The announcement that Marshal Pétain was to form a government produced a profound sense of relief in the overwhelming majority of the population. People just wanted an end to the relentless attacks, as if the last five weeks had been an unfair boxing contest which should never have been allowed to start. His address to the country by wireless declaring that ‘the fighting must stop’ was broadcast on 17 June, just as de Gaulle’s small aircraft was about to land at Heston, near London.
On 21 June, Hitler stage-managed the French surrender in Marshal Foch’s railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne, thus reversing Germany’s humiliation there in 1918. General Keitel presented the armistice terms without allowing any discussion. Thecapitulards convinced themselves that the conditions were less harsh than they had expected. They, along with the millions who supported their action, also needed to believe that the decision of the British to continue the war alone was madness. Hitler would defeat them too within a matter of weeks, so continued resistance was against everyone’s interests.
Once the area of ‘unoccupied France’ had been defined by the Germans – the central and southern regions, excluding the Atlantic coast – Pétain’s new government selected the spa of Vichy as its base, a choice partly influenced by the empty hotels available for use as government offices.
There, on 10 July, the senators and deputies of the National Assembly voted full powers to Marshal Pétain and the suspension of parliamentary democracy. They were offered little choice, but the majority seemed to welcome that. A minority of eighty brave men led by Léon Blum opposed the motion. The following day Marshal Pétain’s French State came into being, with Pierre Laval as the first Prime Minister. Pétain felt able to congratulate himself that at last the country was no longer ‘rotted by politics’.
The most fervent support for Pétain’s regime might best be summed up as provincial prejudice. Vieille France – that arch-conservative ‘old France’ symbolized by a ferociously illiberal clergy and a petite noblesse that was both impoverished and resentful – still cursed the principles of 1789. A number of them continued to wear a white carnation in their buttonhole and a black tie on the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, and stuck postage stamps with the Republican symbol of Marianne upside down on their letters. In their eyes, the demonic successors of the French Revolution included the Communards of 1871, all those who had supported Dreyfus against the General Staff, the mutineers of 1917, the political leaders of the inter-war years, and the industrial workers who had benefited from the Popular Front’s reforms in 1936. The right believed that these, not the complacent General Staff, had dragged France down to defeat. This counterpart to Germany’s conspiracy theory after the First World War, the ‘stab in the back’, was also deeply imbued with anti-Semitism. On 3 July, Britain joined the front rank of Vichy’s hate figures when the French naval squadron at Mers-el-Kebir rejected an ultimatum to sail out of reach of the Germans and was destroyed by the Royal Navy.
In October, the character of the German occupation was defined at the small town of Montoire in Touraine. Hitler’s train halted there for a meeting with Pierre Laval, who greeted the Führer effusively. He promised to persuade Pétain to come to Montoire forty-eight hours later. After the Hitler–Laval meeting was over, the train travelled through the night to arrive in Hendaye on the Spanish frontier, where Hitler had a meeting with General Franco.
The train then returned to Montoire, where Marshal Pétain arrived on 24 October, having travelled from Vichy in secret. The contrast between decay and modern military power could hardly have appeared greater. In this little provincial station stood Hitler’s special train, a gleaming beast in armoured steel with flak guns mounted on a wagon at the rear. The platforms were guarded by a large detachment of his personal SS bodyguard. Marshal Pétain’s chef de cabinet, Henri du Moulin de Labarthète, was struck by Hitler’s resemblance to his photographs: ‘the gaze fixed and severe, the peaked hat too high and too large’. The oblivious old Marshal in a shabby gabardine greeted the Führer, stretching out his hand ‘d’un geste de souverain’.
Pétain felt he had obtained what he wanted from this encounter. France retained its empire, its fleet, and guarantees covering the unoccupied zone. Ignoring the events of the past six years, he treated Hitler as a man of his word. After the meeting at Montoire, Pétain’s supporters went further. They persuaded themselves that the old man had somehow managed to outfox the Führer; his principal apologists even called this agreement ‘the diplomatic Verdun’. But the ‘path of collaboration’ on which he had embarked with the occupying power offered up exactly what Hitler wanted: a country promising to police itself in the Nazi interest.
