FRANCE suffered during the decade which ended in 1940 two collapses which opened two debates. The spectacular collapse of France as a fighting force in 1940 was preceded by the collapse of the Republic itself, a collapse as complete as the collapse of the Weimar republic but unperceived; for although the symptoms of political and social disintegration were apparent and discussed, their full import did not become clear until the catastrophe of 1940 tore away the veil of illusion and showed that the Third Republic was no longer there. At this point Vichy took, temporarily, the place of the Republic. In the years before, France had become a vacuum governed by a vis inertiae deputizing for political institutions.
The failure of these institutions in the thirties was marked by parliamentary instability, by the growth of anti-parliamentary forces and by one significant but abortive attempt to arrest the drift of governmental incapacity. The political parties in the Third Republic were numerous, weak, young (none was as old as the republic itself or could even boast a foundation date earlier than the twentieth century) and usually unable to combine to produce positive programmes or policies. They combined in narcissistic and unproductive unions whose main effect was to keep Ministers in Ministries. This vacuity brought parliamentary democracy into contempt and encouraged the anti-parliamentarianism of those still unreconciled to the revolution of 1789 and of a more modern fascist brand, so that the republic was assailed from without at the same time as it was decomposing within. Both menaces were laid bare by a scandal which began, within a year of Hitler’s seizure of power, with the suicide of a financial crook called Stavisky in January 1934. It continued with accusations against Ministers of complicity in Stavisky’s swindles and against the police of hushing up the scandals and murdering witnesses, and it culminated in anti-government demonstrations which turned into drilled fascist riots. At this time various fascist and other right-wing leagues had a combined enrolled membership of about half a million and the sympathies of many times that number. At the centre of the storm was the Radical Socialist Party which was the pivot about which French politics turned.
The destruction of the Radicals would mean the destruction of the parliamentary system because the Radicals, as the centre party, were a sine qua non of any parliamentary coalition and because the party had personified the Third Republic almost from its inception. The Radicals were now, in the 1930s, the chief targets for charges of corruption and incompetence. Their lack of competence was partly a result of their position. They never won enough seats to form a stable one-party government and they found it difficult to make up their minds between alliance with socialists or conservatives. They had inherited a left-wing tradition of which they remained conscious and proud, but they had been moving steadily to the Right in their social outlook and their political programmes. Their inclination was to prefer the socialists, but the socialists were reluctant to join in government for fear of being outbid in the constituencies by the communists, from whom they had split off as a minority group in 1919. The socialists therefore resorted to the common but pernicious device of French parties of pledging support to another party but refusing to share office and responsibility – and then withdrawing their support, often sooner rather than later. These tactics, which the communists were to use against the socialists and Radicals in 1936, exposed all Left-inclined Radical governments to impermanence and eventually split the socialists themselves between those who wanted to give more support to the Radicals or less. The Radicals too were split between left- and right-wing groups, each hankering after a different kind of coalition. Further to the Right were a number of conservative parties, some more parliamentary and others more authoritarian.
The riots of 1934 had some cathartic effect and after an interlude of emergency ‘national’ government under Gaston Doumergue the socialist leader Léon Blum succeeded in creating a Popular Front stretching from communists to Raditals which, after an electoral victory in May 1935, took over the government with the hope of achieving parliamentary stability and social and economic reform. But the communists refused to join the government and displayed a chequered loyalty to it. A number of social reforms were introduced but Blum’s administration was never able to concentrate attention, as its chief would have liked, on these overdue matters. The need to rearm absorbed funds required for social improvement and in 1936 the outbreak of civil war in Spain placed Blum in a dilemma from which he was unable to escape.
The Spanish government, also a Popular Front, appealed for help and Blum at first promised to give it, but his Radical colleagues represented middle-class Frenchmen who were afraid of the communist element on the government side in Spain and did not want to help it. Blum also feared that he could not count on the civil service or the armed forces and that, at the worst, he might even be risking civil war in France if he took sides actively in the civil war in Spain. Furthermore, the British government wanted to keep out and so Blum was forced by the balance of political power within France and by his principal ally to refuse help to the Spanish Popular Front. In June 1937, after little more than a year in office, his government was ousted by the Senate which had little liking for the Prime Minister’s reforms and what they would cost the more prosperous sections of the bourgeoisie. A second Popular Front government was formed under a Radical Prime Minister with Blum as his deputy and the communists in undisguised opposition. This government was a Popular Front only in name. In substance it was a return to the old Radical-dominated merry-go-round and it was not long before the socialists quitted it. Blum did not so much fail to give France government and reform as demonstrate the impossibility of doing so. Long before 1936 the opposition to reform had become too strong to beat. His administration also gave a sharper edge to the danger of civil war in France as people gathered in the streets to shout: Better Hitler than Blum; and meant it. For Blum, personally an exceptionally generous as well as an exceptionally clear-minded man, was hated for what he stood for – social justice – and for what he was – a Jew.
The collapse of the political fabric of the Third Republic was not unwelcome to many Frenchmen but the collapse of its armies was a shock to all. There had been a feeling of weakness in France for a decade, but few had realized the closeness of the connection between social malaise and military impotence. The weakness of France was in any case puzzling. It was not the natural weakness of a small country like Denmark, but weakness embedded in strength. France continued to manifest, throughout the period between the wars, a vigorous artistic, scientific and cultural life, nationally and internationally renowned, and possessed not only one of the largest armies in the world but also one of the largest bank balances. Yet France was uneasy and pessimistic. The pessimism went deep. It came from the feeling that there were not enough Frenchmen. Between Water-loo (1815) and Sedan (1870) the population of France had risen from 30 to 36 million, while that of the hereditary enemy, Great Britain, had doubled from 13 to 26 million and the Prussia of 11 million had become the Germany of 41 million. During the 1930s the marriage rate in France was halved and the death rate overtook the birth rate. The annual call-up, which had produced 600,000 men in 1914, produced only 240,000 in 1936 and was then again halved in the next four years. The economic scene was as dismal as the demographic. The French theory of government required the National Assembly, as the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, to be master of the executive, and the French political system contributed to the relative weakness of the executive power by proliferating numerous and undisciplined parties, none of which was capable of forming a government on its own. The resulting coalitions did not dare to affront the voters and since France was still a country of small farmers and small businessmen the voters to whom governments kowtowed were principally this section of the community. The kowtowing took the form of not imposing unpopular taxes and trying to find alternative sources of money for state expenditure. French insistence on war reparations from Germany was partly a consequence of this search, and when the reparations did not materialize governments resorted instead to unbalanced budgets and borrowing, devices which undermined confidence at home and abroad in the French economy and the capacity of the politicians to run it. In universities and schools the prevailing tone of the twenties and thirties was cynical – and the influence of intellectuals was in France pronounced. No less pervasive was the attitude of the lesser bourgeoisie, which noted with alarm the fact that production was static. In external affairs the bloodiest war ever fought on French soil had been followed by disenchantment and disillusion. The attitudes represented by the massive figure of Clemenceau and the forceful policy of the Ruhr occupation of 1923 passed away. They were succeeded by disinvolvement and pacifism, especially among ex-combatants and those who might be expected to continue the warrior caste, with the result that the Munich settlement of 1938 was greeted with relief and the mobilization of 1939 accepted with reluctance. But the ignominious collapse of 1940 was nevertheless an unforeseen humiliation.
Hence arose the two questions which occupied Frenchmen during the next few years. Who was to blame for these collapses, and what was to take the place of what had collapsed?
