- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
French political life is still marked by a dramatic rupture that opened up in the summer of 1940. After the French army suffered heavy losses on the battlefield against Germany, the country’s parliament handed power to Phillippe Pétain, a highly decorated war hero.
Pétain signed a deal with Hitler that left northern France under direct German rule. He set up his own regime at the town of Vichy, which became a byword for collaboration in occupied Europe. Vichy officials organized the deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps.
Meanwhile, a renegade French officer, Charles De Gaulle, went to London and pledged to fight on. Inside France, resistance groups began organizing to fight against Nazi Germany and its French collaborators.
Ever since the liberation of France by the Allies in 1944, a fierce debate has raged in French politics about the experience of occupation and resistance during the war. It remains a matter of political contestation today.
Jim Wolfreys teaches French politics at King’s College in London. He is the author of Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France.
How would you account for the rapid French capitulation to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1940? Was it primarily dictated by military factors, or was there a defeatist spirit among the French ruling class for other reasons?
The defeat of France took six weeks. This was an army that was supposed to be the best in Europe, so the fall of France was a major shock. Phillippe Pétain’s line after the defeat was that it was a product of the Popular Front. He claimed that France had become decadent, and that the military shortcomings were basically a reflection of political weaknesses inherited from the politics of the 1930s.
This was a very important argument, because if it could be established that defeat was a symptom of something else, then the armistice and the collaborationist policies of the Vichy regime could become more palatable. Supposedly, the Third Republic had created a situation that had led to the defeat, and therefore the imperative wasn’t opposing the occupying force; rather, it was establishing the radical measures necessary for national renewal.
Charles de Gaulle, on the other hand, argued that military failings were at the root of the defeat. He said that it was a question of tactics and that the French military command had been taken by surprise. There was some truth in this, although studies have subsequently shown that France wasn’t necessarily any worse prepared than Britain. Germany had a superior military strategy making use of mobile divisions, tanks, and aircraft, but France did mobilize massively for the war.
The battle of France was a real conflict, and it wasn’t simply a question of the French army collapsing immediately. There were errors made with defensive strategies on the part of the French, but the notion that decadence or the polarized nature of politics were to blame isn’t really a credible argument.
The real capitulation came after the military defeat when French elites made accommodations with Vichy: firstly, the armistice, and then the process of collaboration itself, which set in motion a logic that drew France into ever greater complicity with the occupying force.
To what extent was the Vichy regime that took shape after the French surrender a homegrown product, so to speak? How does it compare to other right-wing authoritarian states at the time, from Hitler and Mussolini to Franco and Salazar?
The main difference in terms of the Vichy regime was that it came to power on the back of a defeat, so it was a subordinate administration. It did have a lot of parallels with fascist and authoritarian regimes elsewhere. It had an authoritarian, racist, elitist agenda. It set up networks and informants, and later developed a militia. But it didn’t come to power on the back of an independent mass movement. It didn’t have the same roots in society as Hitler or Mussolini.
There were similarities with the reactionary Catholicism of the Franco regime. Vichy drew on the Catholic fundamentalist politics of Charles Maurras and his party Action Française, with its identification of “anti-national” elements that had to be rooted out. In that sense, Vichy’s “national revolution” was part of a long-standing radical, reactionary, and antisemitic tradition that had developed out of opposition to the French Revolution and the extension of democracy. It was also influenced by the fascist organizations that had emerged in France after World War I.
As time went on, the regime increasingly relied on repression, with the centralization of a police force and the establishment of a militia. Pro-Nazi collaborators played an increasingly prominent role. But collaboration was also about conforming to a new status quo — it wasn’t simply about ideological affiliation. There was an assumption that a Nazi Europe was inevitable: this was the future, and the Republic had run its course. There was participation in the regime from established elites.
You can see a fusion of different elements in the Vichy regime, in a way that was similar to processes that took place in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, but with the difference that this was after a military defeat. Robert Paxton talks about Vichy as an episode in a French civil war. The antisemitic, right-wing, reactionary traditions that preexisted the defeat were also important.
Did the Vichy regime possess any significant degree of autonomy from Nazi Germany, despite the occupation?
The regime attempted to assert a degree of autonomy, ideologically through its notion of a national revolution — the idea that France needed purging of the decadence caused by the existence of “anti-national” forces within France, such as Jews, Freemasons, communists, and foreigners. There was a logic of exclusion inherent in the regime from the beginning, and a focus on the need to purify France of internal enemies.
