holocaust historians and activists.
Macron’s aides insisted his trip was not intended to be a response to Zemmour, but the president said in an interview Wednesday that “Vichy takes us back to history. This story was lived and written by historians. Let’s not handle it, shake it, or check it. ”
The 43-year-old, who is expected to seek re-election in April, also heard complaints from locals in Vichy about his struggles with the legacy of Pétain’s decision to establish his government in the city and collaborate with the Nazis after the army. from France. defeat in 1940.
Local Mayor Frederic Aguilera of the right-wing Republican party said he wanted the widely used expression “Vichy regime” to disappear.
“Every day we feel the weight of words, the weight of an unfair stigmatization. Vichy is still associated with the shame of France, Vichy is the shame of France, ”he said during a ceremony with Macron.
The city in central France, north of Clermont Ferrand, is also home to popular natural spas and seeks to promote itself as a wellness and beauty destination.