The first answers were provided by Vichy because Vichy was, at first, a fact in a country where most facts seemed to have vanished. Vichy answered that it was all the fault of the parliamentarians of the Third Republic, especially the left wing, and that their place was now filled by Vichy. The history of France in the next few years is the story of the rejection of these answers.
The Vichy régime was the parent and the child of the armistice. The armistice was demanded by the generals, Weygand and Pétain, who dominated the last days and the last cabinets of the Third Republic and who showed themselves less stout than some of their civilian colleagues. The last President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun, appointed Pétain Prime Minister on the advice of his predecessor Paul Reynaud, who resigned because there was nothing else he could do. Pétain and Weygand, who notoriously had never agreed about anything else in the course of their long lives, insisted on an armistice for political as well as military reasons, and Vichy was therefore from the start a politically defined and not a national régime. The military reasons were no doubt compelling, for the army had been defeated, but the defeat of the army was something more than a military event. It raised also the spectre of revolution, and the generals felt it their duty to preserve the army to prevent revolution. Nor were they eccentric in taking this view. Vichy may not have represented the broadest national consensus but its aims were widely sensed as sound preservative medicine: to retain the French empire by abandoning the fight, to gain for France an independent place in the German New Order, to mitigate and survive enemy occupation by judicious collaboration and to safeguard the traditions of France by firmly suppressing the degenerative forces of internal change. In order to achieve these aims the generals capitulated and agreed to set up a new government covering in effect only one third of France and to pay German occupation costs (which initially were nine times as much as the sums required of Germany under the Dawes Plan). Vichy left vague for the time being the extent of military, economic and political collaboration which would be needed in order to secure these aims. Like Hitler, Vichy did not foresee a long war or the demands that such a war would make.
The head of the new régime, and its symbol, was Pétain. Born during the Crimean War and taught his catechism by a veteran of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, Pétain had been on the verge of retirement with the rank of colonel after a career that had been neither distinguished nor undistinguished, when the outbreak of the First World War opened the doors of immortality to him. At the end of that war he was one of half a dozen Marshals of France who were world famous – all of whom he then proceeded comfortably to outlive. His particular fame rested on two things: he had saved France at Verdun in 1916 and he had shown an unaccustomed humanity in the face of mutiny, preferring to decorate soldiers who had done well than shoot those who had failed. In person he was dignified, calm, unpretentious; in politics, so far as was known, he was detached, so much so that the Left trusted him as the sort of general who would not lend himself to coups; in religion he was a Roman Catholic but not a pronounced one like Weygand, a poor church-goer and married (at sixty-five) to a divorcée. He seemed the type of figure who could be relied on to do the right thing in a crisis.
From 1921 to 1931 he was vice-chairman of the Council of War and so Commander-in-Chief designate if war came, and he remained a member of the Council after 1931 because in France, as elsewhere, old Marshals never died professionally so long as there was breath in their bodies. Although succeeded in the vice-chairmanship by Weygand and, after 1935, by Gamelin he remained a potent figure and his continuing availability was emphasized when, after the fascist riots in Paris in 1934, he was made Minister of War in the Doumergue government at the age of seventy-eight – a military dug-out called in to support a political back number. After a brief spell as Ambassador in Madrid, to which post he was appointed at the age of eighty-one, he returned to the centre of things in time to be present at the culminating crisis of 1940. In retrospect there is an element of slyness in the way he managed to be half a spectator and half a participant in the fall of France, observing in private conversation that Gamelin was incapable but refusing to give his opinion to the Prime Minister who, for all Pétain cared, might find out for himself. When the crash came he was stationed somewhere between the centre of the stage and the wings, so that only half a step was needed to carry him to the leadership of the nation.
At first the nation was on the whole relieved to have him. He was old but he had extraordinary physical fitness. He carried round with him a part of the glory of France at a time when this commodity was in short supply, especially in political circles. He was respected, if not vociferously popular; he was liked by the poorer people because he had been a soldiers’ soldier as well as a Marshal of France. He had stood firm once before – ils ne passeront pas – and standing firm was again the vital need. He had never done anything blatantly wrong. What was wrong was concealed. He was vain as well as old and his physical fitness was beginning to be offset by declining mental powers. He was a narrow-minded, authoritarian reactionary and although his inertia created the impression that the sins of Vichy should be attributed to his entourage rather than to himself the pattern of Vichy was a reflection and emanation of his own ideas.
Vichy did not regard itself as a merely passive régime guarding France from its external enemies so long as the war lasted. No less than the Resistance movements, which opposed and eventually defeated it, Vichy had positive and revolutionary policies which were intended to transform France lastingly. The only thing that Vichy regarded as temporary about itself was its capital, which it had chosen in preference to Paris in order to keep a certain distance between itself and German headquarters (and possibly the Parisians too). This spa of 25,000 inhabitants in the Auvergne, famous for repairing the stomachs and livers of those who had lived too long or too hard in the colonies, could serve as a capital because the government would soon move back to Paris. But the government’s work need not wait upon its move. Laws and decrees poured out. Besides dealing with the immediate post-defeat problems of refugees, unemployment and rationing, Vichy charted what it called a National Revolution. Full powers to govern by decree – powers more ample than those possessed by Louis XIV but, in the eyes of reactionaries, none the worse for that – were bestowed on Pétain as head of state, and the sufferings and humiliations of France were declared to be the essential precondition for national regeneration through the cultivation of the basic virtues and values of labour, family life and patriotism. This, the conservative in contradistinction to the radical way to salvation, was the core of Vichy’s ideology. (But Vichy did not succeed in monopolizing it. Gaullism heeded it too: after the liberation a film by Marcel Pagnol, La Fille du Puisatier, made to extol Pétain and Vichy’s cultural revolution, continued to be shown with little alteration to extol the spirit of Gaullism.)
Vichy’s constitutional revolution was the work chiefly of Pierre Laval who was ultimately to be the principal scapegoat for the Vichy régime. Laval was an ex-socialist, an ex-parliamentarian, many times a Minister of the Third Republic, a man of humble origins and markedly unaristocratic appearance, a decidedly clever man but not a broadly intelligent one, a political manipulator of the first rank but one inclined to mistake his own astuteness for achievement. When Pétain, Weygand and their supporters in Reynaud’s cabinet brought the war to a stop, Laval appeared to talk deputies into giving the new government legitimacy and plenary powers and so changed the nature of the state which Pétain was to guide. By assiduous and insidious lobbying among the flotsam and jetsam of the Third Republic which accumulated at Bordeaux and then at Vichy, Laval got these representatives of legitimacy to turn Pétain, whom he mistook for a mere figure-head, into an autocrat. The state still contained a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies but they could only meet upon being summoned by Pétain and Pétain had no intention of convoking them. The Vichy government operated through a series of committees whose activities contrasted with the impassivity of the Marshal and so gave the erroneous impression that Pétain reigned but did not rule and ought therefore not to be blamed for all the enormities committed in his name. Thus arose the Vichy myth of the martyr Pétain, beset by the conquerors of France on the one side and its political riffraff on the other, but preserving its dignity and its honour by his personal bearing.
