Vichy France 1940-1944

Two politically conservative men dominate this time period in French history Henri Petain, who was President of the Vichy Government, and Charles de Gaulle who led the Fighting French back into the war and into Paris in August 1944.

The Vichy 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 Mitterand had collaborated with the Nazis in WWII.

The Vichy 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 Petain to save France in this dark hour.  Petain 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 circumstances.

One thing Petain 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. 

Vichy 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.

One aspect 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. 

Not long 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.

However, as 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 German whim.

The Free French, or Fighting French

As 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.

De Gaulle 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.

That hope was fanned in June and December of 1941 as Hitler turned on his Russian allies and the Americans were dragged into the war.

De Gaulle's "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.

Soon, the 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 Africa. 

De Gaulle 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.

In 1943, 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 Cassino 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 panic. 

With Monte Cassino 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 scene.

Only one 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.

The Supreme 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.

However, 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. 

Finally, in 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.

Soon, the 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 France.

With the 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."

De Gaulle 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.

After the 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.

By 1946, 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 paintings.

Soon, France was back to the usual indecisiveness, corruption and incompetence of the Third Republic days.  Some called for de Gaulle to come out of retirement to help France, but "the General" would have none of it.  He felt the Fourth Republic was as fatally flawed as the Third.  He would remain aloof from the political scene.