How France’s Vichy Regime Became Hitler’s Willing Collaborators

It’s eighty years today since the notorious Vichy regime took power in France under Nazi domination. Vichy-style fascism wasn’t simply a German plant on French soil — it drew on powerful reactionary currents in French politics and society.

Philippe Pétain and Adolf Hitler in 1940. Photo: German Federal Archive

The Vichy regime in France was established on July 10, 1940, following the French surrender to Germany. The terms of the armistice divided France into an occupied zone covering the north and west of the country, and the so-called free zone in the south. Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of the First World War for his role in the defence of Verdun, became the leader of the new regime, having been granted full powers by both chambers of parliament.

Pétain and his entourage saw the defeat of France and the collapse of the Third Republic as a chance to wipe out the legacy of permissiveness and decadence represented by the left-wing Popular Front government of the 1930s and the French Revolution. The Vichy ruler dispensed with parliamentary democracy and engaged in a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany, hailing it as a new beginning for France — a “National Revolution.” Charles Maurras, the ideologue of the antisemitic Action Française movement, welcomed these developments as a “divine surprise.”

National Myth

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, a carefully constructed national myth obscured the reality of the Vichy regime. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces, propagated that myth, and historians echoed it for many years. School textbooks depicted wartime France as a nation of resisters who had refused to collaborate with the occupier. Influential historical accounts, like Robert Aron’s Histoire de Vichy, depicted Pétain as a “shield” and De Gaulle as a “sword,” each of whom had been necessary in their different ways for the defense of French interests.

At the time of the liberation, De Gaulle claimed that “only a handful of scoundrels” had behaved badly during the occupation: the rest of the country could look themselves in the eye as patriots. This “sublime half-lie,” as Henry Rousso dubbed it, formed the basis for postwar attempts at national reconciliation, symbolized in 1964 by the transfer of the remains of resistance hero Jean Moulin to the Pantheon in an elaborate two-day ceremony.

Although critical accounts of the regime did appear in French during this period, such as Henri Michel’s Vichy: Année 40, it was research by foreign historians that overturned these postwar conceptions of the regime. After the publication of studies by Stanley Hoffmann, Alan Milward, and Eberhard Jäckel (whose Frankreich in Hitlers Europa has yet to be translated into French), it was Robert O. Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944 that blew away the established consensus about Vichy as a structure that protected French interests and resisted Nazi demands.

Coming in the wake of the May 1968 revolt and the death of De Gaulle, Paxton’s book turned the study of Vichy on its head, with an impact matched by very few historical works, inspiring talk of a “Paxtonian revolution.” As Paxton himself has been careful to stress, it was May ’68 that had proved the decisive element here, as “students began challenging their elders’ reticence,” and the French started to confront “the dark side of their response to Nazi occupation.”

Collaboration, Paxton argued, was not merely a catastrophe forced upon France by military defeat, but part of an internal French conflict with a much longer history. It was something actively sought by the Vichy leaders, not a demand placed upon France by Germany. Conservative, authoritarian, and counterrevolutionary traditions incubated in France itself underpinned the politics of the regime. Vichy was not a “lesser evil.”

Vichy and the Holocaust

This applied with particular force to Vichy’s treatment of the Jewish population in France. The regime enacted antisemitic laws of its own volition. From July 1940, it reviewed the cases of people naturalized as French by legislation passed in 1927: more than 15,000 people lost French citizenship in this way, 6,000 of whom were Jews. In August 1940, the Vichy rulers repealed the 1939 Marchandeau Law that had made it illegal to stigmatize any group of people in the press on the basis of their race or religion.

In October 1940, the first Jewish statute defined someone as being “of Jewish race” if they had three Jewish grandparents, or two Jewish grandparents and a Jewish spouse. The authorities restricted Jewish employment in the army, the public sector and liberal professions, and granted prefects permission to put foreign Jews under police surveillance or intern them in camps.

A second Jewish statute in 1941 reinforced and extended these measures. Jewish businesses were taken over or closed down. In July 1942, French police officers rounded up 13,000 “stateless” Jews in Paris and brought them to the Winter Velodrome. Other raids took place the following year across the south of France, and in eastern France in 1944.

In total, 76,000 Jews were deported from France to the concentration camps, most of them passing through the Drancy detention center outside Paris. Very few survived. Nearly 2,000 of those deported were under six years old; over 6,000 were under thirteen. As Paxton and Michael Marrus noted in their book Vichy France and the Jews, first published in 1981:

When the Germans began systematic deportation and extermination of Jews in 1942, Vichy’s rival antisemitism offered them more substantial help than they found anywhere else in western Europe, and more even than they received from such allies as Hungary and Romania.

Apologists of the regime initially greeted Paxton’s Vichy France with hostility, but it has had a lasting influence on our understanding of collaboration. In its wake came a wealth of studies of the occupation, including those by Philippe Burrin, Rod Kedward, John F. Sweets, Pascal Ory, Jean-Pierre Azéma, and Bertram Gordon. Henry Rousso examined the fixation with the period and the traumas associated with it in his book The Vichy Syndrome.