Democracy and civil liberties were quickly abolished. Besides suppressing parliamentary rule at the centre Vichy decreed that local councils should be appointed and not elected except in communes with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Trade unions were disbanded and political parties forbidden. The judiciary lost its independence. Public officials became liable to arbitrary dismissal by the head of state and 2,000 were purged in Vichy’s first six months. Those who remained in office had to take an oath of personal loyalty to Pétain. New laws were given retroactive effect so that people could be tried and condemned for doing things which had been lawful when done. They could also be tried and condemned for their opinions or for merely associating with persons who had fallen foul of the authorities. Prefects were empowered to arrest, without charge, anybody whom they judged to be imperilling the security of the state. By 1942 there were 80,000 in prisons or concentration camps. Their conditions were so appalling that some prisoners were reduced to eating the straw in their palliasses and in some prisons there were a hundred deaths for every one that had occurred before the war. Certain categories of person were deprived of the protection of the law. Vichy was profoundly anti-semitic and defined a Jew more strictly even than the Nuremberg decrees of the Third Reich: a woman with only two Jewish grandparents became a Jew if she married a Jew. Vichy’s anti-semitism was more national and religious and less racial than Hitler’s. It asserted the unassimilability of the Jew to French society and regarded him therefore as a threat to the coherence of that society, but it admitted that French-born Jews who had fought for France had become, by the baptism of blood, French rather than Jewish. The first anti-semitic laws were promulgated in October 1940. All Jews were excluded from the public service, from teaching and from positions of authority in industry and the press, radio and cinema. Foreign Jews – including Algerian Jews who were deprived of their French nationality – became liable to internment. Existing laws against libelling racial and religious minorities were repealed. A second batch of anti-semitic laws in June 1941 aryanized Jewish businesses. The owners, who had been promised in 1940 that they would not be deprived of their possessions, received inadequate compensation or none.
Vichy’s national mystique did not stop at Jews. All foreigners and all persons with foreign fathers were made ineligible for the public service, and all naturalizations since 1927 became subject to review. This cleansing of the nation was reinforced by educational reform. Pétain was almost obsessively interested in education and had aspired at one time to become Minister of Education. He regarded education as a branch of morals rather than learning and he regarded physical exercises as the basis of sound morality. The body took precedence over the mind; sound thinking, as opposed to dangerous thinking, could be induced by setting all French children on the road to that physical fitness which characterized the Marshal himself; loose thinking meant morally faulty rather than intellectually untidy thinking. Therefore every child in a primary school had to do ten hours of physical training a week and this quota was reduced by only one hour in the secondary school. The rest of education consisted preponderantly of instruction about God and patriotic duties and Greek and Latin. In line with conventional Roman Catholic teaching Pétain, like Hitler, believed that woman’s place was in the home and her purpose child-bearing. Divorce was made more difficult, large families were encouraged, women could only get marriage grants upon undertaking not to go out to work, and abortion became not only a criminal but a capital offence. The family was the elemental institution in a collectivist scheme of things which denied the value of the individual. Pétain himself said that there was ‘no creative virtue’ in individualism and he regarded French society as a large family to be ruled firmly by himself and to some extent by God.
Pétain’s Vichy was a reactionary, authoritarian, Roman Catholic, chauvinist, corporatist state, but it was other things as well. Pétain was both a comfort to conservatives of all kinds in need of a father figure and a gift to an assortment of extremists who were looking for a stalking horse. Consequently Vichy became an omnium gatherum of anti-republican and anti-progressive forces which attracted pro-German and pro-Nazi Frenchmen and uncommitted opportunists. It gave scope to the most diverse personages. There was Jacques Doriot, the ex-communist bully who had been in German pay for a number of years before the war; Joseph Darnand, whose followers were required to swear an oath to fight ‘democracy, Gaullist dissidence and the leprosy of Jewry’, whose milice was merged with the Waffen SS, who commanded a French SS expeditionary force on the Russian front in 1943 and who returned as Secretary-General for the Maintenance of Order, in which capacity he made the milice even more feared and hated than the SD; the anti-German, monarchist publicist Charles Maurras who set up as a sort of ideologist for Vichy; and, from 1943, the Bourbon claimant, the Comte de Paris, who went to Vichy with an eye perhaps to Pétain’s job but was fobbed off by Laval with an offer of a minor post and later declared himself a Gaullist. The most pro-German of French right-wing leaders, Marcel Déat, preferred Paris to Vichy, against which he kept up a steady flow of criticism. Many French fascists disliked Pétain.
In external affairs Vichy had no choice. It was compelled to collaborate with Germany. Its options were limited to the degree and manner of collaboration, and within this narrow field the most important person was Laval. On 11 June 1940, Pétain issued the first of his Constitutional Acts which, with the disdain of grammar characteristic of monarchs, opened with the words ‘Nous. Philippe Pétain…’ and appointed him Chief of State. The office of President was by implication abolished. By succeeding Constitutional Acts, issued on the same day, Pétain gave himself plenary powers in the appointment of Ministers and civil servants, in legislation, budgeting and finance, in the control of the armed forces, and in the making of treaties. He might also declare a state of emergency but he might not declare war. The Senate and Chamber remained in being but were prorogued and might be recalled only by Pétain. By a further Act on the next day Pétain nominated Laval as his successor. Laval became therefore the Caliph to Pétain’s Mahomet, and since Pétain was much older than Mahomet had ever been, Laval might regard himself as the real manipulator of the totalitarian powers with which, largely by his own efforts, Pétain was invested.
To Laval there was nothing shocking about the idea of collaborating with Germany. He had long been a champion of a Franco-German entente. He had been in politics since before the First World War, had been Prime Minister of France before Hitler came to power in Germany, and like many Frenchmen of his generation he saw European politics in terms of Franco-German conflict or agreement; and he preferred the latter. He observed the American disengagement from Europe after 1919 and he regarded the British with their extra-European empire as but dubious partners in Europe. He was not pro-German in the enthusiastic way in which some Frenchmen admired German achievements in the arts and politics, but as a political realist he desired a Franco-German understanding and wished to promote it sooner rather than later because he accepted the general view that, in relation to Germany, France would continue to become demographically and industrially the weaker. Italy he regarded as a natural and useful third member of the entente. As Prime Minister in 1931 he wished to settle the issues of reparations and disarmament in order to clear the way for a triple entente which, had he achieved it, would have anticipated the post-war cooperation of Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gasperi.
He was out of office from the beginning of 1932 until October 1934 when he succeeded Barthou as Foreign Minister. During this interval Hitler had become Chancellor in Germany. Laval had therefore a choice between persevering with his German policy or dropping it and reverting to the classical French policy of alliance with Russia against Germany which Barthou had been pursuing. Laval chose to persevere because his Franco-German vision of Europe still made sense to him – as it still did after 1940. His anti-communism, which was pronounced, pointed in the same direction and although he continued his predecessor’s negotiations with Moscow he did so only in order to have an alternative policy to fall back on – and he even told the German Ambassador in Paris that this was his reason. The Ethiopian crisis wrecked his policy but did nothing to alter his belief in it.
In the summer of 1940 France, although decisively and humiliatingly defeated, still counted in the European balance, the more so because of its overseas colonies. Hitler had a vague plan for an anti-British, continental block which would include France as well as Italy and Spain; in such a block the French colonies could be strategically more useful to him than anything which Mussolini or Franco had to offer. German and French military chiefs seriously debated joint operations in Africa for the recovery of colonies which defected to de Gaulle and the transfer of British colonies to France. But Hitler was indecisive and half-hearted about cooperation with France. He himself and a number of his principal colleagues disliked the French and distrusted Laval personally. At Vichy the men round Pétain were also divided and uncertain; some agreed with Laval’s policy of making the best obtainable bargain with a securely dominant Germany, while others cherished a lingering hope that Germany might fail to defeat Great Britain and believed that a British victory was not only possible but also better for France. Laval moreover discovered that Pétain was no mere puppet. This was not only a surprise and a disappointment but also a severe handicap since the two men had very little in common. There was life in the old Marshal yet and in December 1940 he showed it by dismissing Laval.
