Vichy France

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Presidential flag of Vichy France
Presidential flag of Vichy France

Vichy France, or the Vichy regime (in French, now called: Régime de Vichy or Vichy; at the time, called itself: État Français, or French State) was the de facto French government of 1940-1944 during the Nazi Germany occupation of World War II. The Vichy position that it was the de jure French government was challenged by the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle, and French governments ever since have held that the Vichy regime was an illegal government run by traitors.

Initially it ruled an unoccupied zone in Southern France and some French colonies, but Nazi Germany invaded the zone under its control on November 11, 1942, in operation Case Anton. The authoritarian Vichy France regime was headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was convicted of treason after the war.

Vichy France, while officially neutral in the war, was essentially a Nazi puppet state which collaborated with the Nazis, including on the Nazis' racial policies. It opposed the Free French Forces, based first in London and later in Algiers.

Vichy France was established after the country had surrendered to Germany in 1940 (see also: World War II). It takes its name from the government's capital in Vichy, south-east of Paris near Clermont-Ferrand.


The fall of France and the establishment of the Vichy regime

France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. After the eight month Phony War the Germans launched their offensive in the west on 10 May 1940. Within days, it became clear that French forces were overwhelmed and could not resist for very long. The inevitable collapse of French military resistance gave rise to deep divisions within the government. Many officials, including the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, wanted to move the government to French territories in North Africa, and continue the war with the French naval fleet and the resources of its empire. Others, particularly the vice-premier Henri Philippe Pétain and the commander-in-chief General Maxime Weygand, insisted that the government should seek an armistice with Germany, and remain in France. While this debate continued, the government was forced to relocate to Bordeaux in order to avoid capture by advancing German forces. Communications were inconsistent. Thousands of French civilian refugees clogged the roads. In these chaotic conditions, the advocates of an armistice gained the upper hand, and the decision was made to seek terms from Germany.

Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned over the decision and President Albert Lebrun appointed the 84-year-old Pétain to replace him on June 16. Pétain began negotiations and on June 22 signed the surrender agreement with Germany and Italy. The key section of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones. Germany would occupy northern and western France including the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining two-fifths of the country would be governed by the French government with the capital at Vichy under Pétain. Ostensibly, the French government would administer the entire territory. The French Army was reduced to 100,000 men and French prisoners of war would remain in captivity. The French had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops and prevent any French people from leaving the country.

The Vichy government broke off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom on July 5 after the destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir by British naval forces.

The Third Republic was voted out of existence by a majority of the French National Assembly on July 10, 1940. The assembly met in Vichy, a city in central France, which was used as a provisional capital. The Vichy regime was established the following day, with Pétain as head of state, with the whole powers (Constitutive, Legislative, Executive and Judicial) in his hand. Pétain was given the power to write a new Constitution but this was never done. He instead put forth three Constitutional Acts that suspended the Constitution of the Third Republic of 1875. These Acts suspended Parliament and transferred all powers to himself. On July 12th, Pétain designated Pierre Laval as Vice-President and his designated successor, and appointed Fernand de Brinon as representative to the German High Command in Paris. Pétain remained as the head of the Vichy regime until August 20, 1944. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood), the French national motto, was replaced by Travail, Famille, Patrie (Work, Family, Fatherland). Pétain's vice-premiers were successively Pierre Laval and François Darlan. Paul Reynaud, who had not officially resigned as Prime Minister, was arrested in September 1940 by the Vichy government and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1941.

Vichy policy

The Vichy cabinet, and its policies, were mixed. Many Vichy officials such as Pétain, though not all, were reactionaries who considered that France's unfortunate fate was a kind of divine punishment for its Republican character and the actions of its left-wing governments of the 1930s (see Popular Front). Reactionary writer Charles Maurras judged that Pétain's accession to power was, in that respect, a "divine surprise"; and many people of the same political persuasion judged that it was preferable to have an authoritarian, Catholic government similar to that of Francisco Franco's Spain, albeit under Germany's yoke, than have a Republican government. Others, like Joseph Darnand, were strong antisemites and overt Nazi sympathisers. A number of these joined the Légion des Volontaires Français contre le Bolchévisme (legion of French volunteers against bolshevism) units fighting on the Eastern Front, or even the Waffen SS.

On the other hand, technocrats used their position to push various reforms that had been postponed during the Third Republic, many of which were later retained (examples include the foundation of the statistics office, which was to become INSEE after the war). Furthermore, some members of the Vichy Government, such as young François Mitterrand, claimed to have used their official positions as "insiders", to further the goals of the internal resistance.