All the self-deception of Pétainism was revealed in a New Year message addressed to ‘Messieurs et très chers collaborateurs’ from the Bishop of Arras, Mgr Henri-Édouard Dutoit. This cleric’s pseudo-Cartesian formulation only drew further attention to the false basis of his reasoning. ‘I collaborate: therefore I am no longer the slave who is forbidden to speak and act, and only good to obey orders. I collaborate: therefore I have the right to contribute my own thought and individual effort to the common cause.’*
This imaginary autonomy described by the Bishop of Arras was so important to the Vichy regime that until 1942 the Germans needed little more than 30,000 men – less than twice the size of the Paris police force – to keep the whole of France in order. Vichy bent over backwards to help the occupier – a policy that was taken to appalling lengths when assisting with the deportation of Jews to Germany.
Pétain’s regime had already introduced anti-Jewish regulations without any prompting from the Germans. Exactly three weeks before the meeting at Montoire, a decree had introduced special identity cards for Jews and provided for a census. A Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives was set up. Jewish-owned businesses had to identify themselves clearly, thus allowing the French state to sequester them at will.
The most infamous operation of all was to be the grande rafle raid in Paris. Reinhard Heydrich visited Paris on 5 May 1942 for general discussions on implementing the deportation of Jews to Germany. Adolf Eichmann came on 1 July to plan the operation. The following day, René Bousquet, the Vichy Prefect of Police, offered his men for the task. On the night of 16 July 1942 some 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children whom even the Nazis were willing to spare, were seized in five arrondissements by French policemen. They were transported to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a covered stadium for bicycle races. More than a hundred committed suicide. Almost all the rest later perished in German concentration camps.
One might have imagined that the atmosphere in Paris under German occupation was oppressive, but most Frenchmen found Vichy far more claustrophobic. The regime’s morality was harsh. A woman accused of procuring an abortion was sentenced to forced labour for life. Prostitutes –‘femmes de mauvaise vie’ – were rounded up and sent to an internment camp at Brens, near Toulouse. It was not long before the regime had its own political police. The Service d’Ordre Légionnaire, an organization which incorporated Colonel de la Rocque’s henchmen from the pre-war Croix de Feu, finally became the Milice Nationale in January 1943. Each member had to take the following oath: ‘I swear to fight against democracy, against Gaullist insurrection and against Jewish leprosy.’ Officials and army officers had to take a personal oath of allegiance to the head of state, just as in Nazi Germany. Yet the regime which was supposed to put an end to the rot of scheming politics was riven by factional jealousies.
The personality cult of the Marshal depicted him as far above such concerns. Hundreds of thousands of framed prints of his portrait were sold. For a tradesman it was almost obligatory to display one in his shop window. But these prints were not just amulets to ward off political suspicion. They were also hung in thousands of homes as household icons. Adults sometimes coloured in the ‘kindly blue eyes’ for themselves, as if they had become children once again. Posters of the man who saw himself as the serene grandfather of France proclaimed his simple pieties with the slogan Travail, Famille, Patrie – the National Revolution’s replacement for the republican trinity of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
The idea certainly seems to have formed a psychological barrier against de Gaulle’s attempt to rally the French to ignore the armistice and fight on. The twelve-year-old Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie heard a woman say in outrage: ‘This General dares to take exception to Marshal Pétain.’
On 18 June 1940, the day after his arrival in London, Charles de Gaulle made his famous broadcast on the BBC. The British Foreign Office had been opposed to letting him make a speech which was bound to provoke Marshal Pétain’s new government while the question of the French fleet and other matters were unresolved. But Winston Churchill and his Francophile Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, won the Cabinet round. De Gaulle’s brief speech calling on Frenchmen to join him was immensely powerful. Although few people in France heard it, word spread.
De Gaulle was not an easy man and, unlike Napoleon, did little to encourage warmth or loyalty, except in his immediate entourage. Yet this was the source of his strength. His appeal, like Pétain’s, evaded the politics and factionalism which had been the curse of France.
