“”These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.
|—French President Jacques Chirac, 1995.|
| A lunatic Chaplin imitator|
and his greatest fans
|First as tragedy|
|Then as farce|
Vichy France, officially known as the French State, was a Nazi puppet-government that ruled France between July 1940 and August 1944. Philippe Pétain, a former field marshal in the French Army and the hero of the World War I battle of Verdun (1916), became ruler of the country during this period and actively collaborated with Nazi Germany, including assisting the Germans in carrying out Holocaust operations. In theory, Pétain's rule extended across all of France, but in reality, Nazi Germany controlled northern France and the Atlantic coast under military occupation, with Pétain's regime only ruling over southern France and most of France's colonies. The Nazis allowed a French rump state to exist (rather than occupying the country completely) in order to prevent France's vast colonial empire from falling into Allied hands; regardless, most colonies would either eventually rally to Charles de Gaulle's Free French or, in the case of Indochina, fall under Imperial Japanese occupation during the war.
People use the name "Vichy France" because the seat of French government during that time temporarily moved from Paris to the resort- and spa-town of Vichy, and also to distinguish Pétain's collaborationist regime from the French government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. When texts about 1940-1944 refer to "France" or to "French troops" those terms usually refer to the Free French resistance led by de Gaulle, with "Vichy France" used to refer to Pétain's regime.
The Fall of France: What happened?
Despite having been a dominant military power for centuries before, the French collapsed with shocking speed under the German western offensive; their loss became thoroughly inevitable within days of the initial assault on Belgium, which began on the 10th of May, 1940. Despite materiel superiority and geographic advantages, the French and British armies could not stand up to the superior leadership and tactics of the Wehrmacht, which used mobile warfare and integrated air support to devastating effect.
While Prime Minister Paul Reynaud favored resisting the German forces, the desperate plight of thousands of civilian refugees and the hopeless military situation proved his hopes to be a fantasy. He resigned, and President Albert Lebrun appointed Marshal Pétain as his replacement. Pétain signed the armistice with Germany less than a week afterwards, surrendering much of his country to German occupation. With Paris within the German zone, the French government chose to temporarily relocate to the resort town of Vichy. The French parliament passed the Constitutional Acts, which granted Pétain full powers of legislation, administration, diplomacy, and judicial authority. It also gave him the responsibility of drafting the new French Constitution following the dissolution of the Third Republic. From this point on, Pétain turned France into a dictatorship.
The "National Revolution"
“”When our young people ... approach adult life, we shall say to them... that real liberty cannot be exercised except under the shelter of a guiding authority, which they must respect, which they must obey... We shall then tell them that equality [should] set itself within the framework of a hierarchy... Finally, we shall tell them that there is no way of having true brotherhood except within those natural groups, the family, the town, the homeland.
|—Philippe Pétain, 1940.|
The French right, especially the plutocrats and fundamentalist Catholics, had long resented the republican traditions ushered in by the French Revolution. They attributed the rapid loss to the Germans to a general weakening of French society, which they believed to be caused by the decadence of democracy, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism.
With the collapse of the Third Republic, Pétain and his ministers set about creating their new vision for France with a social program commonly called "The National Revolution." The first priority was to glorify France as an imperialist and military power rather than a cradle of republicanism, with the Vichy regime even going so far as to change the French national motto from "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood), to "Travail, Famille, Patrie" (Work, Family, Fatherland).  While Pétain resented the term "Revolution" being used to describe a reactionary social program, he still happily participated in the transformation, seeking to return France to a Catholic nation built on fascistic values and a "rejection of the natural equality of man." Another defining element of the regime was opposition to the so-called urban proletariat, comprised of foreigners, leftists, and useless artists and intellectuals. These urban proletariat were perceived as a threat to France's true identity as a Catholic, family-oriented state. Children held an important place in Vichy France, the regime seeing them as the key to perpetuating their ideology and ensuring future population growth. Much of France's decline, the regime reasoned, could be blamed on the failure of schools to instill positive values in children. This led to the creation of the The Compagnons de France, a youth organization designed to teach adolescents outdoor living, exercise, and instill values. Several far-right french organisations, such as l'Action Francaise, had advocated for corporatism long before fascism, and thus corporatism was implemented by the state, which meant employer and worker syndicates belonging to the same profession would negotiate professional rules which would apply to all of the same profession.
In the end, the fascist domestic priorities of the Vichy regime was largely motivated by a broader Western anxiety over national decline and a desire to reverse social progress to a perceived golden era of greatness and strength.
The Holocaust in France
“”The German government has taken energetic measures against the propagation of the defective, the mentally diseased, and the criminal. The ideal solution would be the suppression of each of these individuals as soon as he has proven himself to be dangerous.
|—Alexis Carrel, French eugenicist, 1936. He became a major architect of Vichy eugenics policies.|
The Vichy regime sought to preserve its national sovereignty by collaborating with Hitler in any ways he wished. This is one factor which led them into being heavily complicit in the Holocaust, deporting tens of thousands of Jews into German concentration camps, where 77,000 would perish. However, the atrocities committed against the French Jewish population should not be seen as a solely German creation. This is, after all, the country that gave us the Dreyfus affair. For decades before, antisemitism in France was stoked by the anti-republican political group Action Française, which became involved in the Vichy government. 1936 saw another massive increase in French antisemitism with the virulently racist Nationalist campaigns against Prime Minister Léon Blum, who committed the horrible sin of being both Jewish and a socialist.
