politically conservative men dominate this time period in French
who was President of the Vichy Government, and Charles de Gaulle
who led the Fighting French back into the war and into Paris in
years are painful even to this day in France. This is
mainly due to the fact that so many Frenchmen collaborated with
the Nazi occupiers from July of 1940 until the Liberation in
1944. As a result investigation into the past can reveal awful
secrets: witness the humiliating discovery that France's
Socialist President Francois
had collaborated with the Nazis in WWII.
Government was born of defeat at the hands of the Germans in June
of 1940. Military weakness and political divisiveness had
combined to ensure a French defeat in only six weeks of fighting.
With such a
disaster on their hands, the French were hardly in a mood to
continue the failed Third Republic. France turned to the
aged Hero of Verdun, Henri
to save France in this dark hour.
took over and negotiated with the Germans to leave part of France
unoccupied. The unoccupied part of France was ruled from
the city of Vichy (famous for its 'Vichy water'). The new
government had a much stronger president and brought more
stability to the French political system. Petain
was viewed as a veritable national savior. He promised to
get peace with honor--or as much honor as could be gained in such
would certainly do: rid France of the faulty Third Republic and
its wobbly constitution. The Vichy Government was much more
authoritarian than the Third Republic. A secret police
force, more restricted civil rights and less power for the
legislative branch were characteristic. Vichy also
cooperated ('collaborated') with the Nazis partly out of
sympathy, but mostly out of intimidation.
ruled, after all, purely at the pleasure of the masters in
Berlin. This even took the form of a "draft" of young
French men to serve as workers for German industry. Over a
million were deported to Germany to work as near-slave laborers.
This was bitterly resented by the French, as were the enormous
levels of taxes exacted by the occupying Germans. Another example
of collaboration is how the Vichy government would cooperate in
turning over foreign Jews to the Nazis, but was very reluctant to
turn over French Jews. However, as Nazi pressure increased,
Vichy began to cooperate even more.
of the cooperation was in the form of Pierre Laval. Laval
had been an extreme Leftist as a young man, but had journeyed to
the right by the mid-1930s. He had even tried to sort out
the mess of the Third Republic as Premier but had failed
miserably to keep his British allies close or to win over
Mussolini in an anti-German front. He also failed to gain
Russian support on the eve of WWII.
after the fall of France in 1940, Laval was part of the Vichy
government. Soon, he was the Premier and along with Petain,
he ran Vichy France. Laval was constantly trying to get
better terms from the Germans and to keep the burden of defeat
off the backs of the French. However, he failed repeatedly
and was finally shoved out by the Germans for his ineffectiveness
as a German ally. However, his failures along with his
disgraceful collaboration with the Germans earned him nothing but
hatred--especially from his fellow rightist de Gaulle.
the Russians switched sides and the Americans entered WWII, it
was clear that the Germans would almost certainly lose. As
this became clear, many Vichy officials began to drag their feet
in collaboration while the Germans became suspicious of their
"friends." Finally, in 1942, the Germans occupied the rest
of France, but forced Vichy to continue to rule its part--at
The Free French, or Fighting French
armies were crumbling in May and June of 1940 there was a notable
French counterattack at Arras led by Charles de Gaulle. However,
not even his efforts made any significant difference against the
German war machine.
ended up serving in the French cabinet in the waning days of the
war and fled France rather than surrender. Not long after
the surrender, de Gaulle broadcast from Britain that some
Frenchmen would fight on. He was sentenced to death in
abstentia by the Vichy government, but de Gaulle did offer a
glimmer of hope to the demoralized French.
was fanned in June and December of 1941 as Hitler turned on his
Russian allies and the Americans were dragged into the war.
"Fighting French" (FF) forces soon began a string of operations
against Vichy forces in Africa. Working up from the
equatorial colonies, the FF was soon helping out British forces
in North Africa. At the Battle of bir Hakim, the FF made a
name for heroism at the side of the British as they made the
Germans pay a heavy price for their victory.
Americans were in the war and landing in the western part of
North Africa--in Vichy colonies. American President
Franklin Roosevelt had a deep, personal dislike of Charles de
Gaulle. For his part, de Gaulle sometimes referred to
Roosevelt as, "the cadaver." As the US troops moved ashore the
Vichy forces there put up little fight against the people who had
helped France win WWI and who hoped would free France from German
control. However, the Americans tried to keep de Gaulle
from gaining control of the French administration in North
was not to be denied. He quickly secured the votes and then
the control of the entire French force in Africa and managed to
get the Fighting French forces augmented with the previously
Vichy forces. This provided de Gaulle with a sizeable force
and a real claim at showing how France was still a player on the
international scene. Churchill always supported and
understood the French need to restore some honor after the
catastrophe of 1940. The Americans, and Roosevelt, viewed
the French as an overly proud nuisance. The US was the real
force in this war and the British were helping. The
Americans saw the FF as almost an expensive and irrelevant force.
