Saturday, March 24, 2012

Petain 2012

[On 20 Mar 2012, Prof Tommy Koh, our Ambassador at large wrote this article about renaming Petain Road because while it was originally named for one Henri Philippe Petain for his heroism during WW I, in WWII he was more villainous and so not worthy of having a street named after him...]
Mar 20, 2012

Should Petain Road be renamed?

By Tommy Koh
IN SINGAPORE, unlike many newly independent countries, we do not have a policy of de-colonising the names of streets and places. As a result, our streets have kept the names given to them by the British colonial administration. I approve of this policy because we should not deny the past and wipe out part of our history.

There is a road in the Jalan Besar area called Petain Road. The French community has been campaigning for many years to change the name of the road. I support the campaign and would like to explain why the Street and Building Names Board, under the Ministry of National Development, should consider the request favourably.

Britain was an ally of France during the First World War. In the Jalan Besar area, there are several roads which bear the names of famous generals, such as Petain and Beatty, or famous sites of battles, such as Verdun, Marne, Jutland and Flanders. In 1928, the Municipal Government of Singapore decided to name one of the roads after the great French war hero, Field Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

Petain was born in 1856. His father was a farmer. Young Petain joined the French army in 1876 and attended the St Cyr Military Academy and the Army College. In 1911, he was a colonel and commander of the 33rd Infantry Regiment of Arras. His young lieutenant was Charles de Gaulle. His career took off in 1914, when he was already 58 years old. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. In 1915, he was given command of the Second Army and participated in the Battle of Verdun in the following year.

At the end of the First World War, Petain was regarded as one of France's greatest military heroes. In 1918, he was made a Marshal of France. In 1922, he was appointed as the Inspector-General of the Army. The decision by the Municipal Government of Singapore to name a road after him, in 1928, was perfectly understandable.

No one in 1928 could have foreseen what Petain would do during the Second World War. The French Army had been progressively degraded after the First World War, no thanks to budgetary cuts. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the French Army was no match for the German Army.

In May 1940, Petain, who had become the Prime Minister of France, regarded the military situation as hopeless. On the 20th of June, France signed an armistice with Germany, giving the latter control of the north and west of France, including Paris. The seat of the French government was moved to Vichy, a town located about 400km south of Paris.

On July 10, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate ratified the armistice, abolished the Third Republic, and adopted a new Constitution under which Petain, as the head of state, had near-absolute powers. The Petain government oppressed the French people and collaborated with Germany in suppressing the French resistance and arresting the Jews. In November 1942, Germany occupied the whole of France and Petain became a puppet of the Germans.

In 1945, de Gaulle's provisional government placed Petain on trial for treason. The three judges were in favour of acquitting him. The jury, however, disagreed and convicted him of treason and sentenced him to death. De Gaulle, who had served under Petain in 1911, commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, on account of his age and taking into account his contributions in the First World War. Petain was stripped of all his military ranks and honours, except for the title of Marshal. He died in ignominy, in 1951, at the age of 95.

In the light of these historical facts, we must agree with the French community that it is inappropriate to continue to honour Petain by naming a road after him. The question is whether there is a precedent for changing the road's name.

I think I have found a good precedent. Chulia Street was originally named Kling Street. The word, 'kling' is derived from the word, 'kalinga', the name of a powerful South Indian kingdom. In the beginning, the Malays referred to all South Indians as 'orang kling'. However, over time, the word acquired a pejorative connotation and was used to refer to the Indian coolies.

In 1918, Rev J A B Coach petitioned the municipal commissioners to change the name of the street, but his appeal was rejected. Three years later, in 1921, the commissioners acceded to the request of Dr H S Moonshi, who spoke on behalf of the Indian community.

I hope that the Street and Building Names Board will kindly consider the request of the French community to rename Petain Road. I propose calling it 'de Gaulle Road', to recognise the historic contributions made by the indomitable French leader in the country's history.

The writer is the Honorary Chairman of the National Heritage Board. He would be speaking today at the Malraux Seminar, which will bring together French and Singapore culture and heritage professionals in dialogue.
[Prof Koh's article was followed a few days later by an idiotic comment in the ST Forum. In line with ST Forum's unwritten policy of publishing humourously stupid letters and comments for us all to laugh at, it was printed in the "My Point" segment of the ST Forum...]

24 Mar 2012 - ST Forum.
Petain Road
'The argument for changing the name relates to French history and politics, not Singapore's.'
MR LIM ENG LIAN: 'As a Singaporean, what is important to me is the context of the name 'Petain Road' in Singapore ('Should Petain Road be renamed?'; Tuesday). It seems the argument for changing the name relates to French history and politics, not Singapore's, which links Petain Road to the person so honoured at that time. If the rationale provided in the article for changing the name is to be accepted, then shouldn't all references to Petain in France be expunged by the French?'

[Done! See below!
But before that, why would the writer think that France would not have tried to clean up their own house before looking elsewhere? Secondly, Petain did nothing for SG in WWI. The street was named for his heroism as a principle to be admired and aspire to. As history has subsequently prove that he is more of a villain than a hero, should the honour still remain? What does it say of SG's principle that we "honour" a villain with a street named after him?]
The Name of Pétain, Hero and Villain, Is Cleansed From the Streets of France

Letter From Tremblois-lès-Carignan

By Peter Hellman

Published December 29, 2010, issue of January 07, 2011.

