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Philippe Pétain

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The Marshall is a great man who died in 1925. Trouble is, he didn't know it.
—Charles de Gaulle
Pétain shaking hands with Hitler, 1940
A lunatic Chaplin imitator
and his greatest fans

Icon nazi.svg
First as tragedy
Then as farce

Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was a French Field Marshal, World War One hero, head of state of Vichy France, and a convicted Nazi collaborator. Despite once being popular, today he is seen as a traitor[1] and a 'French Vidkun Quisling'. Pétain's role is part of a larger debate regarding the legitimacy of the Vichy regime, the responsibility of the French state for collaboration and the political divide in France.

World War One[edit]

Philippe Pétain began his service in the First World War as a colonel, but was noted for his innovative strategic and tactical thinking. He became renowned for several victories, particularly at the fortress of Verdun, for which he would earn the appellation "the Lion of Verdun." By the end of the war, he had been promoted to the rank of Maréchal de France, or Marshal of France.[2] Had Pétain died before 1940, he would probably have been remembered as one of France's greatest heroes.

Vichy France and Nazi collaboration[edit]

Maréchal, nous voila! Devant toi le sauveur de la France!
Maréchal nous voila! was an unofficial anthem of Vichy France, often used in place of the Republican anthem La Marseillaise. These lyrics translate approximately to "Marshal [Pétain], we are here! Before you, the savior of France!

Marshal Pétain had been made Prime Minister during the final days of the Third Republic, as France was being overrun by the Germans. He led the government in a pseudo-coup, dissolving democracy and negotiating with the Germans for surrender. After this he was granted emergency power (with a little pressure here and there), and ruled as the Chief of the French State, also known as Vichy France, a far right authoritarian government centered around Pétain's paternalistic, dictatorial rule. Pétain remained theoretically neutral in the war, but was very clearly supportive of the Germans. While Pétain was ostensibly in control of the entirety of Metropolitan France and its empire, the Northern two-thirds of France (including Paris) were under German occupation, leaving the regime to rule from Vichy. In addition, multiple colonies had refused to acknowledge Pétain's rule, and instead followed Charles DeGaulle's Free French government-in-exile.

Without any pressure from Nazi Germany, Vichy France implemented several anti-Semitic policies. This included laws that banned Jews from public sector jobs and stripping them of their citizenship. Whilst it was initially thought that Petain was uninvolved in the implementation of anti-Jewish legislation, it was later discovered that he was personally responsible for the rounding up and deportation of 76,000 Jews to concentration and labour camps, with only 3,000 returning.[3][4]

Pétain and conservative politics[edit]

While Pétain was married to a divorced woman and not a devout Catholic himself, it is surprising that Pétain received support from most of the Catholic right.[note 1] This in spite of the fact that the Radical Party had mostly voted in favour of giving him emergency powers and his enforcer, Pierre Laval, was an anticlerical. His regime initially promoted a cultural counterrevolution ironically called Révolution Nationale, or the National Revolution. Abortion was made a capital crime, the grounds for divorce were decreased, and the age of consent for homosexual activity was increased to 21. Many homosexuals were interned in general and more consistently than was the case under Nazi rule.

This displeased actual fascists like the Parti Populaire Français and national socialists of the Rassemblement national populaire (Marine Le Pen thought this was a great new name for her party) who preferred working with the Nazis in the North over the "clericalists" surrounding Pétain. Pétain eventually got tired of the pro-Nazi intrigues of Laval and decided to trick him into resigning, instead siding with those who considered him an adulterer, yet he replaced Laval with the equally anticlerical Admiral Darlan who had little patience for "beardless altar boys".

Fall and trial[edit]

The Germans put an end to the facade of French independence in 1942, following Operation Torch (the Anglo-French-American invasion of North Africa). The Allies had happened to capture Vichy Admiral François Darlan. Darlan negotiated a deal with the Allies to defect to Free France and order the North African garrisons to join him. Upon hearing of a substantial number of French forces switching sides, Hitler decided to occupy the rest of France, leaving the French State as an impotent (well, even more impotent) puppet government.

In 1945, Pétain gave himself up to the French Provisional Government. He was put on trial by the French High Court. He refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Court, and refused to testify in his own defence, stating: "a Marshall of France asks mercy from none." Pétain was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death for treason, but President De Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment instead, on the basis of his advanced age and past service. He was stripped of all military honors except his rank of Marshal.


By the time of his trial, Pétain was already beginning to exhibit symptoms of dementia.[5] He spent the rest of his life slowly succumbing to the disease, before finally dying in 1951 at the age of 95.


  1. This is almost as surprising as a vulgar twice divorced man being supported by the Christian right to become President of the United States.