Vichy France

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In May 1940, the Third Reich began its decisive offensive into Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France. By 22 June, all four nations had capitulated. France, once the greatest power on the Continent, had been caught completely off guard by the ferocity of the assault and had never recovered its footing after the Wehrmacht had punched through the Ardennes. Paris was abandoned, and the French government soon realised the whole mainland was lost. Some argued that the French Navy and Empire should continue the war from abroad, with the government ruling from exile in London. Most, however, disagreed, and pushed for coming to some agreement with Germany. In an attempt to gain succour from their conquerors, the French began the negotiations that would destroy the Third Republic and replace it with the Vichy regime.

France’s chief negotiator was its new leader, the 84-year-old Marshall Philippe Pétain. Pétain, a hero of the First World War, had been brought in by the previous government to raise morale following a series of shattering reversals. He had quickly decided, however, that a ceasefire was the best course of action, and so he entered talks with the Nazis. Revelling in the humiliation of the nation he despised, Hitler imposed harsh conditions on France.

The Germans annexed Northern France (including Paris) and the Western Atlantic coastline, and independent France would be reduced to the south. France’s army was limited to 100,000 men, its navy had to remain in port and around 1.8 million French soldiers were imprisoned in Germany. With sadistic glee, Hitler forced the French to sign the agreement in the same train compartment that the French had forced the German emissaries to sign the Treaty of Versailles in. The terms were undeniably harsh, but Pétain had few other options available.

Yet subsequent events would show that Pétain was not merely a patriot placed in an impossible position, trying to desperately defend his people’s way of life. The French Marshal was convinced that France had been brought down by non-French minorities, political chaos and communism, and was determined to purge them from the homeland. A staunch authoritarian, Pétain admired the Nazi social hierarchy system, and began concentrating power to transform France into a dictatorship. On 3 July 1940, Britain attacked French ships anchored at Mers-El-Kebir, fearing that the Nazis would use captured French vessels for an invasion of the Channel. The French were outraged at what they saw as an act of gross betrayal, and Pétain seized his chance. The Third Republic was abolished, and all power was vested in Pétain. The regime he established became known as Vichy France, named for the spa town where the government was based. 

With absolute government power, Pétain set about remaking France into a twisted image of its old self. Just as Germany’s defeat in the First World War had unleashed a wave of anger that birthed a totalitarian state, France’s defeat in the Second World War brought about an authoritarian state convinced it had been taken advantage of. Debate still rages on whether Vichy France was technically a fascist state, but what is undeniable is that the shock of blitzkrieg soon turned to anger, and that anger unleashed a conservative counter reaction to the liberalism of the 1920s. In the subsequent political reordering, few traces of the Republic were left.

The motto of France was changed from the Revolutionary cry of ‘Liberty, Egality, Fraternity’ to the distinctly menacing ‘Work, Family, Fatherland’. During the Riom Trial, the leaders of the Third Republic were rounded up and charged with weakening France. The government began monitoring phone calls and jailing any voices of opposition. Listening to the BBC became a crime. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech and elections were all abolished as France slid into conservative authoritarianism. Children had to sing songs to Pétain every day, and propaganda hailed the Marshal as saviour of France. Abortion was made punishable by death, divorce was heavily restricted and women were forbidden from wearing shorts. It was the greatest reversal for French liberalism since the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. 

Yet the gravest sin of the Vichy regime was its desire to collaborate with the Third Reich. Far from simply being obedient to German orders, Pétain’s France was willing to go above and beyond the Fuhrer’s instructions in an attempt to curry favour with Berlin. This was partially motivated by the fact that Germany had around 1.8 million French prisoners of wars, whom they could use as hostages, but was also prompted by the fact that Vichy and Nazi ideologies overlapped in several sinister ways. 

Vichy French troops fought alongside the Nazis against the British in Syria and in Africa, and opposed Allied landings in North Africa – despite technically being a neutral power. Young French men were sent to Germany to perform forced labour for the benefit of the Wehrmacht. The Milice, a far-right, German-armed paramilitary cell, was established to help assist in the oppression of Southern France. Most heinously of all, Vichy France introduced a programme of racial discrimination modelled on that of its Nazi ally; formal legislation classified a Jew as anyone with three Jewish grandparents or two Jewish grandparents and a Jewish spouse. Naturalised French men and women were stripped of their citizenship, and minorities were hounded by the state.

By Summer 1941, around 350,000 Jews lived in France, many of whom had fled Franco in the west or the Nazis in the east. The police were ordered to round up as many as possible, and send them by train to Germany; between 1942 and 1944, 75,000 French Jews suffered such a fate. Only 2,500 survived. Vichy France became the only state in Europe to round up its Jews for mass deportation to Germany. Even children were sent east, despite Vichy France having no obligation to do so. All of this, it is important to note, was done without any pressure from Germany. Indeed, the Nazis occasionally disapproved of some of the Vichy regime’s policies, and urged France to end the Riom Trial.

Yet Pétain’s attempts to kowtow to Hitler were ultimately all for nothing. Following Operation Torch (the Allied invasion of North Africa) the Germans decided to bring all of France under their direct control. In Operation Case Anton, Italian and German soldiers occupied Vichy France. The French Army gathered around Toulon, in an attempt to defend the fleet, but it soon became clear that effective resistance was impossible. The fleet was scuttled before it fell into the hands of the Third Reich, and the army disbanded. Pétain continued to serve as head of state, despite his lack of a state to govern. 

In 1944, with Allied armies sweeping westwards, the Vichy government was moved and installed in Sigmaringen Castle, in Southern Germany. This enclave was technically considered independent of Germany, meaning that Vichy France spent its last months as a city-state. Now nothing more than a figurehead, Pétain grew disillusioned with Nazi Germany and refused to play along by acknowledging the legitimacy of this new government, and was only persuaded to travel to Sigmaringen when Hitler threatened to bomb France if he did not collaborate.

The Vichy leadership stayed in Southern Germany until an Allied army appeared in the region, and rounded up most of France’s leadership. Following the Allied victory and the establishment of a Provisional Government under Charles de Gaulle, Pétain was charged with treason. He was sentenced to death, though de Gaulle decided to commute his sentence in light of the Marshal’s service in the First World War and his advancing age. He spent the rest of his life imprisoned in Fort de Pierre-Levée, on a small island in the Atlantic. 

It is often easy, and often preferable, to absolve the Axis puppet regimes of their sins by arguing that they had little choice but to collaborate. Furthermore, it is convenient to claim that any blame directed at these regimes should be placed squarely on the shoulders of a few leaders – certainly that was how de Gaulle went about healing France after the war. The reality, however, is more complex.

Many in France were repulsed by the Vichy government’s actions, but a great many more were willing to accept, or at least to tolerate the new regime – only around 2% of the population was involved in the Resistance. The idea that France was simply forced into submission is false – the Germans were willing to permit Vichy a degree of independence. Yet a combination of fear for French hostages, bitterness towards perceived enemies and the poisonous nature of Vichy ideology ensured the Nazis found that France was often a more than willing collaborator. Until 1995, however, France was unwilling to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust. The spectre of Vichy still haunts France’s history in the Second World War, and is as important an aspect to it as the heroism of the Resistance and the courage of de Gaulle.