Laval’s fall did not mean an end to the collaborationist policy. Pétain disliked Laval’s pretensions rather than his policies. The Marshal’s distrust of his deputy was also exploited by some of Laval’s colleagues who were afraid that Laval might worm his way into the Marshal’s confidence to their own discomfiture. For a couple of months it was not clear who was Laval’s successor. It might be Pierre-Étienne Flandin, another leading politician of the Third Republic and a sincere admirer of much that Germany had produced through the ages, or it might be Jean Darlan, the anti-British admiral who was moved less by respect for Germany than by anger over the British attack on his ships at Mers-el-Kebir. In February Darlan was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and, the next day, Pétain’s successor; a few days later he was Minister of the Interior too, and a week later still a cabinet reshuffle which excluded Flandin and other Vichy notables confirmed Darlan’s pre-eminence. But Darlan’s collaboration soon went too far for Pétain who, having got France out of the war on one side, was determined not to re-enter it on the other. In May 1941 Darlan negotiated with the Germans a series of protocols by which France would provide extensive facilities and war material in the Middle East in connection with the revolt of Rashid Ali in Iraq and would give the Germans free harbour and railway facilities in Tunisia and permit the harbour and airfield at Dakar to become German bases. Since the routes between Bizerta and Europe were to be protected by the French navy, Darlan was not only sanctioning active military cooperation in the Middle East but also upsetting the most delicate and contentious element in the French surrender: the undertaking to Great Britain not to allow the French fleet to join the Axis. Pétain refused to endorse Darlan’s policy and demoted the admiral from his high position in the state.
Equally, however, Pétain refused to be lured back into the war on the allied side. From January 1941 Roosevelt had in Vichy as his Ambassador and personal representative Admiral William D. Leahy, whose task was at first to keep French aid to Germany down to a minimum by arguing that the war was far from over and that Hitler was going to lose it, and by supplying France with food and other necessaries. In 1942 Roosevelt went further and sent a secret emissary to entice Weygand into bringing the French in North Africa over to the allies in conjunction with the planned Anglo-American invasion. Weygand was not to be drawn and reported the conversations to Pétain whence they were conveyed to Berlin; and Pétain instructed Weygand to reply that an Anglo-American landing would be opposed by the (very numerous) French forces in Algeria and Morocco. In April Leahy’s recall marked the end of this abortive American attempt to deal with Vichy.
A few weeks later Great Britain’s seizure of the French colony of Madagascar to prevent it from falling into Japanese hands embittered Vichy and during the rest of the year the possibility of Vichy making common cause with the Germans was again mooted. When the Anglo-American invasion took place in November Hitler asked Vichy to declare war. Pétain refused but broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. The Germans occupied the whole of France and seized the use of French ports in eastern Algeria and Tunisia. At this point some Vichy leaders revolted: Darlan ordered French naval vessels in metropolitan France to sail for Africa and the French Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, General Alphonse Juin, ordered resistance to the Germans and Italians who were occupying Tunisia. Pétain himself, at the head of a government becoming increasingly irrelevant to the practical course of events, began to play a less effective part in it. He retained the allegiance of some of his compatriots and when dispatched to Paris by the Germans in April 1944 to attend a memorial service for victims of allied bombing he was so warmly received that the Germans themselves felt that their attempt to make use of the Marshal in this way had been a mistake. For the most part he lived secluded at Vichy or near Rambouillet. The composition of his cabinet was increasingly determined by the Germans and after he had been forced to accept Déat as a member in 1944 he ceased to attend its meetings. Four years earlier he had been the strong silent soldier who had sat in Reynaud’s government until he undermined it. At the beginning of the occupation his silences were taken to be a guarantee of the honour of France. They were found to be a guarantee of nothing.
Laval had been restored to power in April 1942 with the title of Prime Minister which he kept until August 1944 along with the posts of Foreign Minister and Minister of the Interior. He still thought that France could bargain with Hitler and when the Germans sought French cooperation against the allies in North Africa he tried to get a German-Italian guarantee of the French empire. But Hitler, who had less than no use for Laval personally and was no longer as interested as he had been two years earlier in France’s colonial assets, saw no reason to bargain with France. Germany was now more interested in French labour and Laval was caught up in the satisfaction of German economic demands. He became in the process so identified with the machinery of German exploitation that he was, by the end of the war, the principal scapegoat for all the crimes of Vichy and was subjected to a disgracefully unfair trial before a singularly ugly execution.
By the armistice agreement France was required to pay 300 million francs for every day that the occupation lasted. This sum was supposed to represent the cost to Germany of occupying the northern zone and when therefore the occupation was extended the daily price was raised to 500 million in token of Germany’s new obligation to defend southern France and Tunisia. After the allied landings in Normandy in July 1944 the price went up to 700 million, the surcharge representing France’s contribution to the general defence of Europe. All these sums greatly exceeded the cost of occupation and were used by Germany for general purposes, including the purchase of French natural resources and industrial enterprises. (The Germans kept the value of the franc high, since they were being paid in francs and were using them to buy up valuable properties.) Thus the armistice payments went much further than reparations, for which in any case the Germans, having suffered practically no damage, had no claim. The payments were a levy fixed by a victor who was using this method to appropriate the capital assets of the vanquished. In addition the Germans requisitioned, and Vichy ceded, supplies of food and other raw materials to which the former were not entitled under the armistice agreement, while even in the southern zone French factories worked for the German war effort, producing aircraft engines and other indubitably military equipment.
These exactions, which began immediately after the capitulation in 1940, were compounded and transformed in 1942 when the Germans began to press for labour. Laval hoped to satisfy the Germans and pacify his compatriots by a deal by which France would supply labour in exchange for the release of prisoners of war (the relève). At the same time, in June 1942, he revealed the depth of the anti-communism which was absorbing him more and more as the German campaigns in the east went wrong, by exclaiming that he desired a German victory since otherwise Bolshevism would triumph everywhere. Fulfilling Germany’s need for labour became the measure of his commitment to Germany’s victory, but at the time when he was coming to see the Germans exclusively as a defence against communism, his compatriots were increasingly concerned with their reprisals against the Resistance and their drive for forced labour. A first labour plan, negotiated between Laval and Sauckel and covering the second half of 1942, provided for the delivery of 250,000 men. It was almost precisely fulfilled. So was a second plan covering the first quarter of 1943. Thereafter Laval tried to apply a brake, offering to transfer French labour to German war work in France but objecting to sending Frenchmen to Germany. Frenchmen themselves took to the woods to avoid compulsory labour service, but a total of 641,000 workers was sent to Germany under the Sauckel programmes and in 1943 the French forced labourers in Germany outnumbered even the Russian conscripted and prisoner labour force – 1.7 million against 1.3 million. The French contingent included prisoners of war, workers enticed to Germany before the Sauckel programmes began and workers from Alsace-Lorraine and north-eastern France which were outside the Laval-Sauckel agreements. Vichy also shipped off to Germany thousands of Spanish refugees from the lost civil war. (Others, escaping Vichy’s net and Hitler’s camps, fought in various parts of Europe and some, flying their own flag, marched into Paris with Leclercq in August 1944.) France’s sacrifice in labour lost to Germany during the war has been computed as the equivalent of the total output of the French labour force in a normal year. It was as if no work was done in France for a whole year. The value to Germany of the work done by French workers, including prisoners of war, has been estimated at 200 billion (1938) francs.
