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France honors foreign Resistance fighters as WWII hero Manouchian is inducted into the Panthéon

By Associated Press
Published: February 21, 2024, 3:58pm
3 Photos
The coffin of Missak Manouchian, carried by Republican Guards, enters the Pantheon monument for his induction ceremony and for his 23 resistance fighters, Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024 in Paris. A poet and communist fighter who took refuge in France after surviving the Armenian genocide, Manouchian was executed in 1944 for leading the resistance to Nazi occupation.
The coffin of Missak Manouchian, carried by Republican Guards, enters the Pantheon monument for his induction ceremony and for his 23 resistance fighters, Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024 in Paris. A poet and communist fighter who took refuge in France after surviving the Armenian genocide, Manouchian was executed in 1944 for leading the resistance to Nazi occupation. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool via AP) Photo Gallery

PARIS — When France hosts grandiose ceremonies commemorating D-Day, the heroic role of Missak Manouchian and other foreigners among French Resistance fighters in World War II is often overlooked. French President Emmanuel Macron sought to change that Wednesday by inducting Manouchian into the country’s Panthéon national monument.

A poet who took refuge in France after surviving the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, Manouchian was executed in 1944 for being a leader in the resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Macron praised Manouchian’s “love for France to the point of giving his life” in a speech at the Panthéon, the resting place of France’s most revered figures, in the presence of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

“He wanted to be a poet, he became a soldier in the shadows,” Macron said.

The moving tribute also honored 23 other members of Manouchian’s Resistance group. Their names, to be mentioned on a commemorative plaque, were read one by one, followed by the phrase “Died for France,” a high honor in the country.

“This is how great men in France live for eternity,” Macron said.

The coffins of Manouchian and his wife, Mélinée, both covered with the French flag, were carried in the street in front of the Panthéon by soldiers of the Foreign Legion.

Mélinée, also a member of the Resistance who survived the war, will be buried alongside her husband.

The move comes as France gets ready to celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day this year in the presence of heads of states and World War II veterans.

Historian Denis Peschanski, who led efforts to honor Manouchian’s memory, said Wednesday’s ceremony was above all an homage to “all foreign Resistance fighters.”

On Tuesday, a homage was held at Mont Valérien, where Manouchian and his group members were shot by the Nazis. The site has become a memorial to French WWII fighters. The Holocaust Memorial in Paris also was holding an exhibit in his honor

Born in 1906 in the then-Ottoman empire, Manouchian lost both his parents during the massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-1916. Scholars widely view the event as the first genocide of the 20th century, but Turkey denies that the events constituted genocide and says the number of people killed was much lower.

Manouchian was sent to an orphanage in Lebanon, then a French protectorate, where he discovered French language and culture.

He came to France in 1924. Living in Paris, he wrote poetry and took literature and philosophy classes at the Sorbonne University — while working in factories and doing other odd jobs.

He joined the communist party in the early 1930s within the MOI (Immigrant Workforce Movement) group and became editor-in-chief of a newspaper for the Armenian community.

During World War II, he joined the French Resistance as a political activist with the then-underground MOI group.

In 1943, he became a military chief in the armed organization of the communist party, the FTP-MOI group of about 60 Resistance fighters that gathered many foreigners from Armenia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain, including many Jewish people.

Manouchian is the first foreign and first communist Resistance fighter to be inducted into the Panthéon, Peschanski noted.

His group led dozens of anti-Nazi attacks and sabotage operations in and around Paris between August and November 1943, including the assassination of a top German colonel.

Tracked down by the French police of the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany, Manouchian was arrested on Nov. 16, 1943 along with most of the group’s members. He was sentenced to death in Feb. 1944.

Nazi propaganda officers ordered a poster to be made with the photos and names of 10 Resistance fighters, including Manouchian, displayed in Paris and other French cities.

The so-called “Red Poster” sought to discredit them as Jews, foreigners and criminals, and Manouchian was “obviously the first target,” Peschanski said. Yet the campaign didn’t convince the French population, he said: The poster, while “aiming to present them as assassins, made them heroes.”

In his last letter to his wife, Manouchian wrote: “At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people … The German people, and all other people will live in peace and brotherhood after the war.”

French poet Louis Aragon wrote a poem in 1955 inspired by the letter that singer Léo Ferré set to music under the title “L’Affiche Rouge” (“The Red Poster”), keeping the memory alive and making the song a French standard.

During Wednesday’s ceremony, French rock band Feu! Chatterton performed the song, while a big reproduction of the Red Poster was set up in front of the Panthéon.

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A lighting show on the monument’s facade recounted Manouchian’s life. The homage also included touching excerpts from his letters and notebooks.

“Missak Manouchian, you enter here as a soldier with your comrades, those of the poster, of the Mont Valérien … and with all your band of brothers who died for France,” Macron said.

Recent research about Manouchian brought to light the fact that dozens of the 185 foreigners shot to death by the Nazis at Mont Valérien had not been officially declared “Morts pour la France” (“Died for France”) — “mostly because they were foreigners,” Peschanski noted. The French presidency said the issue was addressed last year to give them the honor.

The Panthéon is the resting place of 83 people — 76 men and seven women — including Manouchian and his wife.

Most recently, Josephine Baker — the U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist became the first Black woman to receive France’s highest honor, in 2021.

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