History of Europe

The Vichy regime (1940-1944)

The Vichy regime is the nickname given to the French State which succeeded the Third Republic following the defeat of May-June 1940. From July 10, 1940 to August 1944, France, defeated and occupied, was subjected to an authoritarian regime under the leadership of Marshal Petain who agrees to collaborate with the Nazis. The new regime reduced freedoms, pursued an anti-Semitic policy and developed far-right propaganda on the theme of the "National Revolution », the new motto "Work, family, fatherland" replacing the republican motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". Benefiting for a time from the support of a majority of the French population, the Vichy regime did not survive the liberation of France in 1944 and its main leaders, including Pétain, were tried and sentenced between 1945 and 1946.

Birth of the Vichy regime

The armistice signed on June 22, 1940 (in the same wagon in the clearing of Rethondes where the Germans had to sign that of November 11, 1918) constitutes the birth certificate of the regime from Vichy. It was he who designed the framework for the collaboration between the France of Pétain and the Germany of Hitler. The terms of the armistice are harsh:the French troops are disarmed, the war material is delivered to Germany, which also controls the French airfields.

Theoretically, the French state continues to exercise its sovereignty over the whole of French territory, although the France was then divided into seven distinct zones and most of the national territory was occupied by German troops, whose maintenance costs (400 million francs per day, a sum sufficient to support 10 million French soldiers ) are the responsibility of the French authorities. In the occupied French territory, the armistice stipulates that “all the authorities and all the French administrative services must conform to the regulations of the German military authorities and collaborate with them in a correct manner”. Potential hostages, the French prisoners are taken to Germany until the conclusion of peace.

A compromise?

How harsh they may be (even dishonoring since an article obliges France to hand over German political emigrants who have taken refuge in the southern zone), these clauses represent a German concession with regard to of France, which continues to have an independent government still having its empire, its fleet and a small army of 100,000 men. Such is the argument developed a posteriori by the thurifers of Vichy. De Gaulle was the sword. Pétain the shield, said many Vichystes after the Liberation. It is true that a first German armistice project was much more restrictive, since it provided for the occupation of the whole of France, the delivery of its navy and military bases in its colonies.

Actually. Hitler had opted for the other solution because it offered Germany multiple advantages. First, it exempted the Wehrmacht from setting up a direct military administration that was very costly in terms of men; it authorized the use for the benefit of the occupier of the French administration and, in particular, of the French police, which proved to be much more effective than its counterpart across the Rhine in hunting down resistance fighters; it finally made it possible to ensure the tranquility of the front in western Europe and in the French empire.

Also, for more than a year, the occupier took care not to appear on the front line in pursuit of various opponents. Even better, during the first months, the Germans prided themselves on having a “correct” attitude. Did they not go so far as to free, during the summer of 1940, several hundred Communist militants arrested during the phoney war and to enter into negotiations with the leadership of the P.C.F. whose goal is the legal reappearance of Humanity? Gradually, this correction towards the population and this leniency towards the Communists disappear.

In October 1940, the Gestapo authorized the Vichy police to arrest more than 200 Communist officials. On December 23, 1940, the first French person to be shot since June 1940, the engineer Jacques Bonsergent, who had intervened in a fight between a Frenchman and a German soldier and who was condemned for "an act of violence against a member of the army German "falls under the bullets of a firing squad.

The shootings will no longer stop but become more and more numerous after August 21, 1941. That day, Pierre Georges, later called Colonel Fabien, kills an officer German in the subway. This is the first communist attack recognized by the occupier. These multiply in the following weeks. In response, the Germans shot dozens of hostages:98 shot on October 22 and 23, 1941, 95 in December 1941, etc.

In this repression carried out by the occupier, part of the French police participate without counting. Organizations specializing in the fight against "terrorists" are formed (special brigades) whose interrogation methods have nothing to envy to those of the Gestapo.

Towards a collaboration policy

Vichy France's policy of active collaboration is carried out by the French government, while Hitler is not a strong supporter of it. Indeed, Nazi Germany was more concerned with economic collaboration, which should allow the Third Reich to requisition foodstuffs on French territory and to receive compensation. State collaboration is indeed a French initiative:the objective is to integrate France into Hitler's future "New Europe". It was with Pétain's speech on October 11, 1940 that the first bases for political collaboration were laid, the French head of state declaring "to seek collaboration in all areas". Laval then decides to organize a meeting between Hitler and Pétain. It takes place in Montoire, October 24, 1940, and the handshake between the two men symbolizes the beginning of state collaboration.

