Vichy, France July 11, 1940

On July 10, 1940, the French National Assembly meeting in the munic­ipal opera house in Vichy, France, a small resort town 200 miles south of German-occupied Paris, ceded its power and author­ity to Premier Philippe Pétain, the 84‑year-old Maréchal of France and World War I hero. On this date, one day later, Marshal Pétain, bearing his new exec­u­tive title “Chief of State” and exploiting the absence of oppo­si­tion députés, delin­e­ated his near-abso­lute powers and abro­gated all laws of the pre­de­ces­sor Third Republic that were incom­pat­i­ble with the consti­tu­tion of the new French State (État fran­çais). Retained was the feck­less, cabi­net-like Council of Minis­ters headed by Pétain, with twice-elected former Prime Minis­ter Pierre Laval later named its vice presi­dent. The council’s basic member­ship had been estab­lished three days after hard-stepping German troops entered the French capital, unchal­lenged, on June 14, 1940. Pétain’s État fran­çais was a wholly depen­dent client state of Nazi Germany in the after­math of the Franco-German armi­stice signed at Compiègne northeast of Paris on June 22, 1940.

The Vichy regime quickly took on clear author­i­tarian—even fascist—char­ac­ter­istics. Pétain indef­i­nitely sus­pended the National Assem­bly, whose law­making function was assumed by a compli­ant Council of Ministers. For­swearing publicly any inten­tion of becoming “a Caesar,” Pétain by January 1941 held virtually all governing power in France: exec­u­tive, legis­la­tive, and judicial powers, either de jure or de facto.

Pétain’s government used its power to order harsh meas­ures against its citi­zens and foreign resi­dents, including estab­lishing media censor­ship, crim­i­nalizing free­dom of expres­sion (“felony of opinion”), and insti­tuting com­pul­sory labor for able-bodied men and women. Ever more harsher measures were applied to Jews living in France. On August 13, 1940, Vichy abol­ished anti-Sem­i­tism laws and the next month ordered Jewish-owned shops to dis­play yellow signs bearing the words “entre­prise juive.” Under German orders French police began collecting cen­sus data on all 330,000 Jews in France. A Vichy edict in October for­bade Jewish owner­ship and manage­ment of their enter­prises and excluded Jews from the army and cer­tain profes­sions such as medi­cine, law, and teaching. The next year, March 29, 1941, Vichy created the Commis­sariat Général aux Questions Juives to coor­dinate repres­sion of Jews in both the occupied and free zones (see map below). Not sur­prisingly French police con­ducted France’s first round­up (rafle) of Parisian Jews (about 3,700 mostly Polish Jews) on May 14, 1941.

Worse things were to come. On German orders a second French rafle of Parisian Jews on August 20–23, 1941, netted 4,230, French- and foreign-born alike. Ever more Jews—13,152—entered police custody in the “Vel’ d’Hiv” drag­net, or la grande rafle, on July 16–17, 1942 (Opération Vent Printanier, or Spring Breeze), and they, too, were dis­patched east­ward, mainly to Auschwitz-Birkenau but some to Sobibór, both exter­mi­na­tion camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Twenty-four people who resisted arrest were shot. In all, between June 1942 and the end of July 1944, 67,400 French, Polish, and German Jews were deported from France, among them 11,000 children, some less than two years old. Fewer than 3,000 of these deportees returned alive.

In late Janaury 1943 Vichy authorities (with German help) estab­lished the Milice fran­çaise, a right-wing para­mili­tary militia to com­bat mem­bers of the French armed resis­tance, orig­i­nally quasi­guerrilla bands living off the land known as the Maquis, though the term has come to embrace all resis­tance fighters (maquisards). By 1944 Vichy’s Milice had over 35,000 mem­bers, unsavory parti­ci­pants in inci­dents of torture, sum­mary exe­cu­tions, murders, and round­ups of Jews and mem­bers of the French Resis­tance. Clan­des­tine U.S. and British oper­a­tors helped the Maquis with supplies and agents. By early Septem­ber 1944, after invading Allies had forced the Germans to evac­u­ate the French capi­tal and had opened a second front on the Medi­ter­ra­nean coast (Oper­a­tion Dra­goon), Pétain loyalists, including some miliciens, fled Vichy and reestab­lished themselves in exile in Southwestern Germany.

