On November 8, 1942, in the thick of World War II, thousands of American soldiers landed on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, while others amassed in Algeria, only to take immediate gunfire from the French. Needless to say, it marked the end of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vichy government installed in France during WWII.
The invasion of North Africa—a joint venture between the United Kingdom and the United States known as Operation Torch—was intended to open up another front of the war, but the colonial power in the region was France, purportedly a neutral party in World War II. After all, France had signed an armistice with Adolf Hitler on June 22, 1940, within weeks of being overrun by German soldiers. Yet as the National Interest reports, “Instead of welcoming [the Americans] with brass bands, as one sergeant predicted, Vichy France’s colonial forces fought back with everything they had.”
Today the term “Vichy France” is bandied about in discussions of French politics, American politics, and Islamist extremism. But what exactly was the Vichy regime? Were they hapless puppets of the Nazis, or genocidal collaborators? Was it the lesser of two evils—the choice between partial and total occupation—or a government that reflected the will of the people? To answer these questions and more, dive into the story of Vichy France, the government that ruled from June 1940 till August 1944.
How did Vichy France come to be? When France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, the French military spent eight months watching and waiting for the first strike. The so-called “Phoney War” ended abruptly in May, when Germany’s Blitzkrieg burst upon the French. Within weeks, the Germans had pushed their way deep into France, and the French government was forced to make an impossible decision: regroup in their North African colonies and keep fighting, or sign an armistice with Germany.
While Prime Minister Paul Reynaud argued they should keep fighting, the majority of government officials felt otherwise. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, and by July 9 parliament had voted 569 to 80 to abandon the previous government, the Third Republic. The parliament also voted to give Chief of State Marshal Philippe Pétain, a World War I hero, full and extraordinary powers. As Julia Pascal writes in the Guardian, “The Republic’s liberté, égalité, fraternité was replaced with Pétain’s travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland).” While parliament was essentially dissolved after this vote, the bureaucratic system in place from the Third Republic largely remained to enact the policies Pétain put in place.
The German troops occupied the northern half of the country, taking 2 million French soldiers as prisoners of war, while the French government worked from its new base in Vichy, a spa city in the center of the country. Most nations recognized the Vichy government as legitimate; the U.S. sent William Leahy as an ambassador, and Leahy served in that position until May 1942. Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle objected to the legitimacy of the Vichy government from London, where he began working for the Free French movement.
Was Vichy a fascist regime? The break from the Third Republic came about in part due to the shock and humiliation of being so rapidly bested by the German military, and French leaders were looking everywhere for an explanation for their defeat. That blame fell squarely on the shoulders of Communists, socialists and Jews. Jewish people in particular had been experiencing animosity for decades, since the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s. All three elements were believed to have taken advantage of the liberalization that occurred during the Third Republic, but France’s violent streak of anti-Semitism didn’t necessarily make Vichy a fascist regime.
“I think the best term for them is authoritarian,” says historian Robert Paxton, the author of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. “It doesn’t act like a fascist regime because traditionally elites have to give way, and in authoritarianism they retain power. But all the foreign Jews were put into camps, they cracked down on dissent, and it was in some ways increasingly a police state.”
Pétain wanted to return to a more conservative mode of life, and to that end there were strong prohibitions against divorce, abortion was made a capital offense, the press was censored, phone calls were monitored and critics of the government were imprisoned. He ruled with absolute power until 1942, when Germany took over the previously unoccupied “Free Zone” in southern France and began managing affairs more directly.
Did the regime collaborate with Nazis out of self-preservation, or did it have its own agenda? The misconception that the Vichy Regime was the lesser of two evils endured only for the first few decades after the war. Since then, as more archival material has come to light, historians have gradually come to see the collaborators as willing participants in the Holocaust. Before the Nazis ever demanded the Vichy government participate in anti-Semitic policies, the French had enacted policies that removed Jews from civil service and began seizing Jewish property. “The Vichy French government participated willingly in the deportations and did most of the arresting,” Paxton says. “The arrests of foreign Jews often involved separating families from their children, sometimes in broad daylight, and it had a very powerful effect on public opinion and began to turn opinion against Pétain.”
One particularly notable roundup was July 1942’s Vel d’Hiv, the largest deportation of Jews from France that would occur during the war. Among the 13,000 Jews arrested and deported to Auschwitz were 4,000 children—removed with their parents for “humanitarian” reasons, according to French Prime Minister Pierre Laval. If they stayed behind, he reasoned, who would care for them? All told, the Vichy regime helped deport 75,721 Jewish refugees and French citizens to death camps, according to the BBC.
Did the French public support the Vichy leaders? It’s a complicated question, since the Vichy government was in power for four years. As Michael Curtis writes in , “The Vichy regime seemed to have early popular support, while the Resistance was at first limited. If there had been a public referendum, the French people, in a state of confusion after the military defeat, concerned with material interests, and distressed by the German occupation of the north of the country, might well have approved of Vichy. At one extreme there was great brutality, especially by the violently anti-Semitic paramilitary Milice, while on the hand the number of protestors and heroic resistors against Vichy and the Nazis grew larger throughout the war.”
Paxton agrees that support waned over the course of the German occupation, but also points out the public overwhelmingly supported Pétain’s regime at the start. And while the Resistance began early on in the start of the war, “resisters were always a minority,” writes Robert Gildea in .
What’s the legacy of Vichy France today? As France has slowly come to terms with its role in the Holocaust and the willing collaboration of the Vichy government, citizens have struggled with what that legacy means for them. It wasn’t until 1995 that a French president (Jacques Chirac) acknowledged the state’s role.
“It’s an extremely emotional burden on the French people,” Paxton says. “[Vichy] is seen more negatively than before and affects almost every French family whose grandparents either supported it or held office.”
More recently, French president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on France’s role in the genocide, denouncing his political opponents on the far right who dismiss the Vichy government. “It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it’s convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie,”Macron said in July.