In first, France honors foreign communist WWII resistance fighter

Armenian poet Missak Manouchian, who led dozens of anti-Nazi attacks in Vichy France before he was executed, also first foreigner recognized as having ‘died for France’

The portrait of Missak Manouchian is projected on the facade of the Pantheon monument in Paris, France, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
The portrait of Missak Manouchian is projected on the facade of the Pantheon monument in Paris, France, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS, France (AP) — 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 Armenian genocide, 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.

French President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects at the coffins of Missak Manouchian, and his wife Mélinée in the Pantheon monument during their induction ceremony in Paris, France, Feb 21, 2024. (Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via AP)

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.”

Soldiers of the Foreign Legion carry Missak Manouchian and his wife Mélinée Manouchian’s coffins in Paris, France, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks between the years of 1915 through 1916.

He 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.

People hold a Party Communist flag as they gather during Missak Manouchian’s induction ceremony and his 23 resistance fighters into the Pantheon monument in Paris, France, Feb 21, 2024. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool via AP)

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 November 16, 1943 along with most of the group’s members. He was sentenced to death in February 1944.

The coffins of Missak Manouchian and his wife Melinee Manouchian, covered with the French flag, placed in front of the Affiche Rouge (Red Poster) are seen before the induction ceremony for Missak Manouchian and his 23 resistance fighters into the Pantheon monument in Paris, France, Feb 21, 2024. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool via AP)

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.

A light 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.

Soldiers from French Foreign Legion stand by the coffin of Missak Manouchian and his wife Mélinée Manouchian during his induction ceremony and his 23 resistance fighters into the Pantheon monument in Paris, France, Feb 21, 2024. (Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool via AP)

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, a US-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist, became in 2021 the first Black woman to receive France’s highest honor.

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