Renaming a street in a tiny French village should have been of no consequence to anyone other than its inhabitants. But when the municipal council of Tremblois-lès-Carignan (population 115) in the Ardennes region voted to change the name of Rue Pétain to Rue de Belle-Croix, it marked the end of an era. Theirs was the last street in France named for the white-mustachioed Marshal Philippe Pétain, hero of Verdun in the Great War.

The cleansing of Pétain’s name from the French street map was in belated recognition of the “other” Pétain — the octogenarian who, in league with the Nazi conquerors of his country, led the Vichy state from 1940 to 1944. Three months into his rule, Vichy promulgated its first anti-Jewish statute, defining Jews and restricting their rights. The taciturn marshal never publicly uttered anti-Semitic words. But, in October, the French Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld revealed a previously unknown draft of Vichy’s anti-Jewish statute, marked up in Pétain’s own hand with phrasing that made it harsher. The notations show “that this was the desire of Pétain himself,” Klarsfeld said. Most of the 76,000 Jews deported from France were arrested by French police at Vichy’s order, the regime having become a willing instrument of the Nazi occupiers.

Pétain was put on trial in 1945 and found guilty of treason. Death was the penalty, but in view of his age, he was allowed to live out his long life under house arrest. He died in 1951 at age 95, senile, in exile on an island in the Atlantic Ocean. But for many, the Vichy years were the aberration of a revered war hero who still wanted to do his best for France. In his honor, streets all over France took his name after the Great War. But after Pétain’s conviction, nearly all those streets were, as the French say, “debaptized.” The exceptions were in three forgotten villages in northeastern France amidst the battlefields where Pétain had won glory in the battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest of World War I.

One was Dernancourt (pop. 450), in the Somme. In 1970, the post office decided to facilitate deliveries with new street signage, igniting a debate over its Rue Pétain. “It’s not bothering anyone here,” insisted the village mayor at the time, and the name remained. In 2005, the debate was reawakened by a village resident who complained in a letter to a local newspaper that a street named Pétain not only shamed those who fought against Hitler but insulted citizens opposed to the reactionary politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, an admirer of the marshal.

In early November, Dernancourt’s mayor, Lionel Lemott, announced that the time had come to erase Pétain’s name from the village map. He’d been influenced by a court decision, a few weeks earlier, requiring the town of Gonneville-sur-Mer, in Calvados, to remove Pétain’s portrait from a marriage chamber in its town hall. The court reasoned that, since Pétain “personally incarnated the [Vichy] regime,” his portrait on the wall was “contrary to the neutrality of public services.” And so, the mayor of Dernancourt surrendered, saying, “No more Pétain, period.” The little street behind the church, one of the remaining trio of Rue Pétains in France, was given the unwieldy name of “Rue du 5 Avril 1918-Bataille de Dernancourt.” And then there were two. Next came the turn of Parpeville (pop. 219), not far from Dernancourt. Here, too, there had long been dissension over its Rue Pétain. At Chez Paulette, a café on the street, co-proprietor Paulette Dollé told the local newspaper, “We always had dust-ups between the pro- and anti-Pétainists. But this is neutral turf, so I’d say to them, ‘Go fight outdoors.’” On November 30, Parpeville, also influenced by the decision in Calvados, changed the name of its Rue Pétain to “Rue de la Paix.” And then there was one.

In Tremblois-lès-Carignan, the street called Rue Pétain prominently led into the village, passing near a commemorative statue of a soldier of the Great War. Mayor Jean-Pol Oury had for years shown no interest in a name change. “In the War of 1940, he did what he thought was right,” the mayor said of the marshal. At the behest of the regional prefect of the Ardennes, Oury finally agreed to put the issue to a vote. On December 1, the village council changed the name of its Rue Pétain to Rue de Belle-Croix. And then there were none.

Behind the eradication of Pétain’s name from the French street map was a slow but profound change in the popular view of Vichy and its leader. Until 1993, every post-war French president, including even Charles de Gaulle, had annually laid a wreath on Pétain’s tomb on Armistice Day. That practice was effectively ended by Serge Klarsfeld, who in 1992 led a group of Jewish protesters to Pétain’s tomb on the Ile de Yeu. They were prepared to block the sitting president, Francois Mitterrand, from continuing the ritual which honored not only the hero of Verdun, but also the villain of Vichy. Mitterrand never showed up, but after Klarsfeld’s group left the cemetery, a helicopter swooped down and a representative of the president placed the wreath in his name next to one from Jean-Marie Le Pen.

That was the last presidential wreath for Pétain. Jacques Chirac, who succeeded Mitterrand, was the first French president to acknowledge that Vichy was not just a “parenthesis” in the history of the Third Republic and that France was responsible for the mass arrests of Jews, even as many of its citizens hid the hunted. “Those dark hours will stain forever our history,” said Chirac in 1995. Yet, in three formal speeches on the crimes of Vichy, Chirac never once uttered the name of its leader, Philippe Pétain.

Contact Peter Hellman at

[As the above article shows, rewriting history is not easy. It's not like wikipedia. Even France has only just completed the renaming of Petain Roads (Rue) on Dec 2010. But SG has always been a fast mover. Should we take as long?]

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