This attitude was easily detected by the always-sensitive de
Gaulle. However, now that de Gaulle had a sizeable force
again, the Americans were starting to show more respect.
the Allies invaded Italy. This Mediterranean Theater of
Operations was a multi-national effort led by British general
Alexander. Alexander had Indians, Americans, British,
Australians, New Zealanders, Poles, Brazilians and Free French
under his command.
In 1943 and
1944, a huge obstacle to allied progress was the German position
at the famous Monte
Abbey. Multiple attacks by the Americans, Poles and
Zealanders all failed. After months of failure, Monte Cassino was
finally taken by Fighting French Moroccan troops who were
magnificent mountain fighters. The French simply attacked
through a narrow part of the German line and then in a series of
rapid movements outflanked the Germans who fell back in a near
out of the way, the road to Rome was open and US General Mark
Clark finally took it on June 5, 1944. Even the Americans
had to admit the French were again real players on the world
day later, the French were again players in a very big play:
The Invasion of France. French general Leclerc's forces
were among the first ashore at Normandy. De Gaulle had
insisted upon, and received, the right of his forces to be among
the first to help in the liberation of France. In only a
few weeks the Allies had routed the German army in Normandy and
the road to Paris was open.
Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower did not want anything to do
with taking Paris. He wanted the Germans to keep the city
and to provide for the entire population. Capturing the
city would only slow down the clearly emerging Allied victory.
Charles de Gaulle wanted Paris liberated and immediately so.
He even threatened to order Leclerc's army to simply ignore
orders and march on Paris regardless of what the Americans
thought. Finally, Eisenhower relented and gave Leclerc the
green light. However, the French did not move as rapidly as
seemed possible to the Americans. US general George Patton
(always guaranteed to offend an American ally) said the French
were, "dancing all the way to Paris." However, part of the
reason Leclerc was slowing his advance was that his forces were
greeted wildly in every city on the way to Paris and his troops
could hardly move any faster.
August, Parisians knew liberation was coming, but when should
they revolt against the Germans? The Communists wanted to declare
the revolt the next day after a meeting, but de Gaulle's men got
the Communists to wait another day. However, the next
morning, de Gaulle's men had already begun to fly the Tricolor
announcing the revolt had begun. De Gaulle was going to
call all the shots, even if it meant pulling such a stunt.
German commander of Paris had surrendered and two days later,
Leclerc's forces entered Paris. De Gaulle was not far
behind. He was going into Paris, no matter what. As
he walked through an enraptured crowd on his way to Notre Dame
Cathedral to offer his thanks to God, a sniper opened up.
All around the 6' 8" hero people dropped to avoid the bullets.
Not de Gaulle, he stood calmly erect and waited until the sniper
was silenced by his soldiers. Then, he quietly went on his
way to offer prayers of thanksgiving for the deliverance of
capture of Paris, de Gaulle was the unquestioned leader of
France. However, he was intent on keeping his nation in his
control. As a result, he again began to have conflicts with
the Americans. De Gaulle wanted his troops to be able to
help control France. The Communists already were jockeying for
position in post-war France and de Gaulle wasn't about to let
them take control. As a compromise, de Gaulle sent a
sizeable French force to help conquer Germany, but kept enough
behind to win control of his beloved, "La France."
had ended Vichy and the humiliation of 1940, had restored French
military honor at bir Hakim, Monte Cassino, Normandy and finally
in the Liberation of Paris by the French themselves.
war Henri Petain was sentenced to death for his collaboration
with the Germans during the war. De Gaulle simply did not
have the heart to execute his former commander and national hero.
Showing another aspect of his sentimentality, de Gaulle commuted
the sentence of the old man to life in prison. On the issue
of Pierre Laval, de Gaulle was of a lower character. Laval,
was given one of the most ridiculously unfair trials of the
postwar period and sentenced to death as a war criminal.
Laval bitterly complained, "but I am a peace criminal!" It
was to no avail. Laval was executed by firing squad.
the French had adopted another constitution--one that was almost
identical to the failed Third Republic. De Gaulle was so
disgusted at the French failure to create a strong Presidency
that he retired from politics to write books and work on his