Laval’s attempts to reconcile his countrymen to Sauckel’s demands by securing the repatriation of prisoners of war failed. Between two and three million Frenchmen had been taken prisoner in 1940. Vichy’s efforts to secure the return of these men were neither effective nor, in the eyes of many, wholehearted: returning prisoners might include obstreperous critics of pre-war and Vichyite policies and too high a percentage of communists. (To some extent the return of prisoners was feared by ordinary Frenchmen too because there were not enough jobs or food to go round.) During the Sauckel programmes prisoners were repatriated at the rate of about one prisoner for every six forced labourers. They returned to a country where production had been cut by a third since 1938, most foods had to be bought in a black market where they cost anything from twice to five times the official price, coal could only be had at ten to twenty or even thirty times the official price, rations were providing 1,200 calories a day or less than half the normal needs of an adult, and mortality was rising rapidly – especially among infants.
These conditions showed that at the most elementary level of material life Vichy had failed. It had also failed in three other respects. It had failed to lay the blame for the collapse of 1940 on its political enemies; it had failed to protect its own citizens; and it had failed to preserve the decencies of public behaviour upon which a conservative régime is wont to insist with special eloquence. Accordingly, even though no alternative French government was in the making, Vichy forfeited its own title to rule France.
The centrepiece of the attempt to lay the blame for France’s disasters on the republican régime was the trial at Riom of Daladier, Blum and Gamelin. This trial, which opened on 19 February 1942, was meant to be a demonstration of treason in high places but became instead a counter-attack by the accused civilians on the criminal negligence of the French military establishment – which included Pétain himself, who had been Minister for War in the Doumergue government of 1934 and had stated, among other things, that it was impossible for an enemy to cross the Meuse at Sedan. (Because of Pétain’s embarrassing involvement in the story of French inefficiency the scope of the trial was limited to the events of 1936 and later.) The principal issues were the extent of French unpreparedness for war, the failure of the army to use the credits allocated to it, and its inefficiency in the use of such weapons as it did have. In a welter of widely differing statistics the prosecution alleged material deficiencies of scandalous proportions while the accused (other than Gamelin who remained silent throughout) produced figures to show that the weapons had been made available in reasonable numbers but had then either been stored away by the military or so ineptly distributed that some formations had too much and others too little, while large stocks fell unused into German hands. The Riom trial was as unedifying a national post mortem as could be conceived and although the Vichy government was able to show that France had been materially ill-prepared for a war against the modern German armies – a fact well known to everybody – it was unable to prevent the accused from retorting that the defeat must also be attributed to bad military planning and coordination before and after the outbreak of war. Since Vichy represented the military establishment which was the target of this counter-attack, the trial was a failure – all the more important in that it left in possession of the field the rival view that Vichy, so far from being the high road to national salvation, was but the last refuge of those responsible for the republic’s military ineptitude, political defeatism and moral unpreparedness, a cul-de-sac containing surviving specimens of the deux cents families who were supposed, however exaggeratedly, to have dominated French industrial and social life for their own selfish ends. The trial was abruptly suspended after two months and was never resumed.
The authority of Vichy as a government was further eroded by the fact that on the one hand it lacked the power to protect French citizens against the Germans, while on the other it abetted German excesses. Some 30,000 French hostages were shot during the occupation, while countless other French men and women suffered transportation or mental anguish through the operation of Nacht und Nebel. France became a police state as well as an occupied country; Vichy’s police assisted the German police and Vichy’s administration and courts were progressively adapted to the requirements of the occupiers. Vichy’s first anti-semitic law was passed in 1940, Darlan established a special Jewish office in 1941 and deportation of Jews began in 1942. With the increasing strength of Resistance movements all male relatives over eighteen of any Resister were made liable to the death penalty, his female relatives to forced labour and his younger relatives to detention in reformatories. Vichy fell back, in company with the Germans, on intimidation as a means of government, coupled with a proliferation of petty regulations enforceable by heavy fines (for example, the offence of carrying chickens to market with their legs tied together). But gradually, and without destroying the appearances of administrative propriety, local authorities, the police and the magistrature ceased to comply. Local officials either delayed or sabotaged instructions. The police, who frequently became covert allies of the Resistance, gave opportune warnings. Sentences passed by magistrates for breaches of occupation laws revealed so consistent a pattern of extreme lenience that the Germans protested to Vichy.
Public opinion began to manifest itself against Vichy at an early stage. Newspapers protested against increasing concessions to the Germans, applauded the Yugoslav revolution of 1941 and promoted a dialogue with their readers on such questions as censorship and the thinness of public information. Officials considered too zealous in their cooperation received miniature coffins as a warning. When Vichy broke off relations with the USSR in June 1941 popular reaction was so outspoken that Pétain felt obliged to broadcast – c’est de vous-momes que je veux vous sauver – and to double the police.
The ultimate condemnation of Vichy lies in the fact that for each Frenchman killed in the fighting in 1940 another died later as a civilian victim of the war. Vichy functioned as a satellite in Germany’s New Order and was doomed to become nothing else, to sterility and transience. Neither its own roots in French society nor the shortcomings of previous governments were adequate to give it the credentials or the lifeblood of an independent French régime. Movements formed to sustain it showed by their wilting that it could not be sustained. Les Amis du Maréchal and, still more so, Les Jeunes du Maréchal were exposures of the barrenness of their own titles, while Le Francisme failed entirely in its functions as an anti-Resistance movement. Under Vichy the unity of France was a slogan which was belied not only by the physical disunity of the country but also by moral disunity. At the very best Vichy exercised a limited control over a minority; one third of the population lived in the non-occupied zone, while two thirds of France’s home-grown food was produced in the north and so laid Vichy under the necessity to bargain with the Germans in order to secure fair shares for the south.
And Vichy was resisted from the start. Men demobilized from the defeated French forces did not cease to regard Germany as the enemy. Laying the blame for France’s defeat on Great Britain – as Vichy tried to do but with only moderate effect – did not alter this fact, and Vichy was obviously Germany’s creature: the hectic note of treason appeared from the first in the rejection of Vichy. Although there was at first little that they could do about the situation, the attitude of Resisters was clear to themselves and their friends and they took what opportunities they had of proclaiming and spreading it by such acts as scribbling slogans on walls or defacing propaganda posters. More purposeful sabotage was already in evidence by the autumn of that year. Personal and local protests of this kind provided the basis from which a mood might develop into a movement with nationwide organization and purpose. This development occurred along two lines which had, at a point, to be merged. Within France local groups formed and came into touch with nearby local groups. Beyond France de Gaulle used the remnants of an army, the undecided loyalties of the French overseas empire and the force of his own personality and his own faith to create a new French régime whose authority would be accepted by all who were fighting against Germany – by French Resistance groups of all kinds and by the British, American and Russian governments.
When de Gaulle made his first broadcast to the French people from London on 18 June 1940 he was almost unknown. He was a general and he had been a junior Minister in Reynaud’s last government owing to the accident of personal acquaintance with the Prime Minister. Within his profession he was noted for his intelligence and clarity of thought and for unorthodox ideas on tank warfare; he had also a reputation for incommunicativeness and intractability (he learned later how to communicate). Beyond the profession he was barely known, even by name. Among parliamentarians, for example, most of the members of the Committee on National Defence would have known something of him, but perhaps only a dozen other members of the Senate and the Chamber could have said who he was. When he began to be talked about, it was only with difficulty that a photograph could be found and for some months the face and figure which were to be so well known were only to be picked out in the back row of a formal photograph of Reynaud’s last administration. There was no very strong reason why anybody listening to him on 18 June should imagine that this was a saviour and future President of France. He said that the war was not over and France not finished. Unlike many other Frenchmen at this time he did not argue about Great Britain’s powers of resistance but about France itself: not about whether Great Britain could fight on but whether France could. And he did not so much argue as affirm. To argue about the fate of France at this point was almost certain to lead to a pessimistic conclusion. De Gaulle’s resistance rested therefore on faith and action and he relied on these two forces to change the argument. He was able to do this because, besides being a patriot, he had in his bearing and his intelligence an authority which gave substance to his call for faith and action.