In December 1940, Laval was removed from power and replaced as vice-president by Pierre-Étienne Flandin for a few month. But it was with Admiral Darlan that Vichy really embarked on the path of collaboration. Indeed, in May 1941, the Paris Protocols were signed, which granted Germany maritime and air bases in Syria, French West Africa and Tunisia, in exchange for a reduction in the daily allowance paid by the France. However, contrary to the government's hopes, the Third Reich refused to restore French sovereignty over the entire territory, and the collaboration then appeared to be a fool's bargain.

The National Revolution

The Vichy regime is not only a refusal (that of continuing the fight and, consequently, the will to hunt down the resistance fighters), it also defends a project:to rebuild France far from the mistakes of the past, brought to a climax during the Popular Front. As early as June 20, 1940, Pétain proclaimed:“Since the victory, the spirit of enjoyment has prevailed over the spirit of sacrifice. We claimed more than we served. We wanted to save effort; today we encounter misfortune. »

For the Marshal and his supporters, the debacle is no accident. On the one hand, it is the fund of the nationalist right and the French extreme right. It advocates a return to the land and exalts traditional values:Work (unions are dissolved, strikes and lockouts prohibited), Family (work by women is discouraged, abortion is punishable by death, divorce made more difficult), the Fatherland (bad French people, such as Communists, Freemasons and Jews, are excluded from the national community).

Wanting, by all means, to demonstrate that it wielded power over the whole of French territory, Vichy was led to collaborate more and more with the occupier and to participate closely the maintenance of the German war machine and the repression against resistance fighters. Already, in the summer of 1940, Pétain had not protested against the de facto annexation of Alsace and Moselle.

Indisputably, for a whole period, Marshal Pétain was extremely popular among the French population. However, the object of this popular cult is not the supporter of collaboration but the winner of Verdun. Traumatized, public opinion seeks refuge with a prestigious Father in whom, moreover, the Church grants all its confidence:"Pétain is France, and France is Pétain," declared the Cardinal- Archbishop of Lyon, Monsignor Gerlier. From 1940, public opinion was very anti-German and Anglophile. Moreover, from 1941, the French were almost unanimously convinced that German defeat was near.

Disavowal of opinion

Of course, the first concern of the French throughout this period is that of their daily life:food and heating. Rationing, in spite of its procession of tickets, its eleven categories and its continual queues, does not ensure the daily food of a family and, to escape the indigestion of the rutabaga and to obtain the number of calories necessary, it is necessary, for the city dwellers, to resort from time to time to the black market or to rural relations.

Of course, not everyone is in the same boat:the wealthy can, by paying the price, get what they want and the black market generates also its profiteers. But, for the first time in a long time, the average Frenchman was then cold and hungry. This inability of the Vichy regime to ensure supplies has something to do with the progressive detachment of public opinion.

From now on, many French people listen to London, the newspapers of the Resistance begin to circulate, the first networks are formed. All of this is still only very marginal, but public opinion is no longer amorphous or hostile as in the early days of the Occupation. In this regard, 1942 represents an extremely important date and three events punctuate this reversal of opinion. On April 16, 1942, Admiral Darlan, number 2 of the regime, was replaced, under German pressure, by Pierre Laval.

The former socialist deputy gradually reconverted to the right, the former signatory of the Franco-Soviet pact of 1935 who became the cantor of anti-Sovietism declaims, two months after his appointment, his shock formula:"I wish victory for Germany, because without her, Bolshevism would take hold everywhere." The French are deeply shocked by this statement by the head of government. In the same way they are affected by the great raids of the summer of 1942 against the Jews, which mark the decline of anti-Semitism, hitherto mainly widespread in the population.

The anti-Semitic policy of the Vichy government

The first attacks on equality between Jews and non-Jews were carried out not by the German authorities but by the Vichy regime. From October 3, 1940, even before the Hitler-Pétain handshake in Montoire on October 24, 1940, Jews of French nationality were given a special status, which officially excluded them from the public service, the judiciary and the army and, unofficially, the liberal professions and the University. This text is based on racial and not religious criteria. In June 1941, decrees aggravated this legislation, for example by limiting the percentage of Jewish doctors or dentists to 2%, to 3% that of Jewish students, etc.

Faced with such initiatives, the Germans in no way limited their own anti-Semitic measures:in December 1941, 743 notable French Jews were arrested, then deported in March 1942. During the same period, a whole series of vexatious measures were imposed on the Jews:wearing a yellow star, no bends, entering a public place (cinema, square...), using only the last subway car, etc.