Specters of Fascism

These debates, and related controversies about the existence and extent of fascist organization in France between the wars, took on new relevance in the 1980s with the rise of the far-right Front National (FN), led by an antisemitic Holocaust revisionist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The FN’s leadership team and influential satellite publications included a number of former Vichy militiamen, Waffen-SS officers, and collaborators of various sorts.

Collaborators like Roland Gaucher, former editor of the FN newspaper National-Hebdo, saw “no contradiction” between working with Marcel Déat’s collaborationist Rassemblement National Populaire in the 1940s and Le Pen’s FN half a century later. Le Pen’s notorious remarks describing the Holocaust as a “detail” of the Second World War, his use of the word “sidaïques” in reference to AIDS sufferers — which echoed Vichy’s contemptuous term for Jews, “judaïques” — and his 2005 claim that the Vichy regime was not “especially inhumane” help explain why men like Gaucher rallied to his side.

The reinvention of a fascist heritage in contemporary France sharpened and dramatized debates over the occupation. Attempts to prosecute those who participated in the crimes of the Vichy regime, and parallel efforts to stifle such efforts, demonstrated that whatever advances historical enquiry was making, there were still forces determined to block a full reckoning with the period.

Paul Touvier had been a leading figure in the Vichy militia in eastern France from 1943. He served under the head of the Gestapo in Lyon, Klaus Barbie, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 1987. At the end of the war, Touvier went into hiding and received a death sentence in absentia for his part in the deportation and execution of Jewish prisoners. These sentences expired under the statute of limitations in the mid-1960s; in 1971, President Georges Pompidou granted him a pardon.

In 1973, Touvier faced new charges of crimes against humanity. Police delays and the indulgence of some Catholic clergy, who provided him with safe houses, meant that he was not arrested until 1989, having been eventually found in the Priory of St Francis in Nice. In 1992, the Paris Court of Appeal ruled that Touvier could not be charged with crimes against humanity, since atrocities committed by individuals under Vichy rule did not fit the legal definition of such crimes.

Why was this the case? In an extraordinary turn, the Court released a detailed assessment of the Vichy regime that concluded it could not be considered totalitarian, since it was not characterized by the politics of “ideological hegemony,” and only contained some elements that were akin to fascism.

The Touvier episode shone a light in uncomfortable places. The safe havens offered to a war criminal by the Catholic Church were a reminder, not merely of the Church’s role in the Dreyfus affair — when the political antisemitism later mobilized by twentieth-century fascism had first erupted — but also of the persistence of antisemitism in contemporary France.

There was also the question of other complicities underpinning the failure of state institutions, from the police to the presidency, to bring Touvier to justice in the fifty years since he had first ordered the execution of seven Jewish prisoners. He was eventually convicted in 1994, becoming the first French person to be found guilty of crimes against humanity.

Vichy’s Loyal Servants

The case of René Bousquet drew attention to silences and indulgences that were even more awkward. Bousquet had been a state official at the Ministry of Agriculture before the war, and he was put in charge of secret-service files under the Popular Front administration. He was a center-left civil servant, not a far-right activist or an antisemitic agitator. In April 1942, he became Vichy’s chief of police.

Working closely with Carl Oberg, head of the German police and SS in occupied France, Bousquet oversaw more than 60,000 deportations to the death camps between 1942 and 1943. He organized both the 1942 Winter Velodrome roundup in Paris and the 1943 raid on the Old Port of Marseille, in the course of which the surrounding working-class neighborhood was razed to the ground, 25,000 people were made homeless, and 1,642 prisoners were sent to the Royallieu-Compiègne internment camp.

Bousquet was eventually ousted from his position, accused by far-right collaborators of aiding the resistance. After the Liberation, he was convicted of “national indignity” as part of the postwar purge, but he did not serve his five-year sentence because of his contribution to the resistance. He went on to enjoy a successful career with the Banque de l’Indochine and the Depêche du Midi newspaper, cultivating friendships with various leading political figures, notably François Mitterrand.

In 1991, Bousquet faced charges for his part in the Winter Velodrome atrocity, and for abolishing regulations that had protected some Jewish children from deportation. Bousquet represented the loyal, efficient, technocratic elite whose role was to conform to the authority in place and enact its legislation. His case, it was assumed, would put Vichy on trial, and raise all the difficult unanswered questions about the continuities between that regime, the prewar Third Republic that came before it, and the postwar Fourth and Fifth Republics that followed in its wake.