Partitioned France, 1940–1944, and Two Prominent Vichyites, Marshal Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval

Occupation zones, France, 1940–1944

Above: Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, metro­pol­i­tan France was par­ti­tioned between Axis occu­piers (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) and Vichy French collab­o­rators between 1940 and 1944. The German mili­tary zone (zone occupée) in the north and west covered the larger part of France and con­tained most of France’s popu­la­tion, indus­trial wealth, and best viti­cultural (wine-growing) area. It also included France’s civic and cul­tural capi­tal, Paris. The Italian zone in the south­east was tiny and of limited impor­tance. The “Free Zone” (zone libre), which was governed by Vichy France (État français), enjoyed nomi­nal sover­eignty under its hard-right chef de État, Marshal Pétain. Situated in Central and South Central France, Vichy France com­prised roughly 45 per­cent of metro­pol­itan France and was by far the poorer part of the coun­try. Separating the two zones was a heavily patrolled 745‑mile demar­ca­tion line, which broadly followed the course of the river Loire and which the German mili­tary could open and close at will. In fact a travel pass (Ausweis) was required to travel from zone occupée to zone libre. Portions of France fell under the mili­tary admin­is­tra­tion of German-occupied Belgium, while parts of Alsace-Lorraine in the east were inte­grated into neigh­boring German admin­is­tra­tive dis­tricts, their inhab­i­tants made German citizens. A 12‑1/2 mile strip of land, the zone inter­dite (“forbidden zone”), ran along the whole of France’s Atlantic coast. After Allied landings in French North Africa in Novem­ber 1942 (Oper­a­tion Torch), German and Italian troops swept in to occupy Vichy France. Hence­forth, the “South Zone” (zone sud) in its rein­car­na­tion was ruled by the German armed forces as part of occupied France, although Pétain’s Vichy regime continued to remain nominally in charge.

Philippe Pétain, 1856–1951Pierre Laval, 1883–1945

Left: Blue-eyed and waxen skin, Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was a French gene­ral who reached the dis­tinc­tion of Maréchal of France, later autho­ri­tarian Chief of State of Vichy France from 1940 to 1944. Over the years Pétain and his Vichy regime col­labo­rated ever more closely with their German over­lords, France’s hered­i­tary enemy. His war­time actions—his peace at any price—resulted in his post­war con­vic­tion for trea­son (by a one-vote majority) and death sen­tence. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who was Presi­dent of the Pro­visional Govern­ment of the French Repub­lic, com­muted the sen­tence to life im­pri­son­ment due to the doddering marshal’s age (89) and his mili­tary con­tri­bu­tions in World War I. Pétain was exiled to an island pri­son off the French Atlantic coast, where he died at the age of 95.

Right: Stocky, swarthy, and shrewd, the son of a butcher, Pierre Laval (1883–1945) was four-time prime minister of France, twice serving the Vichy regime as head of govern­ment (chef du gouverne­ment). An admirer of totali­tarian govern­ment, Laval em­braced the mus­cu­lar fas­cism of Nazi Germany, the destruc­tion of bour­geois par­lia­men­tary demo­cracy, and the roll­back of Third Republic liberal reforms. He signed orders sanc­tioning the depor­ta­tion of foreign Jews from French soil to Nazi death camps. He was also the formal head of the sin­is­ter Milice fran­çaise. On Septem­ber 7, 1944, what was left of Pétain’s collab­o­ra­tionist govern­ment relocated to Sig­maringen, a Vichy enclave in South­western Germany. After falling into U.S. hands, Laval was turned over to the French provi­sional­ govern­ment in late July 1945. Tried for trea­son and vio­lating state secu­rity, he was con­victed and sen­tenced to death. After a failed attempt at sui­cide (the cya­nide had lost its full potency), Laval was executed, half-conscious and vomiting, by firing squad on October 15, 1945.

British Newsreel of Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain on First Day of Trail for Treason at Paris’s Palais de Justice, July 23, 1945

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