Cambodia’s ambassador to France demanded, and received, an apology from the mayor of the French city of Chantilly last weekend, after the mayor insulted French President Emmanuel Macron by claiming Macron was exhibiting “Khmer behaviour”.
Mayor Eric Woerth made the comments during an interview with Europe 1 last Wednesday, claiming Macron was behaving “unworthily” and like a Khmer because he refused to allow ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls to join his new party.
Macron was elected on May 7 and assumed office yesterday. He ran under a new political party called La Republique En Marche, prompting an influx of 428 new candidates for June’s parliamentary election. Valls attempted to run for parliament as part of the new organisation, but was rejected by the party.
Woerth’s remark was an apparent reference to the authoritarian nature of the Khmer Rouge, but was quickly condemned by Cambodian government officials, Khmer Rouge scholars and social media users.
According to government newswire AKP, Ambassador to France Chem Widhya demanded that Woerth apologise for comments that were “out of context and lack common sense”.
“I would like to express my profound dismay at such an analogy, imputing what you see as the vicissitudes of politics in your country to another people who have nothing to do with the problems you have mentioned,” Widhya wrote in a letter on Thursday.
Rithy Panh, a famous Cambodian film director who primarily works on stories related to the Khmer Rouge, added his voice to the fray via Twitter. Rithy, who is a producer on Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, said it was unworthy to compare political manoeuvring with “genocide and crimes against humanity”.
Following the backlash, Woerth posted an apology on Facebook, explaining that he meant to refer to the Khmer Rouge, not the Khmer people as whole, but had still made a mistake by trivialising the horrors of the regime. “If I have hurt anyone please accept my apologies,” he wrote.
In response, Panh tweeted that the comparison was “still stupid”.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, echoed complaints that the comments were ignorant and trivialised Cambodia’s history. Chhang also said the comments reflected what he characterised as a lingering racist sentiment in France, the former colonisers of Cambodia. “France has this colonial attitude towards Cambodia. They fail to recognise Cambodians as civilised persons,” he said.
The French Embassy in Cambodia did not respond to a request for comment.