Vichy did not aim to exterminate the Jewish people but it too participated in the holocaust. At the request of the Germans, on July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police arrested 13,000 foreign Jews residing in the occupied zone during the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. These are parked in the Vélodrome d’hiver in Paris, then in the Drancy camp before being deported to Germany. A month later, the French police organized new raids, in the unoccupied zone this time. Then the French Jews will also be arrested and deported. In total, out of approximately 350,000 Jews living in France before the war, nearly 80,000 were deported, a third of whom were French. Among them, more than 10,000 children and adolescents deported at the request of Vichy. 97% of these Jews arrested in France and deported did not return from the camps.

The turning point of 1942

November 11, 1942 marked a turning point for the Vichy regime. That day, in response to the Anglo-American landings of November 8 in North Africa, the Wehrmacht violated the armistice agreements and invaded the southern zone. In Montpellier, General de Lattre de Tassigny, commanding the military division, decided to resist and tried, without success, to train his officers and soldiers for action against the Wehrmacht. He is arrested and imprisoned in Clermont-Ferrand. But this attitude is well isolated:Pétain and the officers leading the 100,000 men of the armistice army decide not to react. In his report, the German official reports to Hitler:“The French army, loyal, helps the troops. The French police are eager and full of goodwill. From then on, the popular belief in the Marshal's double game vanished.

Far from breaking away from Germany as the Occupation regime hardened, Vichy takes the opposite approach. However, Pétain and Laval no longer really have maps to negotiate:North Africa is in the hands of the Allies, the French fleet, which was scuttled in November 1942 so as not to be taken by the Germans, no longer exists. . So Hitler increases his demands:the deportations of Jews are accelerating and the deliveries of labor are intensifying, in order to replace the German workers who have become soldiers.

After relying on volunteerism, the promise of high salaries or the desire to see prisoners return (a prisoner was released when three French workers left for Germany), Laval establishes the S.T.O. At the same time, the economic exploitation of France increases; in 1943, a third of the national income was paid to the Reich. Collaboration even tends to become political and military. On the political level, in 1944, real fascists entered the government:Marcel Déat was appointed minister, as well as two members of the Militia, one of whom became responsible for maintaining order.

The Militia, founded in January 1943, is a parallel police force subsidized by the state and placed under the authority of the head of government. The militiamen (who numbered 33,000 in 1944, including 10,000 with real activity) had to be volunteers, French by birth and “non-Jews”. Engaged in fighting against the F.F.I., the Militia administered summary justice and multiplied executions and assassinations, for example those of the president of the League of Human Rights, Victor Basch, aged eighty, and his wife, as well as those of former Israelite ministers Jean Zay and Georges Mandel. Vichy had begun its existence under the sign of guilt-inducing paternalism; he completes it under that of bloody repression.

The fall of the Vichy regime

After the June 1944 landings, the government of Marshal Pétain no longer had much authority. Laval chairs a last Council of Ministers on August 17; then Pétain was taken by the Germans to Belfort, then to Sigmaringen. Joined by Laval, Déat, Doriot, Darnand... Pétain, half-hostage, half-volunteer, would become the moral leader of an illusory French government in exile, from October 1944 to April 1945.

The approach of French troops will cause the dispersal of this shadow government, and Philippe Pétain will decide to surrender. He will cross Switzerland on April 24 to go to France. He will be imprisoned on April 26, 1945 at Fort Montrouge, tried and sentenced to death (his sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment by General De Gaulle, then head of the provisional government of the French Republic). Other Vichy officials and supporters (Darnand, Laval, Brasillach, etc.) were also sentenced between 1945 and 1946.

Described as illegitimate, the Vichy government and regime have long been considered a constitutional parenthesis that exempted the French state from any responsibility for acts committed during this period, including the persecution of the Jews. This dark period of our history, which has permanently fractured French society, has for several decades been the subject of patient - and not always serene - memorial work on the part of historians.

In 1995, a speech by the President of the Republic Jacques Chirac recognized the responsibility of the French authorities and therefore of the State in the deportation of Jews to German extermination camps .


- The Vichy regime, by Henry Rousso. PUF, 2019.

- The Vichy regime:1940-1944, by Marc Olivier Baruch. Text, 2017.

- Vichy France, 1940-1944, by Robert O. Paxton. History Points, 1999.