In terms of how much autonomy Vichy actually had, there were different phases, but overall, such autonomy was largely an illusion. Initially, there was a stress on Pétain as a supposedly benign figure — the hero of Verdun and the friend of the ordinary soldier. During this initial period of confusion after the defeat, we could say there was widespread passive support for Pétain. The emphasis was on work, family, fatherland, as the slogan went, with the implementation of reactionary measures on abortion and divorce, but also Vichy’s own antisemitic legislation.
This attempt to purify France of Jewish influence was initiated without orders from the occupying forces. Cases of French nationality that had been granted to Jewish immigrants in the decade or so before the defeat were revised. Jews were interned in French camps, then later sent to the Nazi death camps. There was participation and complicity in the crimes of the occupation in a way that wasn’t simply foisted on the regime from outside.
However, the idea that Vichy had any capacity to act independently was shown to be illusory as the war developed. From November 1942, the occupied zone was extended to the whole of France. Compulsory labor service in Germany was introduced, and seven hundred thousand French workers went to Germany.
In that context, the notion that the regime was independent from Germany was nonsensical. France contributed more skilled workers to the war effort than any other occupied nation. Historians subsequently have argued that conditions in a directly Nazi-administered France wouldn’t have been worse than they were in occupied France with a complicit puppet regime.
How did the resistance to Vichy and Nazism develop? What was the relationship between the internal resistance on the one hand and the Free French forces led by De Gaulle from outside France on the other?
Early on, there was some resistance, but it remained fairly limited, sporadic, and symbolic. This changed when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. The French Communist Party then officially engaged in armed resistance through sabotage and the killing of German soldiers. The introduction of compulsory labor in Germany from 1943 strengthened that resistance within France. But these groups were generally uncoordinated and rather disparate, certainly for the first half of the war.
Outside of France, De Gaulle, who was a relatively unknown figure in 1940, set himself and his Free French forces up as a kind of government-in-waiting. He played a role in rallying support for resistance in the French colonies. When Britain and the United States invaded north Africa in 1942, French troops switched allegiance from Vichy to the Free French, and De Gaulle gradually asserted control of Free French forces outside France.
Within France, the different resistance groups were eventually brought together in 1943 and a National Council of the Resistance was set up. It drew up plans for a postwar government. De Gaulle’s representative, Jean Moulin, played an important role in this. He was killed by Klaus Barbie about a month after the establishment of the National Council of the Resistance. Moulin’s status as a war hero was later established as part of the narrative that developed in the postwar period about the resistance.
Would you say that the standing of the French Communist Party had been undermined in the long run by the Hitler-Stalin pact and by its record before the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941?
Not in the long run, because of what happened once the Communist Party joined the resistance. The Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact of 1939 did mean that the party suffered in the short term. It lost a significant number of members and adopted the line of opposing the war as a fight between imperialist powers.
There were some individual exceptions to this. There were communist activists who played an important role in a strike of a hundred thousand workers in northern France before the German invasion of the USSR. But it was from that point in June 1941 that the Communist Party entered the resistance as the only major party to do so in such an unequivocal way.
It engaged in significant resistance activities: sabotage, intelligence work, the killing of German soldiers. Thousands of party members were shot. Its standing at the end of the war was incontrovertible because of the role that it played in the resistance. That overshadowed the initial period that was dominated by the Hitler-Stalin pact.
What role did the resistance play in the military struggle for the liberation of France after the Allied landings in 1944?
The resistance played an important role in Normandy, for example, sabotaging railways and communications in northern France. It also played an important role in Paris, building hundreds of barricades. There was a strike of Metro workers in August 1944. The police went on strike too.
About a thousand resistors were killed in the liberation of Paris. By this point, the resistance had grown, partly as a result of the different factors I’ve already mentioned that pushed people into resistance activity, and its military role — particularly when it came to sharing intelligence with the Allies — was relatively significant.
What kind of popular energies were set loose by the liberation of France that year?
In the initial postwar period, there was a wave of purges — a popular, spontaneous rooting out of collaborators. It’s estimated that about ten thousand people were executed in this immediate postwar period. There was also a wave of strikes. There were groups of armed resisters still active, and fears that there was going to be some kind of communist insurrection. That didn’t happen, partly because of the role of the Communist Party.
What was the policy of De Gaulle in the immediate wake of liberation, and what was the policy of the French Communists?
De Gaulle and the Communists worked together in the provisional government of the immediate postwar period. The Communists essentially had a choice. Should they ensure stability, work with the provisional government, and limit workers’ demands, or should they back the insurrectionary possibilities of the period? They chose the former course of action. They worked with De Gaulle until 1946, when there was a disagreement with the latter, who wanted to strengthen executive authority.
The Communists left the government a year later, following the establishment of the Fourth Republic, the implementation of the Marshall Plan, and the beginning of the Cold War. There were possibilities that opened up in the immediate postwar period, but it was the policy of the Soviet Union not to encourage revolutionary upheavals in countries like France. That essentially determined the attitude of the Communist Party.
