French Politician Apologizes for ‘Khmer’ Slight

A French mayor has made an apology amid public pressure after saying French President Emmanuel Macron’s “disgraceful behavior” against the country’s former prime minister was “Khmer behavior.”

Speaking on French national radio station Europe1, Eric Woerth, a former government minister and the mayor of Chantilly—a commune in the metropolitan area of Paris northeast of the city—criticized Mr. Macron for choosing not to endorse Manuel Valls in June legislative elections.

cam photo macron reuters
French politician Eric Woerth arrives at the Republican party headquarters in Paris on April 24, the day after the first round of this year’s French presidential election. (Reuters)

“I feel, come on, that he has a disgraceful behavior, what! It’s a Khmer behavior,” Mr. Woerth said of Mr. Macron on Wednesday.

“Here you go: ‘I crush you, I ruin you. You better come crawling, with a rope around your neck, kiss the slipper and, if at all, maybe then you will get the swearing-in,’” he added. “So let’s stop saying that everything is wonderful.”

Mr. Woerth was speaking after it was announced that Mr. Valls’ request to serve as a party representative for Mr. Macron’s centrist party—En Marche!, or “Onward!”—in parliamentary elections next month had been denied because he had not met party criteria. The 54-year-old, who was prime minister from 2014 to last year, lost the presidential primary in his own Socialist party.

Mr. Woerth’s words on the broadcast were met with widespread dismay and spurred Cambodia’s Ambassador to France, Chem Widhya, to request a public apology on Thursday, according to Agence Kampuchea Presse.

“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,” a letter from Mr. Widhya is reported to say.

Amid mounting pressure, Mr. Woerth took to his Facebook page later that evening to try and calm the media storm, saying that he intended to reference Khmer Rouge soldiers’ treatment of their fellow countrymen, rather than the Cambodian people.

“Those remarks were insensitive, but they were referring to a period in history and obviously not to a people as a whole,” he wrote. “This term has actually often been trivialized, no doubt misguidedly so, and it is with this connotation that I used it.”

“If I offended anyone, please accept my sincere apology,” he added.

His attempts to defuse the situation, however, have not satisfied everyone.

Some have compared his use of “Khmer” to refer to the Khmer Rouge regime to using “Deutsch” in reference to Nazi Germany, while others are calling for a more publicized apology.

Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in Paris, said Mr. Woerth was not alone in misusing the term “Khmer.” But those who do must apologize for “their ignorance,” he said.

“When they were in power the Khmer Rouge were so monstrous and caused such a shock that some foreigners who do not speak our language and have not studied our history, have permanently associated the word ‘Khmer’ with ‘Rouge,’” he said in an email yesterday.

“When this regretful confusion is reflected in any public statements, their authors must apologize for their ignorance.”

(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)

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