He was in this respect very like Churchill without Churchill’s extra-version. Both men appealed dramatically to a people for sacrifices and in both cases the success of the appeal lay in the personality of the appealer, but whereas Churchill used words to make personal contact with his compatriots, de Gaulle used them in order to make himself not so much their leader as their symbol. To some extent the distinction was one of circumstances, for Churchill was among his people and was clothed with the legitimacy of office whereas de Gaulle was an exile without official standing of any kind (later in life he was to prove that he too knew how to move about among crowds); but the difference was even more a difference in character. De Gaulle’s strength was that of the strong silent man of the English stereotype. His passions were under powerful control and during the early years of exile his natural reticence was reinforced by the fact that he was playing his hand from weakness. The poverty of his resources imposed on him the need to say as little as possible in order to reveal as little as possible. He was not interested in becoming a platoon commander in the Anglo-American host, for by doing so he might perhaps contribute to the defeat of Germany but without displacing Vichy and all it stood for. If as a Frenchman he was concerned to defeat the Germans, he was no less concerned, as a republican, to overthrow Vichy and restore and refine the post-revolutionary tradition of French republicanism. As a soldier from within this tradition he accepted the subordination of the military to the civil power but equally he wanted the wielders of civil power to behave better in future than they had behaved in the past. He was impatient of excessive parliamentary interference in the business of government and contemptuous of the past performance of political parties, but he wished to curb rather than abolish parliament and parties.
Consequently the simple solutions of the military dictator were not open to him. He wished neither to destroy the institutions of the republic nor to ignore the people, to whom on the contrary he appealed. But his respect for these institutions derived at least as much from his conservative temper as from any democratic conviction and his attachment to republic and people was long suspect in Resistance circles, especially on the Left where his sympathy and support for the Russians were as much a surprise as Churchill’s. Like Churchill he envisaged a partnership between the populace and himself, but unlike Churchill he cultivated this union not only to win the war but also to restore and purge and to some extent refashion the republic. Unlike Churchill again, he was not a democrat in the Anglo-Saxon sense: he never used the word democracy and when he spoke of the republic he did so in the old Roman sense of the common weal. With regard to the war the movement which he set out to build was a military one, but with regard to l’après-guerre it was a civil movement which required the unification of all Resistance groups inside France with, and under, his own group in London and the empire. Gaullism was therefore la France combattante and also the next French republic. Since the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the British underrated the value of the first and refused for a long time to acknowledge the second, de Gaulle’s role in exile became one of stubborn self-inflation.
De Gaulle’s first task was to command the allegiance of as much as possible of the French empire, his second to command the attention of everybody else. Indo-China, the Middle East and North Africa had declared for Vichy, while in West Africa the attempt to acquire a foothold at Dakar was a failure. In general too little was known about the Gaullist group in London and its prospects to tempt distant proconsuls into rejecting the armistice and Vichy’s claim to legitimacy. De Gaulle had first to build up his own forces, create a following in France itself and show that Hitler’s principal enemies accepted him as an ally. However, Félix Eboué, the governor of Chad in French Equatorial Africa, chose the Gaullist side and was followed by other African colonies, by Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands and New Caledonia, and by the French colonies in India. One other colony, the oldest, was seized by de Gaulle, who thereby earned lasting hostility in Washington.
St Pierre et Miquelon had been divided since the fall of France between a Vichyite minority which was in control and a Gaullist majority. The colony consisted of a group of islands a dozen miles off the south coast of Newfoundland. It had some strategic importance, for it lay off the mouth of the St Lawrence and could be used against convoys by harbouring U-boats and reporting the movements of shipping. Atlantic cables passed through its waters and after these had been cut the colony remained in close contact with Vichy by means of a radio station which, besides transmitting weather reports and Vichyite propaganda, reported on shipping and gave instructions to agents. Both Newfoundland (then a British Crown Colony) and Canada were suspected of designs against the islands, and the United States warmly advocated Canadian annexation. Great Britain, however, and also Canada after some wavering, preferred a Gaullist coup and were embarrassed by American schemes. The Canadian cabinet settled on a compromise whereby Canada would, by threats of economic sanctions and in the last resort by force, seize the radio station but not remove the Vichyite governor or overthrow his régime.
In October 1941 de Gaulle broached with Eden the question of a Gaullist coup. Eden, although sympathetic, felt obliged to refer to Ottawa and Washington. De Gaulle dispatched Admiral Émile Muselier to end the discussions by taking the islands; the coup was not difficult since the population was largely pro-Gaullist. But Muselier decided to go to Ottawa first. There he found the government undecided between its own plan to seize the radio station and the Gaullist plan to seize the colony. The Canadian government consulted Washington which objected strongly to a Gaullist coup, largely because it had just negotiated a general agreement about all the French possessions in the western hemisphere with Vichy’s representative, Admiral Robert. Roosevelt was ill informed and badly advised on French affairs; he refused to regard Vichy as fascist or de Gaulle as a democrat, he was partly right in both cases, but he was wrong in imagining that this simple categorization was all that mattered; he exaggerated American influence at Vichy and tended to be combatively uneasy about his pro-Vichy policy which he knew to be regarded with scepticism by his British allies and with distaste by his own press and public. Roosevelt was therefore all the more hostile to de Gaulle who represented an additional challenge to his Vichy policy and whom he in return represented as no more than a fringe military figure. His objections to the St Pierre adventure prevailed. The British and Canadian governments gave way with reluctance and so did de Gaulle and Muselier. But in almost the same breath de Gaulle ordered Muselier to go ahead and take the islands.
This Muselier, with three corvettes, a submarine and grave misgivings about the probity of his undertaking, did. Great Britain and Canada were privately pleased but officially reticent; the American press and public were enthusiastically in favour of this first stroke against European dictatorship in the American continent; but in Washington Roosevelt and his Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was more convinced than the President that Gaullism was insignificant, were so infuriated that they issued unnecessarily offensive statements about the Gaullists and tried to get the Canadians to mount an expedition to recapture the colony – a project which only incensed Ottawa against Washington. The rights and wrongs of this episode are still not entirely clear. The overthrow of Vichy’s authority in the colony was in the allied interest. Roosevelt and Hull were wrong in their estimates of Vichy and de Gaulle and their reactions to the event were out of proportion to its significance. Roosevelt would probably have been glad to treat the affair as an irritating episode and forget it – he called it a ‘teapot tempest’, which is presumably something not much bigger than a storm in a tea-cup but Hull took it to heart to such a degree that he lost his judgement, nourished a personal animosity against de Gaulle and accused Great Britain of conspiring with de Gaulle against the United States. On the French side de Gaulle’s action, of which Muselier disapproved, is less easy to assess. It is at least possible that, after accepting Washington’s veto on his plan, he learned for the first time of the Canadian plan and thereupon, imagining himself deceived, reversed his decision. The most important consequence of the coup was to give de Gaulle and Gaullism great prestige throughout the French empire and in France.