Marshal Philippe Pétain often personally intervened to establish anti-Jewish legislation, as shown by his annotations on the text of the "Law Regarding the Status of Jews," which relegated Jews to an underclass, banned from certain professions and public spaces. One of the first priorities of the Vichy regime was the persecution of undesirable minorities, especially Jews, leftists, homosexuals, and Roma. The French government imprisoned Jews in concentration camps pending deportation to the death camps in the German Reich. The history of the Holocaust in France is the history of a fascist regime acting on its own accord to hunt and persecute its Jewish minority and assist the Nazis in exterminating them.
Downfall of Vichy
Vichy France's efforts to remain independent ultimately proved futile in November 1942, when German forces invaded the French State. Following the success of Operation Torch, Hitler no longer trusted the French to protect its Mediterranean coast, thus the planning for the occupation. French naval commanders stalled the Germans long enough to scuttle 77 ships of their Mediterranean Fleet, preventing the French ships from falling into Axis hands. While Pétain remained officially in control of France, in reality, he only controlled France's civil administration. The Germans would continue deporting Jews from France.
D-Day (June 6, 1944) was the beginning of the end of the Vichy regime, during which troops from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and de Gaulle's Free French troops jointly invaded France at Normandy to drive the Nazis and Vichy regime out. A subsequent invasion along the coast of Southern France (Operation Dragoon) enveloped the remaining German forces in France and liberated the remainder of France. Nazi Germany itself would surrender less than a year later.
Philippe Pétain was tried after the end of World War II and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life in prison in recognition of his previous patriotic work and his age (Pétain was 89 years old at the end of the war).
Legacy of Vichy
"Vichy" today is used to mean collaborationism of any sort—at the risk of Godwin's law, of course ("Vichy Democrats", for example, for Democrats who supported George W. Bush's drive to invade Iraq.) Vichy itself is apparently still quite a nice place for a quiet holiday.
For a long time after the war, France had trouble coming to terms with the "Dark Years" of 1940-44. In 2009, France's highest court passed a ruling recognizing the country's responsibility for deporting tens of thousands of Jews to be killed in the east, the first such legal admission. The court did, however, reject any possibility of reparations, claiming France has "compensated" for the crimes of the past in various ways. The French government has also authorized the release of wartime Vichy archives, which promise more revelations as to the extent of anti-Semitic persecution in France.
There is also a stubborn myth today about the "good Vichy," which posits that Petain used his powers as head of state to shield the French people and French Jews from the Nazis, which persists despite continual revelations of evidence to the contrary. Petain's name is also being erased from French streets and monuments.
- French Holocaust role recognised. BBC News.
- Robert A. Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940 (1990)
- The Super Simple Reason Nazi Germany Crushed France During WWII The National Interest Daniel L. Davis, Feb. 18, 2017.
- Albert Lebrun Britannica ND
- Constitutional Act No.2 (This is the text of Constitutional Act No.2, which defined the Head of State's authority, hosted on the Jewish Virtual Library)
- See the Wikipedia article on Travail, famille, patrie § Institution.
- National Regeneration in Vichy France: Ideas and Policies, 1930–1944 Debbie Lackerstein, 2012
- The National Revolution Bayeux Museum ND
- Support for France's Collaborationist Government
- The Vichy of the National Revolution
- Children’s citizenly participation in the National Revolution: the instrumentalization of children in Vichy France Lindsey Dodd European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire Pages 759-780 Apr. 18 2016
- Vichy and its Aftermaths: The “Compagnons de France” Philip Nord, Revue d’histoire moderne et 2012.
- See the Wikipedia article on Vichy France § Racial policies and collaboration.
- Holocaust Encyclopedia: France US Holocaust Memorial Museum ND
- Action Francaise Britannica ND
- ‘Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist,’ by Pierre Birnbaum New York Times Jun. 12 2015
- The Deportation of the Jews from France Yad Vashem ND
- French Scuttle Fleet To Avoid Capture
- France responsible for sending Jews to concentration camps, says court Lizzy Davies, The Guardian Feb. 16 2009
- France Makes Wartime Vichy Government Archive Available To The Public Merrit Kennedy, NPR Dec. 28 2015.
- Document 'proves' Vichy France leader was an anti-Semite Joseph Bamat, France24 October 4, 2010.
- Disclosed: the zealous way Marshal Pétain enforced Nazi anti-Semitic laws Lizzy Davies, The Guardian October 3, 2010.
- Both Hero and Traitor, but No Longer on the Map John Tagliabue New York Times Jan. 2, 2011.