Collaboration, up to the invasion of the free zone

Pétain's regime was highly authoritarian. In order to enforce the régime's will, some paramilitary organizations with a fascist leaning were created. A notable example was the "Legion Française des Combattants" (L.F.C.), including at first only former combatants, but quickly adding "Amis de la Légion" and cadets of the Légion, who had never seen battle, but were supporters of his dictatorial regime. The name was then quickly changed to "Legion Française des Combattants et des volontaires de la Révolution Nationale". Then, Joseph Darnand created a "Service d'Ordre Légionnaire" (S.O.L.), which consisted mostly of French supporters of the Nazis, about which Pétain fully approved.

In 1943, the S.O.L. became independent and was transformed into the "Milice française" (French Militia), and Joseph Darnand was appointed head of that Vichy Milice, the wartime police. He held an SS rank and took an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Under Darnand and his sub-commanders, such as Paul Touvier and Jacques de Bernonville, the Milice was responsible for helping the German forces and police in the repression of the French Resistance and Maquis. In addition, the Milice was also responsible for hunting Jews, including working with area Gestapo head Klaus Barbie to seize members of the resistance and also Jews, for shipment to detention centres, such as the Drancy deportation camp, enroute to Auschwitz, and other German concentration camps, including Dachau and Buchenwald.

To some extent, for France, the Second World War and the Vichy Regime were, in addition to a foreign war, also an internal civil war, which opposed on the one hand the Communist and Republican elements of society, and on the other hand, the reactionary elements supporting a fascist or similar regime in the mould of that of Francisco Franco's. This civil war can be seen as the continuation of a fracture that divided French society since the 19th century or even the French Revolution, illustrated by events such as the Dreyfus Affair and the riots in the 1930s (see Action Française).

As soon as it had been established, Pétain's government took measures against his real or supposed opponents, like "Francs Maçons" (the Freemasons). It also created racist laws of Hitlerian inspiration against Jews even more quickly than Hitler did after his ascent to power in Germany. These racist laws were more severe than the 1938 Italian Fascist ones, and they were made even stricter in July 1941.

Furthermore, foreign Jews staying in France would be handed over to Germany. The Vichy government helped in the deportation of 70,000 Jews. For example, French police officers rounded-up 8,160 Jews and imprisoned them in the Winter Velodrome, in unhygienic conditions, on 16 July 1942, from which they were led to concentration camps. French constabulary officers ran the transit camp at Drancy. While it is certain that the Vichy government and a large number of its high administration collaborated in such policies, the exact level of such cooperation is still debated. Compared with the Jewish communities established in other countries invaded by Nazi Germany, French Jews suffered proportionately lighter losses. Former Vichy officials later claimed that they did as much as they could to minimize the impact of the Nazi policies, while critics contend that the Vichy regime went beyond the Nazi expectations, which originally concerned only foreign Jews staying in France, not French Jews.

A number of French individuals found fascist philosophies attractive and were advocating them even before the founding of the Vichy regime. Their far-right organizations, such as the Cagoule had greatly contributed to the destabilization of the French Third Republic in the 1930s, particularly when the left-wing Popular Front had been in power. Some of them had worked as a kind of fifth column in order to ease the German invasion. After Nazi control was established, some of these sympathisers actively assisted the Vichy regime, and in some cases, directly assisted the Nazis, in taking Jewish private property, destroying synagogues and other Jewish monuments, and in shipping Jews to Nazi death camps. A prime example is the founder of L'Oréal, Eugène Schueller, and his associates, André Bettencourt and Jacques Corrèze.

The Vichy regime also implemented compulsory work in Germany for young French men (service du travail obligatoire or STO), a move which pushed some of these young men to join the Resistance instead.

Despite the cooperation of the Vichy government, the German forces invoked Anton and took control of southern France in November 1942, with the real power devolving into the hands of Laval.

Relationships with the Allied powers

To counter the Vichy regime, General Charles de Gaulle created France Libre (Free France) after his famous radio speech of June 18, 1940. Initially Winston Churchill was ambivalent about de Gaulle and he dropped links with Vichy only when it became clear they would not fight. Even so, the Free France headquarters in London was riven with internal divisions and jealousies.

The United States granted Vichy full diplomatic recognition, sending Admiral William D. Leahy to France as American ambassador. President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull hoped to use American influence to encourage those elements in the Vichy government opposed to military collaboration with Germany. The Americans also hoped to encourage Vichy to resist German war demands, such as for air bases in French-mandated Syria or to move war supplies through French territories in North Africa. The essential American position was that France should take no action not explicitly required by the armistice terms that could adversely affect Allied efforts in the war.