Why had it taken nearly fifty years for Bousquet’s role in the deportation of Jews to come to light? How had this been skated over at his 1949 trial? Who had protected him from scrutiny since then? How could a high-ranking state official, one who was complicit in the Holocaust, have enjoyed such a successful postwar career? We never received satisfactory answers to these questions, because on June 8, 1993, a man named Christian Didier walked in from the street, knocked on Bousquet’s door, and shot him dead, later claiming it as a victory for good over evil.

Scrutinizing Mitterrand

The Bousquet affair, and the revelations about his friendship with Mitterrand, drew attention to the Socialist president’s own role in the Occupation. In 1994, when Mitterrand was still in office, Pierre Péan’s book Une Jeunesse Française detailed his record of political engagement before he became involved in the resistance toward the end of the war.

Mitterrand’s flirtation with the far right during the 1930s, his employment by Vichy, and his receipt of the Francisque honor for services to the regime had not been secrets as such. But these revelations still came as a shock to the French public, and obliged Mitterrand to subject himself to a television interview about his past.

Mitterrand’s long-standing refusal to apologize on behalf of the French state for the atrocities committed during the Occupation was of greater significance. He reasoned that Vichy had broken with the Republic, which therefore bore no responsibility for its crimes:

I will not apologize in the name of France. The Republic has nothing to do with that. I believe that France is not responsible.

This continued the stance previously adopted by De Gaulle and his successors, who believed that denial was the best way of preserving national unity. Eventually Jacques Chirac, two months after his election as president in 1995, apologized on behalf of the French nation for its complicity in the Holocaust, while taking care to stress that “another France” of resistance to Nazism was thriving in London at the time.

Papon’s Exposure

Like Bousquet, Maurice Papon was a high-ranking civil servant. He worked for the Popular Front government, then proved to be a loyal servant of Vichy and of the various postwar administrations of the Fourth and Fifth Republics. Papon eventually became a Gaullist deputy and mayor and the treasurer of the Gaullist UDR Party. By the late 1970s, he had been appointed as minister for the budget in Raymond Barre’s government under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Papon was heavily involved in police activity, during and after the war. As secretary general to the Bordeaux police chief during the war, Papon had special responsibility for Jewish affairs, and oversaw the deportation of 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux to Auschwitz via Drancy. After the Liberation, he took up posts in Morocco and Algeria, where he employed counterinsurgency methods involving torture, summary executions, and death squads in support of French colonial rule. In 1958, he became prefect of Paris. De Gaulle awarded him the Légion d’Honneur in July 1961 for his services to the French state.

In October 1961, Papon took charge of the repression of an Algerian pro-independence demonstration in Paris that went ahead in defiance of the curfew he had imposed. The police under Papon’s command arrested 11,000 Algerians: many of them were beaten to death and thrown in the Seine, with estimates of the total dead ranging from 50 to over 200.

On February 9 the following year, Papon’s police attacked a demonstration that the French Communist Party had organized in response to terror attacks by the Secret Army Organization, which was bent on obstructing Algerian independence at all costs. His officers killed nine demonstrators and left 250 injured.

Papon was forced to stand down after the kidnapping and disappearance of the Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965: Ben Barka was arrested by police officers in Paris, never to be seen again. But De Gaulle appointed him as a director of the state-run Sud Aviation company in 1967. Papon left that post in 1968 to pursue a career in politics.

Details of his wartime role only became public in 1981, when the magazine Le Canard enchaîné published documents uncovered by the historian Michel Bergès. Papon was charged with crimes against humanity in 1983, but it was 1997 before he finally stood trial, to be convicted in April 1998.

Selective Memory

Papon’s career as a state functionary highlighted a disparity between France’s reckoning with its collaborationist past and its amnesia about the colonial record. Some historians have argued that his trial marked a turning point, shifting attention away from remembrance of Vichy toward remembrance of Algeria. However, there has been no symbolic milestone for colonial memory to compare with Chirac’s apology for the crimes of Vichy.

Instead, the radicalization of the mainstream right in the twenty-first century has tended to cement a bullish refusal to come to terms with the crimes of empire. In 2005, there was even a clumsy attempt to insist that school students be taught about the positive aspects of French colonialism.

More recently, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted in June 2020, and activists in France expressed their anger at statues commemorating figures associated with slavery and colonialism, President Emmanuel Macron’s advisers cautioned against the imposition of a “binary” vision of history, warning that an “imported, intersectional” conception of memory was incompatible with a “Republican memory” shared by all.

Macron himself spoke of the danger that “communitarianism” would lead anti-racism into a hateful, false rewriting of the past: “The Republic,” he declared, in terms that recalled Mitterrand’s aversion to any apology for Vichy, “will not erase any trace or any name from its history. The Republic will topple no statues.” Although Macron is the first president to have publicly acknowledged systematic state torture by France during the Algerian War, he has described his position concerning the French role in Algeria and its other colonies as one of “neither denial nor repentance.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that the last street sign bearing Philippe Pétain’s name was removed. Those who seek a genuine reckoning for French colonialism are likely to need their own May 1968 to achieve it.