Spears had observed that the main defeatists were conservatives, yet not all of vieille France had surrendered easily. The defence of the cavalry school at Saumur, when a group of lightly armed subalterns fought off a panzer unit until they ran out of ammunition, was just one example. And many members of the aristocracy were to prove in the next few years by their service under de Gaulle or in the Resistance that they held honour above politics. Such decisions split a number of families.
De Gaulle had accomplished the vital first step: recognition and support from Churchill. On 27 June, Churchill summoned him to Downing Street and said: ‘You are all alone? Very well, then I recognize you all alone!’ The next day de Gaulle received a message through the French Embassy in London – then in a curious state of interregnum – telling him to place himself in a state of arrest in Toulouse within five days. A subsequent court martial in Clermont-Ferrand condemned him to death in absentia for desertion and for entering the service of a foreign power. De Gaulle sent back a message rejecting the sentence as null and void. He would discuss the matter ‘with the people of Vichy after the war’.
Among the few who joined de Gaulle was André Dewavrin, who soon began to organize the Gaullist intelligence service, the BCRA (Bureau Central de Renseignement et d’Action). Dewavrin, best known by his nom de guerre of Colonel Passy, had many enemies, particularly among the Communists. They put it about that he was a former member of the Comité Secret d’Action Révolutionnaire, whose members were known as cagoulards, or the ‘hooded ones’. This organization was dedicated to the suppression of Communism, by assassination if necessary. Dewavrin always strongly denied that he had been a member.
Nevertheless, he did recruit two other cagoulards, the half-Russian Captain Pierre Fourcaud and Maurice Duclos. It was Duclos who suggested that the members of the BCRA take their code-names from Paris métro stations, a customary precaution in the Cagoule. The idea was adopted, so Dewavrin’s code-name of ‘Passy’ for his clandestine activities is cited as evidence of a cagoulard past.
The presence of cagoulards, however few, in de Gaulle’s ranks provoked a great deal of suspicion among liberals, socialists and, of course, Communists. There were also whispers that Passy’s subordinates used brutal methods on anyone suspected of attempting to infiltrate the Gaullist organization.
The other important figure to declare his allegiance at this time was Gaston Palewski, later de Gaulle’s chef de cabinet and most trusted adviser. Palewski, an outstanding young member of Marshal Lyautey’s staff in Morocco, had first known de Gaulle, then a colonel, in 1934. The young man was so impressed by this extraordinary soldier that he resolved to serve him as soon as the call came.
De Gaulle’s supporters, however much courage and talent they possessed, were still very few in number. The only significant military figure to endorse him in the summer of 1940 was General Catroux, while the troops of Free France amounted to no more than a couple of battalions, mostly evacuees from Dunkirk or from the expeditionary force sent to Norway. A number of officers and sailors had managed to escape metropolitan France, individually or in small groups. Although the trickle of volunteers continued, de Gaulle’s only hope of building an army lay overseas in the colonial forces of the Levant, French West Africa and, most significantly, North Africa. The future leadership of France would be decided there.
Like collaboration, the resistance which grew up in France had degrees of commitment and took many forms. It included anything from hiding Jews or Allied airmen, distributing leaflets and underground newspapers, writing poems, minor sabotage or involvement in military action right up to the all-out battles which delayed the Das Reich Division in its advance north against the Normandy bridgehead in June 1944.
Men and women in most cases joined because a particular experience or event opened their eyes to the reality of Nazi occupation. Jean Moulin, who was to become the most important martyr of the Resistance, had been Prefect of the département of Eure-et-Loir in 1940. At the time of the defeat, two German soldiers taking over a house in the village of Luray shot an old woman because she had shouted at them and shaken her fist. They tied her corpse to a tree and told her daughter that it was to be left there as a warning. Moulin telephoned the local German headquarters from his office in Chartres to demand justice.
That night, he received a summons to the headquarters. A junior officer asked him to sign an official statement which asserted that a group of French Senegalese infantry had committed a terrible massacre in the area, raping and murdering women and children. Moulin, knowing that he would have heard if any such incident had taken place, demanded proof. He was beaten savagely with rifle butts for his persistent refusal to sign and thrown into a cell. Fearing that he might weaken after further torture, Moulin slit his throat with a piece of glass. This desperate act was probably more of a bid to escape than an attempt at suicide, for he took care to cut close to the jaw: deep enough to spill a lot of blood, but not deep enough to let him lose consciousness or sever an artery. He was taken to the hospital and released soon after. Moulin spent four more months as the Prefect of Eure-et-Loir before being sacked by Vichy. He moved back to his native village of Saint-Andiol, near Avignon, and for a while it looked as though he was settling into semiretirement. It was not until April 1941 that he started making contact with the Resistance.
