For those who don't know, Petain was the leader of France when they signed the armistice with Germany in 1940 that ended hostilities between the two countries (it was not a capitulation. It was more like what we have in Korea, where diplomats talked every day to come up with a permanent settlement. Of course the terms were dictated by Nazi Germany, but it did give France a degree of autonomy, as well as letting France keep its colonies, enough military to defend them, and its navy).
Up until the Germans took over the entire country after the North African invasion in 1942, Petain oversaw a new France, and resisted re-entering the war on the side of the axis. Of course France also rounded up thousands of Jews and delivered them to the Nazis tender care without the help of a single German. The bottom line is that it was a shameful episode in the history of France, brightened only by the facts that Paris, and most of France, escaped the devastation that happened to Poland and the Soviet Union, and that another Frenchman, Charles deGaulle, led "Free France," a resistance movement that wound up maintaining French sovereignty and getting it it the front row of allied nations by the end of the war.
Petain was tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted by deGaulle to life imprisonment. He had been the "Hero of Verdun," savior of France in The Great War. He had dedicated his life to France, and when he found himself in the driver's seat of the nation as the military situation in France appeared to be worse and worse every day, he did what he thought was best to save the nation. Whether or not he was right really depends on your priorities and view of history.
He marched on Broadway on October 26, 1931, just four days after Pierre Laval, who was Premiere of France at the time.
Laval was an opportunistic, antisemitic, collaborating weasel who gave Germany almost everything he thought they would want. He was tried for treason and executed.
This week monuments to Confederate generals are being taken down as part of the fallout from the demonstration by Confederate flag-waving white supremacists, the counterdemonstration by those who oppose them, and the violence that followed. Now there is talk of taking away any "monument to hatred."
These foreign dignitaries did not fight to protect the states' rights to own slaves. They showed up in NYC in a period of time in which any head of state or war hero coming to NYC was a big enough deal that a ticker-tape parade was held. At the times in which they made their walks down the "Canyon of Heroes" they had not done most of the things for which they would become infamous.
For me, this is a reminder - a discovery, really - that there were times when certain people where considered admirable and even honored, but our city, nation, and world. A reminder/discovery also that people can make bad choices, or be in the wrong place, or simply be the wrong person in a place,even after being honored.
They were here. They are a part of NYC history, warts and all. There is nothing by their names explaining anything about them, good or bad, nor is there about any other head of state. Leave them there.
PS: I just saw a commercial for Gabrielle "Coco" Channel. She was in France during the German occupation. She had close relations with high-ranking Germans, and tried to take over her Jewish partners' share of her perfume line. Oh, the irony.