For about a year the Gaullists were ill informed about happenings inside France itself. Resistance groups seemed to be small and uncoordinated. They might one day be useful adjuncts of a Gaullist army. For the time being their sabotage activities were good for French morale and good practice for the day when sabotage would help an invading force. Activities on a larger scale raised problems. They were for the moment premature; they might do more harm than good; they might tend towards the emergence of a separate centre of authority in competition with the Gaullists and, after 1941, increasingly under communist control. Guerrilla operations did not seem to be a good idea. De Gaulle’s headquarters, predominantly military and right wing, discounted the value of large-scale populist resistance and viewed it without enthusiasm. But this attitude changed during 1942, by which time Gaullism as a whole had edged leftward in reaction to Vichyite positions and in sympathy with the Russian stand against Germany, and had learned more about the Resistance movements inside France.
The main concern of the Resistance was the revival and consolidation of all that was best in the French spirit as a necessary precondition to action against the enemy. It was therefore at least as much concerned with Frenchmen as with Germans, for the defeat of the Germans was to be only an intermediate operation between a revolution in French public feeling and – the ultimate end – a revolution in the structure of French society and politics. When the Germans first entered Paris and other French cities their reception was far from universally hostile. Fraternization was common not only in shops and restaurants but in casual encounters on streets and squares where crowds gathered to listen to news broadcasts or concerts and rubbed shoulders with Germans, whom they were ready to treat as ordinary human beings. Resistance-minded Frenchmen regarded all this as a dangerous, even disgusting, self-deception. They were also concerned to combat Vichy’s implicit claim to provide the right answers for France, and to demonstrate that Vichy, so far from serving France, was putting German interests before French ones. Vichy started with a major advantage since there was widespread acceptance of the view that France’s disasters should all be blamed on the parliamentarians whom Vichy was attacking and displacing, so that the Resistance, which also accepted this view, was forced into the awkward position of damning political parties but at the same time advocating a restored, if regenerated, political system. Essentially, as post-war events proved, this was an illogical position, for the system demanded parties by whatever name they might be called (movements, rallies and so on became in fact parties as soon as they moved into action). But the Resistance contrived to evade the illogicality. It was joined by men of different parties and different social backgrounds. It did not at first look to de Gaulle nor know much about his movement except that it was a long way away in London and possibly under British control. In the south men of right-wing temperament often dropped out in the early days and accepted Vichy, so that southern Resistance movements had begun to wear a left-wing air even before they were joined by communists after the German invasion of the USSR. This ideological colouring of the Resistance was increased by the hostility or ambivalence of the ecclesiastical establishment: in general the Roman Catholic episcopacy had an outstandingly poor Resistance record, redeemed only partially by the heroism of a minority of the lesser clergy. Political parties continued throughout the war to be regarded in the Resistance with some distaste and there was a vague hope (except among the communists) that the unity forged during the Resistance would somehow dispense with the need to resuscitate the old parties after liberation. Post-war problems were, however, subordinated to the needs of the present, and old political leaders worked alongside new non-political chieftains to create forces which would cause real embarrassment and damage to the German occupiers.
Their efforts were aided by the revulsion against Vichy. This was at first gradual and patchy. Its principal sources were Vichy’s own actions, the behaviour of the Germans coupled with Vichy’s failure to take even a moral stand against it, and the recovery of courage effected by time, nationalism and the growth of the clandestine press from amateurish hand-outs to real newspapers. Particular events accelerated the general trend: the introduction of forced labour, which transformed the scale of the Resistance by hitting the middle classes as well as the working classes (comparatively well represented in the Resistance from the start); and the raids on the continent at St Nazaire and Dieppe which confirmed what people were hearing on the radio about the progress of the war (although the Germans decreed the confiscation of private radios, they were unable to confiscate enough of them to stop people knowing about the war).
The rejection of Vichy automatically turned attention to de Gaulle as an alternative government and by the beginning of 1942 a number of Resistance groups had decided to accept de Gaulle’s leadership. In the south the principal Resistance movements were the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans(FTP), Combat and Libération, all of them active by the end of 1941 and all in contact with de Gaulle. In the occupied zone, where Resistance was in the nature of things more difficult and dangerous, Libération-Nord and Organisation Civile et Militaire (OCM) played the leading part, became effective in 1942 and also established contacts with the Gaullists in London. Although the Communist Party denounced the war until Hitler invaded the USSR, many individual communists joined Resistance movements before that date. After June 1941 the Front National, which covered the whole country and embraced diverse opinions under communist leadership, pursued a policy of cooperation between all Resistance movements and advocated extensive and immediate action, even courting reprisals in order to intensify anti-German feeling. Its object was to harass and kill the occupiers in order not only to end the occupation but also to transform French politics. To the rank and file of Resisters, and even to their regional leaders, the politics of the movement to which they belonged were very often unknown.
At the end of 1941 de Gaulle sent one of his principal lieutenants, Jean Moulin, to France. Moulin began by uniting the movements in the south, thus completing the elimination of Vichy as a force for the future. The further work of combining Resistance movements in northern and southern France, and uniting the Resistance with Gaullism, was facilitated by the German occupation of the whole country in November 1942 and by the consolidation of de Gaulle’s position as the unrivalled chief of French forces overseas in spite of American attempts to prefer Giraud or Darlan. The communists accepted de Gaulle’s leadership at the end of 1942. In March 1943 Resistance movements from all parts of the country combined in the Mouvements Unis de la Résistance, which gave birth to the Comité National de la Résistance (CNR) which first met in Paris in May under Moulin’s chairmanship and recognized de Gaulle as the national leader of France. A few weeks after this meeting Moulin and other French leaders were picked up by the Gestapo, tortured and killed, but during his last months in his native country Moulin had created the organs with which France would re-enter the war. (The CNR did not meet again until after the liberation. Owing to the activities of the German police it was forced to operate regionally.) The recognition extended to de Gaulle by the entire Resistance put him for the first time in command of considerable forces and greatly increased his political standing with his western and eastern allies.
Relations between the French Resistance and the western allies were uneven. Resistance leaders inside France (as elsewhere) suspected the British and American governments of not taking them seriously enough, of regarding them as a sideshow, and of sending fewer arms and other supplies than they could afford. They protested against the bombing of targets in France which they themselves could sabotage with much less loss of innocent civilian lives – although not, owing to the nature of sabotage, with lasting effect. Being in a position to observe the inaccuracy of strategic bombing they continually urged, without carrying conviction, that they had a better way of doing the job. Raids on Nantes from 16 to 23 September 1943 were a particularly grave example of the futility of the policy of total air warfare which the British and Americans had uncritically taken over from the Germans. Senseless destruction threatened to alienate the population not only from the perpetrators but also from the Resistance which was in a sense allied with them. On the other side the British and American governments, besides underestimating the effectiveness of the Resistance, exaggerated the tensions within it and, the Americans especially, were àfraid that a civil war would break out in France before the Germans were defeated and that the communists would win it. With more justice they regarded the Resistance movements as insecure and not to be trusted with information of value. In fact Anglo-American assistance to France was very great but it was of a kind not always visible to Resistance leaders. While these anxiously awaited parachute drops which never came or seemed (until the eve of invasion) disappointingly meagre, Great Britain lent France £30 million and the United States gave de Gaulle all the facilities of Lend-Lease from November 1941 and helped to equip and maintain large French forces in Africa from the time of the Casablanca conference and in France itself in 1944, particularly after the Ardennes offensive at the end of that year when eight new divisions were formed out of Resistance units. But politically Roosevelt continued to drag his feet. In July 1944, when the CAR declared itself the provisional government of France, Washington recognized it as a de facto government, delaying until October the further step of recognizing it as the de jure, though provisional, government; and Roosevelt opposed de Gaulle’s presence at Yalta.
