President Macron has provoked anger from Jewish groups by praising Philippe Pétain, the First World War commander who was later disgraced for leading France’s Vichy government under the Nazis.

Macron stirred a debate that recent French presidents have carefully avoided by paying tribute to Pétain, who won the battle of Verdun in 1916 and is regarded as saving the French army from collapse amid a series of mutinies a few months later.

He was imprisoned for life in 1945 for treason after heading the Nazi collaborationist French administration based in Vichy from 1940-44 and signing antisemitic laws that facilitated the deportation and death of tens of thousands of French Jews in death camps.

“I consider it entirely legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led our army to victory,” Macron told journalists in Charleville-Mézières, a north-eastern town on the old Western Front.

“He was a great soldier in the First World War. That’s a reality. Political life, like human nature, is sometimes more complicated than we’d like to think,” he said.

“I have always looked the history of our country in the face. You can be a great soldier during World War One and then go on to make disastrous choices during World War Two.”

After the Second World War Pétain remained admired by some of the wartime generation. These included the late François Mitterrand, the Socialist president of the 1980s and early 1990s, who served as a civil servant in the Vichy regime, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, founding leader of the National Front.

Macron’s words were described as shocking by the CRIF, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions. “The only thing that we retain about Pétain is that, in the name of the French people, he was condemned to national disgrace at his trial in July 1945,” it said.

“Pétain was the person who allowed the deportation of 76,000 French Jews to death camps. Pétain signed the [law on] the status of Jews that meant Jews were excluded from public function, education and forced to wear the Jewish star,” it added.

Macron is to commemorate France’s First World War marshals, of which Petain was one of seven, at a ceremony in Paris in Saturday. Marshal is a mark of military distinction, rather than a rank, and was awarded for exceptional achievements, with recipients entitled to wear seven stars on their epaulettes.