There were numerous Resistance organizations, some dedicated to sheltering Allied airmen and escaped prisoners, others to gathering intelligence for the Allies. ‘Colonel Rémy’ was the nom de guerre of Gilbert Renault, a film director who had rallied to de Gaulle. He set up a highly successful intelligence network known as the Confrérie de Nôtre-Dame. The Alliance organization, which became known to the Gestapo as ‘Noah’s Ark’ because each member had a bird or animal as code-name, was set up by Marshal Pétain’s former military aide, Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, and taken over by Marie-Madeleine Fourcade when the Gestapo arrested him. She had been Loustaunau-Lacau’s secretary on his extreme right-wing review just before the war. Under her own code-name of ‘Hedgehog’, she continued with astonishing courage to build a nationwide network in liaison with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
One movement – the French Communist Party – did not lack for clandestine experience, having been proscribed in 1939. It had, however, been deeply disorientated by the Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939. Twenty-seven members of the National Assembly had resigned from the party. The following year, Communists hardly knew how to react to the invasion of France. Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, sent Hitler a message of congratulation on the fall of Paris, and some party loyalists welcomed the conquerors.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the news came almost as a relief. The Nazis were once again the enemy. But the bitterness did not entirely disappear. A blacklist of party traitors was circulated, with orders for their assassination. A number of those on the list had collaborated with the Vichy regime, but many were fighting bravely in the Resistance; their crime was to have criticized the Nazi–Soviet pact openly in 1939 and 1940. These renegades – falsely accused of being ‘agents of the Gestapo’ – had to keep looking over their shoulder for the Germans, for the Milice, and also for killers sent after them by the Stalinist leadership, usually a fanatically loyal young militant mounted on a bicycle and armed with a revolver.
The Communist Resistance organizations were the most difficult for the Abwehr and the Gestapo to infiltrate, partly because of their structure, based on three-man cells. But the most important innovation was a set of ruthless security measures established by the young Auguste Lecoeur, who, like the absent party leader Maurice Thorez, was a tough and intelligent miner from the northern coalfields. One can only guess at the number of innocent men and women killed or sacrificed to maintain Communist security during those years of clandestine existence.
Whether or not the Communists were the first to strike openly against the Germans – the question is still not clear – the party claimed the first casualties. Martyrs were very important for propaganda: the French Communist Party later called itself ‘le parti des fusillés’ – the party of the executed – with the grossly inflated claim of 75,000 casualties.
The first assassinations of German officers had unpredictable and far-reaching consequences. On 21 August, two months after the invasion of Russia, a Communist militant who later became the Resistance leader Colonel Pierre Georges Fabien shot down a very junior officer of the Kriegsmarine called Moser in a Paris métro station. A retroactive decree was passed which effectively made every prisoner, whatever his crime, a hostage liable to execution. To appease the German authorities, three Communists who had nothing to do with the attack were then sentenced to death and guillotined a week later in the courtyard of the Santé prison. Pierre Pucheu, Vichy’s Minister of the Interior, who rejected their appeal, was regarded as the organizer of this violent repression.
Not long afterwards, another German officer was shot in the streets of Nantes. Twenty-seven Communists were executed on 27 October and twenty-one were shot at Châteaubriant the following day. On 15 December, the Germans shot a Communist member of the National Assembly, Gabriel Péri. In his last letter he wrote that Communism represented the youth of the world and it was preparing ‘des lendemains qui chantent’ – ‘tomorrows full of song’. His execution prompted the party’s poet laureate, Louis Aragon, to write a fifteen-verse ballad. Péri became one of the leading martyrs of the party, and the phrase ‘les lendemains qui chantent’ came to symbolize all the revolutionary hopes that the day of liberation promised.