The Problem of Pétain: The State Politics of Difficult Reputations

Baptiste Brossard, Gary Alan Fine*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do governments commemorate salient national figures with contested reputations? The case of Marshal Philippe Pétain, whose fame followed World War I (WWI), but was later stigmatized for having led the Nazi-affiliated Vichy regime during World War II (WWII), suggests that political leaders consider the interests of competing groups. In the case of Pétain, these include veterans’ organizations, Jewish heritage groups, leftists, and, eventually, the rightist National Front. State leaders attempt to reconcile these pressures in the hope of avoiding politically damaging conflicts. Successful commemorations reinforce the legitimacy of the State as the guardian of symbolic compatibility between visions of history and morality. Recognizing memorialization as political process, we describe how Presidents of France attempt to distinguish an honorable Pétain from a dishonorable one. We describe four strategies by which states address difficult reputations: erasing, selecting, reconciling, and differentiating. Competing groups may create ambiguous meanings, attacking the State, while keeping distant from those with difficult reputations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSociological Perspectives
StateAccepted/In press - 2021


  • collective memory
  • culture
  • France
  • memory
  • reputation
  • scandal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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