What kind of reckoning, both legal and political, was there with the Vichy regime during the immediate postwar years? Was there a proper cleaning out of the civil service and the state machine that had worked for Vichy?
There was a limited purge. After the spontaneous purges of the immediate postwar period, there were official investigations into three hundred fifty thousand civil servants, and several thousand of them were executed. But in the main, those civil servants were required for the rebuilding of postwar France.
The resistance myth propagated the notion that nearly all French citizens supported the resistance, and that Vichy was an isolated minority. That was important in terms of limiting the purge and ensuring a degree of continuity with the state machine. That came to light later with the notorious cases of people who played a role under Vichy, but then led protected lives in the postwar period.
What were the most important landmarks in the subsequent debate over historical memory since 1945? How did the trials, which you just mentioned, of Vichy officials like Maurice Papon affect that debate?
The initial postwar period was marked by various arguments that built up the role of the resistance. School textbooks spoke about French people being resisters rather than collaborators. An argument developed that Vichy played the role of a shield while De Gaulle and the resistance played the role of the sword: in other words, there was a kind of complementary relationship between the two.
Attitudes changed in the wake of 1968. That was partly because there was a general questioning of the establishment, and partly because of the release of films like The Sorrow and the Pity or books like Robert Paxton’s study of Vichy France. Along with the stories of Jewish survivors of the occupation, they revealed the complicity of the Vichy regime in the crimes of the occupation, showing that Vichy enacted its own measures against Jews as a willing collaborator of Nazi Germany.
A number of pivotal events then brought the question of Vichy and the crimes of the occupation into the public eye, again. One was the emergence of the Front National, a major political party whose leadership, certainly for most of the 1970s, included former members of the Vichy militia and the Waffen-SS. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s own political past included running a presidential campaign for a former Vichy minister. This drew attention to continuities between the present and the past.
There were a series of high-profile trials, or attempted trials, of collaborators. Paul Touvier was a member of the Vichy militia in Lyon who served under Klaus Barbie and managed to escape, for a number of years, charges of crimes against humanity. Georges Pompidou gave him a presidential pardon.
There were delays in police investigations. The Catholic clergy provided him with safe houses. All of this meant that Touvier wasn’t arrested until the late 1980s, and then there were further delays in bringing him to court before he was finally convicted in 1994. Touvier’s individual case, in other words, brought to light the role of several institutions in French society.
The case of René Bousquet was similar. Bousquet became the chief of police under Vichy and organized the roundup of Jews at the Winter Velodrome in 1942. He oversaw an estimated sixty thousand plus deportations to the death camps. The total number of deportations was seventy-six thousand.
Bousquet was not simply protected — he went on to enjoy a successful career in the postwar period. He was friends with François Mitterrand. It took nearly fifty years for his role in the deportation of Jews to come to light, and he was assassinated before he could be brought to trial.
The Bousquet affair brought to light the role of Mitterrand, which raised a number of uncomfortable questions, not just about Mitterrand himself, but about the whole occupation period. Mitterrand gave a series of confessional interviews toward the end of his second term as president. This brought back memories of Vichy and underlined the element of continuity between Vichy and the periods that preceded and followed it.
Mitterrand had flirted with the far right before the war, and he was honored by the Vichy regime. He later played a role in the resistance, but he continued cultivating his friendship with Bousquet in the postwar period. He refused as president to apologize for the crimes of the Vichy regime, because he argued that the French Republic had nothing to do with it and France was not responsible. It was only his successor Jacques Chirac who apologized on behalf of the French nation for its complicity in the Holocaust, while stressing that there was another France existing at the time, represented by the resistance.
The trial of Maurice Papon in 1997–98 once again highlighted the role of civil servants who were complicit in the crimes of the occupation and then served in postwar administrations during the Fourth and Fifth Republics. There was another element with Papon. Having played a role in the deportation of Jews from the Bordeaux area during the war, after the liberation he also played a role in French colonial measures of repression.
He was the prefect of police in Paris. In October 1961, police officers under his command took part in the arrest of around ten thousand Algerians, many of whom were beaten to death, their bodies thrown in the Seine. He was forced to stand down after the kidnapping of Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan opposition politician, in 1965, but he still went on to serve as director of the Sud Aviation company.
In other words, not only did Papon’s trial expose continuities between the Vichy regime and the postwar civil service, it also exposed continuities between the crimes of the occupation and the crimes of the colonial period. It shone a light on the two dominant political taboos of the postwar era, one of which, Vichy, has begun to be addressed, while the other has not been properly addressed at all.
