Vichy France: your guide to the WW2 regime
After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, the entire country was not occupied – at first. Instead, a nominally independent regime was established in the city of Vichy. Shannon Fogg answers the key questions about the regime, including how Vichy France adopted a policy of collaboration, and its role in the Holocaust
What and where was Vichy France?
Although France declared war on Germany in September 1939, it would not be for another eight months – a period known as the Phoney War – before the Nazis launched their assault on western Europe. Soon, the French army was in retreat, as were many civilians, and leadership collapsed; on 10 June 1940, the government fled Paris for Bordeaux.
A week later, prime minister Paul Reynaud was forced to resign, replaced by Philippe Petain, a respected First World War veteran and marshal of the army. Petain “was heading a group calling for an end to the fighting, in the belief that the war had been lost,” says Dr Shannon Fogg, speaking on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “Petain requested an armistice on 17 June,” which was signed on 22 June and went into effect on 25 June 1940.
As part of the armistice, France would be divided into zones, with the Germans initially occupying some three-fifths of the country, which included the Atlantic coastline, the industrial areas, agricultural plains, and Paris. The much-disputed region of Alsace-Lorraine, on the eastern border, was annexed.
The French government, meanwhile, could choose its own seat – and they went for Vichy. In central France, the city was in the unoccupied zone and, as a tourist destination for its thermal baths, it had plenty of empty hotel space to accommodate the government. “On 10 July, the National Assembly met in the casino in Vichy and voted overwhelmingly to grant full powers to Petain to revise the constitution. He could make laws and no longer had to consult the legislature,” says Fogg.
He established a conservative and authoritarian government, officially called the French State, but more commonly known as Vichy France. The term was also used to refer to the parts of France not initially occupied by the Germans.
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How independent was Vichy France?
“One of the things that Vichy France really tried to maintain throughout the war was its sovereignty,” states Fogg. “Some people like to talk of it as a puppet regime, but it wasn’t really: they tried to assert their authority, just always within the confines of occupation.
“They were one of the few European governments that did not flee. Others set up abroad, usually in London.”
Central to Vichy governance was Petain’s vision of rebuilding the country. France had been defeated so easily, in his view, as a result of the decadence of the interwar years. He believed that “things had become too liberal,” adds Fogg. “He wanted a return to more traditional values based on work and family. The idea of nationalism as well. These would replace liberty, equality and fraternity, the ideals of the French Revolution.”
Some people like to talk of it as a puppet regime, but it wasn’t really: they tried to assert their authority, just always within the confines of occupation
Vichy France was not under direct German administration. The Nazis would have the last say, of course, but Vichy laws applied to the whole country, not just the unoccupied zone. The Vichy government instituted rules regarding rationing, but also on economic Aryanisation, the seizure of property, and anti-Jewish statutes – often without the Germans demanding them.
Were colonies included in the armistice agreement?
At the time, the French empire stretched across the globe, with extensive holdings in north and west Africa, the Caribbean, through south Asia, and in what was called Indochina. The mobilisation in 1939 had seen soldiers from all over the empire make up 10 colonial divisions out of the overall 80 in the French forces.
After the armistice, all of the colonies – except one, French Equatorial Africa – sided with Petain. The first article of the agreement ended fighting between Germany and France, as well as all French possessions, colonies and protectorates, and they would remain unoccupied during the war. As Fogg points out, however, by then there were more than 85,000 colonial prisoners of war from the 10 divisions, held in camps all over occupied France.
How much support did the Vichy government have?
In the early stages, Vichy France did enjoy support among the French people: many were relieved that the fighting was over quickly, and were happy to trust Petain. “He was telling them that he was going to protect them from the death and destruction seen in the First World War.”
That said, Fogg stresses that around two per cent of the population were actively committed to Vichy’s collaboration with the Germans, and a similar percentage actively resisted it. The majority were “just trying to get by”, and while many French people opposed the foreign occupiers, they were “much slower to lose confidence in Vichy and even slower to become disillusioned with Petain.”
Some scholars see 1941 as the turning point – as the realisation set in that things were not getting better. Others highlight the summer of 1942 when the first major arrests and deportations of Jews took place. “For some, the turning point in public opinion is not until 1943, when the government instituted a compulsory labour service in which young men were drafted to work in factories in Germany,” suggests Fogg. “Many of these young men then choose to join the resistance.”
What was everyday life like for civilians in Vichy France?
As the war went on, daily life became increasingly difficult in France, but experiences differed based on where a person lived, what they did, and how they were defined under the Vichy or occupying regimes. For those under German rule, they had a visible embodiment of occupation: the constant presence of troops.
There would not be German troops in the south until after November 1942. After the Allies landed in north Africa, the Nazis used this as a reason to occupy the whole of France. Vichy still existed, but the country was now fully occupied.