The United Kingdom viewed the Vichy government with suspicion after Vichy severed diplomatic relations. This diplomatic breach occurred shortly after the armistice, when Britain attacked a large French naval contingent in Mers-el-Kebir. Britain feared that the French naval fleet could wind up in German hands and be used against her own naval forces, which were so vital to maintaining world-wide shipping and communications. Under the armistice, France had been allowed to retain the French Navy, the Marine Nationale, under strict conditions. Vichy pledged that the fleet would never fall into the hands of Germany, but refused to send the fleet beyond Germany's reach, either by sending it to Britain, or even to far away territories of the French empire, such as the West Indies. This was not enough security for Winston Churchill. French ships in British ports were seized by the Royal Navy. The French squadron at Alexandria, under Admiral Godfroy, was effectively interned until 1943 after an agreement was reached with Admiral Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet.

However, there were still French naval ships under French control. A large squadron was in port at Mers El Kébir harbour near Oran. Vice Admiral Sommerville, with Force H under his command, was instructed to deal with the situation in July 1940. Various terms were offered to the French squadron, but all were rejected. Consequently, Force H opened fire on the French ships. Over 1,000 French sailors died when an old French battleship blew up in the attack. Less than two weeks after the armistice, Britain had fired upon forces of its former ally. The result was shock and resentment towards the UK within the French Navy, and to a lesser extent in the general French public.

The next flashpoint between Britain and Vichy came in June 1941 when a revolt in Iraq had to be put down by British forces. Luftwaffe aircraft, staging through the French possession of Syria, intervened in the fighting in small numbers. That highlighted Syria as a threat to British interests in the Middle East. Consequently, British forces, as well as troops from the Australian Army invaded Syria and Lebanon, capturing Damascus on June 17.

The additional participation of Free French forces in the Syrian operation was controversial within allied circles. It raised the prospect of Frenchmen shooting at Frenchmen, raising fears of a civil war. Additionally, it was believed that the Free French were widely reviled within Vichy military circles, and that Vichy forces in Syria were less likely to resist the British if they were not accompanied by elements of the Free French. Nevertheless, De Gaulle convinced Churchill to allow his forces to participate, although De Gaulle was forced to agree to a joint British-Free French proclamation promising that Syria and Lebanon would become fully independent at the end of the war.

One other major operation against Vichy French territory took place using British forces. It was feared that Japanese forces might use Madagascar as a base and thus cripple British trade and communications in the Indian Ocean. As a result, Madagascar was invaded by British and South African forces in 1942. It fell relatively quickly, but the operation is often viewed as an unnecessary diversion of British naval resources away from more vital theatres of operation.

President Roosevelt continued to cultivate Vichy and promoted General Henri Giraud as a preferable alternative to de Gaulle, despite the poor performance of Vichy forces in North Africa—Admiral François Darlan had landed in Algiers the day before Operation Torch with the XIXth vichyst Army Corps, only to be neutralised within 15 hours by a 400-strong French resistance force. Nonetheless, Admiral Darlan was accepted by Roosevelt and Churchill as the French leader in North Africa, rather than de Gaulle. The United States also resented the Free French taking control of St Pierre and Miquelon on December 24, 1941 because, Secretary of State Hull believed, it interfered with a U.S.-Vichy agreement to maintain the status quo with respect to French territorial possessions in the western hemisphere. [1][2]

After Darlan signed an armistice with the Allies and took power in North Africa, Germany violated the 1940 armistice and invaded Vichy France on 10 November 1942 (operation code-named Case Anton). Darlan maintained the Vichy hitlerian regime in the allied camp, and Vichy victims in terrible Southern Algeria concentration camps. (???) He was killed on December 24, 1942 by the young patriot Bonnier de La Chapelle. Darlan was then replaced by Giraud who maintained the Vichy regime for months, until the unification of French fighting forces and territories by the Comité français de Libération nationale, and the taking of power by de Gaulle, who re-established democracy. Nevertheless, it took until 1944 for Roosevelt to agree to recognize de Gaulle as the leader of the French.

Liberation of France and aftermath

Following the Allied invasions of France, Pétain and his ministers fled to Germany and established a government in exile at Sigmaringen.

In 1945, many members of the Vichy government were arrested and charged with high treason and other crimes. Trials ensued and some, including Laval and Darnand, were executed. Pétain was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Others fled or went into hiding, such as Jacques de Bernonville who went to Québec, while some were not prosecuted for their crimes until much later, or not at all. In 1993, former Vichy official René Bousquet was murdered while he awaited prosecution in Paris following a 1989 complaint for crimes against humanity; he had been prosecuted after the war, but had been acquitted in 1949.[3] In 1994 former Vichy official Paul Touvier was convicted of crimes against humanity.

The official point of view of the French government is that the Vichy regime was an illegal government distinct from the French Republic, established by traitors under foreign influence. Indeed, Vichy France eschewed the formal name of France ("French Republic") and styled itself the "French State". While the criminal behavior of Vichy France is acknowledged, and some former Vichy officials prosecuted, this point of view denies any responsibility of the French Republic. However, on July 16, 1995, president Jacques Chirac, in a speech, recognized the responsibility of the French State for seconding the "criminal folly of the occupying country". [4]

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