Within France Resistance of a quasi-military kind was intensified from 1943 and organized in regions under the aegis of a three-man directorate which was established by the CNR and coordinated the efforts of the various military bodies in the field. Bands were mostly fifty to a hundred strong, although some were as large as 500–1,000. Nearly all their arms came from the Americans and British who supplied 1,000 tons of equipment by March 1944 (of which the Germans seized a third) and 8,000 tons in the next six months, the period spanning the invasion of France. Early in 1944 the movements joined forces as the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), by which time their combined field strength had reached about 30,000 and it was commonly assumed that an allied return to the continent was not far distant. Increasing strength meant increasing temptation to use it and sometimes action was premature and tragic.
At Glières for example, in Haute Savoie, a band of 500 men organized during 1943 by a former lieutenant in the Chasseurs Alpins attacked a considerable force of heavily armed Germans in February 1944 and lost half its men. Such incidents became more frequent as the great moment of liberation approached and misunderstandings over the role of the FFI and cooperation with the invading forces took their toll. Thus at Montmouchet the Resistance, mistakenly believing that allied troops would arrive to join forces in an attack on the Germans simultaneously with the landings in the north, assembled a strength of 3,000–4,000 men and opened battle. Fighting went on for a week. The Germans suffered to begin with ten casualties for every one among their enemies but in the end they won a complete victory. A similar misunderstanding produced a similar tragedy in the Vercors. The Vercors, a natural fortress south-west of Grenoble, was occupied by Resistance units in the winter of 1942–3. From small beginnings – a group of local men in a small way of business, most of them socialists – the Vercors redoubt grew into an assembly centre and refuge of considerable importance, but it was not meant to be a stronghold to be defended in battle against regular German forces. Nevertheless such a battle took place. Again there were false expectations of outside help. Resistance leaders believed that plans for a joint operation had been endorsed by the French and allied authorities in London and Algiers when in fact these plans were, owing to administrative incompetence, not even known to many of the people who would have been involved. A few days before the landings in Normandy the Vercors Resistance mobilized and serious fighting began on 13 June. It continued for forty-one days, the Resistance force of 3,500 men holding an area where they expected allied reinforcements to land by air and so condemning themselves to static defence against two German divisions which eventually surrounded and liquidated most of them. This episode produced the sharpest disagreement between de Gaulle and his communist associates in the Provisional Government; the communists, who held among other posts the air portfolio, pressed for air support for the rising (which was rejected as impracticable) and accused de Gaulle of betraying the Resistance, in return for which de Gaulle dismissed the air member of his government.
But these episodes were not typical. Elsewhere the Resistance played a successful part in the defeat of the Germans. On a signal from the BBC the FFI mobilized 200,000 (lightly) armed troops and as many ancillaries in support. According to Eisenhower they were worth fifteen divisions and shortened the campaign by two months. They denied the French rail system to the Germans; disrupted road communications by felling trees and other devices; destroyed German minefields; cut down hedges in order to help the operations of allied tactical air squadrons; spread rumours of parachute landings which distracted the German command; obstructed the transfer of the German SS division Das Reich from the south-west so that it took nine days to reach the battle area in Normandy; forced 20,000 Germans to surrender to the Americans at Issoudun (and were very annoyed when the Americans gave their captives oranges, which no Frenchman had seen for years); successfully blocked off Brittany and then cleared it after the Americans had broken out of their Normandy beach-heads; took thousands of prisoners; protected works of art.
De Gaulle arrived in Paris on 25 August, the day after the surrender of the German military governor to General Jacques Leclercq of the revived French army and Colonel Rol-Tanguy of the Resistance as representatives of the French republic (the rising of the Parisians is narrated below in the context of the allied victories in France). He had already made careful preparations to assume the government of the country. The adherence of the Resistance to the Gaullist movement enabled him to do so by general consent. He was, however, apprehensive lest the communists might make a bid for power, using the local Liberation Committees which had been set up in each département and were mostly under communist control. Further, Roosevelt’s hostility to him and the United States’ continued refusal to recognize the CNR as a government or to come out against Vichy made him fear that the allies intended to impose a military government on France as they had on Sicily. He therefore chose and appointed préfets who were to be ready to assume authority as soon as invasion or Resistance had swept away Vichy’s local government officials.
De Gaulle was also greatly concerned about the unity of the French people. He opposed the view, strongly held in the Resistance, that French society could be made healthy by a surgical purge of malign elements. The conflict between the Resistance and Vichy had generated much bitterness, which found vent during the occupation in the publication of lists of collaborators, the marking of their houses, summary executions (possibly 5,000 instances, plus another 5,000 in the throes and immediate aftermath of liberation) and an increasingly vocal determination to bring to trial and exact retribution from men and women of all ranks who had helped the enemy or served Vichy. In March 1944 a first Vichy Minister, Pierre Pucheu, was tried for treason and executed and a few months later another, Philippe Henriot, was assassinated in public and in daylight. Judicial and extra-judicial punishment of this kind was regarded by many in the Resistance and in de Gaulle’s entourage as both inevitable and excusable, but de Gaulle himself deplored vengeance and regarded a purge, however conducted, as impracticable and likely to poison rather than heal French society. Some retribution was, however, inevitable and a special High Court was created to hear the principal cases. Fifty-eight cases were brought before this court, which passed eighteen death sentences (ten of them in absentia); three of the eighteen were executed. Altogether nearly 125,000 cases were heard by other courts and nearly 7,000 death sentences pronounced, of which 767 were carried out. Pétain was among those sentenced to death by the High Court. De Gaulle had hoped that Pétain would not be captured by French troops, nor return, and he was relieved when the death sentence on the Marshal was accompanied by a recommendation to mercy which he accepted. Pétain was consigned to a fortress on the Île d’Yeu off the west coast of France where he read de Gaulle’s memoirs and remained until a few weeks before his death in 1951, when he was removed from the fortress but not from the island.
As Head of the Provisional Government of France de Gaulle saw his task in the same terms as he had seen it in 1940 as a junior minister and then as a refugee: to ensure and assert France’s position as a major power. Although he might and did toy with the idea of presenting France as the champion of smaller powers or medium powers (the latter was a category which was recognized by the practice of the League of Nations and which France tried unsuccessfully to introduce into the structure of the United Nations), his basic aim was to range France unequivocally with the Big Three. He rejected the idea that France was a western equivalent of Poland or a power of the same consequence as Yugoslavia. This aim was formally achieved when France was accorded equal status with the Big Three in the administration of Germany and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, but France still needed a special role to sustain this equal status. De Gaulle hoped that France might mediate between Anglo-Saxons and Russians and at the same time create and lead a western European group embracing the Low Countries, Spain, Italy and part of Germany as well as France itself – the countries touched by the Rhine, the Alps or the Pyrenees. In both these notions he was echoing Resistance aspirations for Great Power harmony and a European federation. But the harmony of the Resistance itself began to disintegrate under the pressures of peacetime politics and when the communists tried to refashion the post-war all-party government by forming an alliance and excluding the new Roman Catholic party, the MRP, de Gaulle decided to retire and leave the parties to conduct their despised manoeuvres without him. He announced his decision in January 1946. By the end of the next year the communists too were out of office. For a decade the government of France reverted to the political forces of the Third Republic until revolt in Algeria and a threat of a military coup in Paris itself drove them in 1958 to abdicate in favour of de Gaulle, who returned to save France once more and to pursue his interrupted task.