“The economic effects of the armistice, especially how France was required to pay the costs of the occupation, really had an effect on people’s lives,” says Fogg. “The Nazis requisitioned food and industrial products as part of the plan to make sure the people of Germany did not suffer like they had during the First World War. But that meant the French people did experience shortages.”
Rationing was introduced early on, and tightened during the war. “I think the amount guaranteed by ration cards went as low as 900 calories per day. There was malnutrition, but not starvation at the level seen in places like Greece.” Queuing and the search for food – including people from cities venturing to the countryside to buy from farmers – became a way of life for those in occupied France.
After the Allies landed in north Africa, the Nazis used this as a reason to occupy the whole of France. Vichy still existed, but the country was now fully occupied
Access to bread was limited since the bakeries could only sell day-old bread, while the quantities of wheat in each loaf diminished over time. Jews, who had specially marked ration books, could only shop at limited hours.
The ideals of Petain’s ‘national revolution’ – his grand vision for France – glorified the family, but while financial incentives were provided to large families, Fogg stresses that policies were passed to hamper women’s access to divorce and abortions. The education system was also revised to include religious instruction in the curriculum, and to promote nationalism and anti-Semitism.
How were Jewish people treated? How much was Vichy France involved in the Holocaust?
Vichy instituted its own anti-Semitic laws, beginning in October 1940 with a statute limiting the number of Jews who could work in certain professions, and allowing foreign Jews to be interred or assigned residence. By the end of 1941, there were several hundred laws specifically related to the Jewish population, explains Fogg.
“One thing that especially affected Jews was the expropriation of their property. Economic Aryanisation transferred Jewish-owned businesses and property into non-Jewish hands. In fact, French laws actually defined Jews more strictly than the Nazi definition.” There were those in France helping Jews escape: at first, by illegally crossing into the unoccupied zone – which was perceived as safer – or to neutral Spain and Switzerland.
Vichy France was an “active participant” in the Holocaust, says Fogg, responding to Nazi demands that Jews be deported to the concentration camps. Foreign or stateless Jews were targeted first in the occupied zone, but when the Nazi quotas were not being met, this expanded to include French Jews from the unoccupied zone. “In the end, approximately 76,000 Jews were deported,” says Fogg. “Most were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only about 2,500 survived.”
How much success did the resistance have?
In terms of taking up arms and fighting, the resistance was not all that successful, claims Fogg.
“But was it resistance to get people to think differently, or to listen to the BBC or to read clandestine newspapers? Rescue could be seen as an important form of resistance too.” Even so, the overall success of changing the course of the Vichy regime is “hard to measure”, she concludes.
What was the role of the Free French?
On the same day that Petain announced his intention to seek an armistice with Germany, 17 June 1940, General Charles de Gaulle flew to London. Although an undersecretary in the war department and only in the government for a short time, he became a leading figure in the war, especially after a famous speech about how the “flame of resistance must not be extinguished”.
On 28 June, de Gaulle’s government-in-exile was recognised by the British as Free France, legitimising it as an alternative to Vichy. It would not be until later in the war, however, that the different organisations and resistance networks were able to be brought together under the umbrella of the Free French, says Fogg.
“After the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, the Free French got a much stronger foothold, and it was in 1943 and 44 that the French Committee of National Liberation was recognised as the intended new government once the war was over.”
When did Vichy France come to an end?
Following the Allied landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944 in an operation widely known as D-Day, the tide of the war shifted. Paris would be liberated in August and most of France by early September. The Nazis forcibly removed Petain and Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister, to a castle in Germany in the false hope that they would be brought back to power in the future. “Petain was trying to plan how he could transition into the leader of whatever new government was put in place at the end of the war,” says Fogg, “and he was angry with the Germans for taking him out of France.”
Neither the Nazis or Petain got their wish. The Vichy leaders were tried after the war, not in international courts like the Nuremberg Trials but at the French High Court. Although Petain had been offered asylum in Switzerland, he returned so he could give his account. Fogg says: “His defence strategy was to claim that Vichy had acted as a shield, protecting the French from the worst of Nazi demands through collaboration.
“He also claimed that he had been playing a double game and was in contact with the British. This was not true.”
Petain was found guilty of treason and condemned to death, but his age – he was nearing 90 in 1945 – saw his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Other prominent members of Vichy, including Laval were also tried, some being sentenced to execution and others put in jail.
The last trial would be held in July 1949, although there was a kind of “resurgence” in the mid-1990s, according to Fogg, when people who had been leniently sentenced were retried for crimes against humanity. “It wasn’t until 1995 that France publicly acknowledged its complicity in the Holocaust.”
Shannon Fogg is a professor of history and political science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and author of The Politics of Everyday Life and Vichy France Foreigners, Undesirables and Strangers (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
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