You mentioned Jean-Marie Le Pen earlier. Since the 1980s, of course, the far right grouped around figures like Le Pen has become a permanent fixture on the French political and electoral scene. Le Pen himself reached the second round of the presidential election in 2002, and his daughter did so again last time in 2017. How would you say that the contemporary far-right movement has influenced the perception of Vichy in France?
I think there are two processes that have been underway since the breakthrough of the Front National on the far right. One is Le Pen’s attempts at revisionism. There was a recognition by the far right in the immediate postwar years that the weight of the occupation period in public consciousness would prevent a fascist movement from developing in France. In that sense, people like Le Pen understood that the crimes of the occupation would have to be relativized or minimized if the far right was going to advance.
The second process was one that took place on the cusp between the far right and the mainstream right. This was a notion developed by the so-called Nouvelle Droite in the 1970s, according to which the crimes of the occupation don’t concern us — they have nothing to do with us.
On the one hand, Le Pen engaged in negation, with outbursts like talking about the Holocaust as a detail of World War II, making puns about the gas ovens, or using provocative language. He called AIDS sufferers sidaiques, echoing the Vichy term for Jews (“judaique”). This was a matter of deliberate, in-your-face denial of the crimes of the occupation, and an attempt to ridicule people who took those crimes seriously.
Le Pen debated with a Jewish minister of immigration, who was talking about police raids to combat illegal immigration, and said “Oh, you could organize a round-up.” Despite Marine Le Pen’s much-trumpeted so-called “detoxification” of the organization, she has also echoed that rhetoric, comparing Muslims praying in the street to the experience of living under occupation. The Front National has deliberately evoked the wartime period, proposing quotas of immigrant children in schools or national preference for French citizens, the rooting out of cosmopolitan references in schoolbooks, and so on.
On the part of the mainstream right, there’s been an echoing of Front National policies. In the 1990s, for example, the Right under Chirac proposed that anyone offering hospitality to immigrants would have to inform the relevant authorities of their movements, echoing legislation introduced under Vichy. Nicolas Sarkozy, after his election as president in 2007, created a ministry for immigration, integration, and national identity. The historians drew parallels between that and Vichy. One of Sarkozy’s ministers organized a conference on the integration of immigrants and chose Vichy as the venue.
Would you say that the gradual decline of the French Communist Party and the end of the Cold War had an influence on the debates about the resistance?
I think that attempts to undermine the French Communist Party or the role of Marxism in French society were underway long before the end of the Cold War, from François Furet’s work on the French Revolution to the activities of the so-called New Philosophers, trying to identify totalitarianism in the political thought that influenced the communist tradition. Some of the debates at the time of the bicentenary of the French Revolution contributed to an undermining of Communist Party influence.
In terms of the resistance, there have been attempts to generate controversy about the party’s treatment of foreign resistance fighters. There was a controversy about the role of Raymond and Lucie Aubrac, two resistance heroes whose credentials were questioned. But I think it’s been difficult to demolish the Communist Party’s prestige and its role in the resistance, partly because the resistance narrative was also a creation of the Gaullists. They emphasized their own role at the expense of that of the Communists, but the latter couldn’t be denied altogether.
If there has been a shift, it has perhaps been a shift in focus away from resistance organizations and fighters, following Jacques Chirac’s apology and his emphasis on the other resistance, toward the role of ordinary people in sheltering Jews from persecution. That’s been a shift in emphasis rather than an outright revision of the Communist Party’s role.
What would you say are the main planks of the mainstream consensus about World War II in France today? Or can we even say that there is such a consensus?
The role of France in World War II is constantly open to debate, turning around similar themes, but always refracted through contemporary politics. There is the argument that Vichy was an exception, a one-off, confined to a minority, which had nothing to do with the Republic or the traditions of France. Then there is the idea of Vichy as representing continuity. There have been studies trying to locate continuities between Vichy policies and Republican notions of citizenship — not always successfully — or continuities between Vichy and reactionary drifts in contemporary politics.
If you look at the period since the war, there have been various stages, as I’ve tried to roughly outline, that show shifts in perceptions about the regime, the extent to which perpetrators were brought to justice, and therefore the complicity of French institutions, political parties, and so on. But there are also common themes that are important for historical debate: about the relationship between radicalizing conservatism and fascism, about the significance of authoritarian drifts in liberal states, about the colonial period and comparisons that can be made between attempts to bring to justice those responsible for crimes during the occupation and attempts to acknowledge France’s role in colonial crimes and bring the individuals responsible to justice.
There’s a constantly developing debate over Vichy, and it’s difficult to see that there will be ever a consensus about the regime, simply because it’s subject to reinterpretation through the shifts and conflicts of contemporary politics.