Allan Massie: France Finally Forgets Vichy

[Allan Massie is a journalist.]

The Fifth French Republic, the creation of General de Gaulle, is 50 years old. Of the many regimes since the Revolution of 1789 only the Third Republic (1871–1940) enjoyed a longer life. Nicolas Sarkozy is its sixth President, only four years older than the Republic itself, the first of its leaders to be free of the divisive wartime memories and the crisis that led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and gave birth to the Fifth. This freedom represents Sarkozy’s opportunity.

The Fifth Republic was born in anxiety and fear. De Gaulle was recalled to power as “the most illustrious of Frenchmen” because the Fourth Republic (1946–58) – the “regime of the parties” – was on the point of collapse, threatened by insurrection in Algeria and the prospect of a military coup.

When, in the troubled days before de Gaulle resumed office, the President of the National Assembly, André Le Troquer, spoke of his fear that the General would establish a dictatorship, de Gaulle replied: “Well, if parliament follows you, I shall have no alternative but to let you have it out with the paratroops, while I go back into retirement and shut myself up with my grief.” Parliament knuckled under. De Gaulle became the last Prime Minister of the Fourth Republic and was granted the authority to devise a new constitution.

In 1940 de Gaulle had been a rebel. Now he was a ruler, with greater authority than he had been granted in 1944–46. Yet there were resemblances between the manner in which the Vichy state against which he had rebelled, and which had condemned him to death, had come into being and that in which he now returned to power. And there were also resemblances between Vichy itself and his Fifth Republic, closer resemblances than he cared to recognise. In 1940 as in 1958, the Republic in crisis turned to a strong man as the saviour of France.

There was a case for Vichy, though de Gaulle never admitted it. The Battle of France had been lost. The generals had failed, but so had the politicians. The Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned, and in his place the President of the Republic invited Marshal Pétain to form a government. Pétain, believing, like the commander-in-chief, General Wey­gand, that the defeat was irreversible, had already called for an armistice. This was granted and France was divided into a zone occupied by the German army and an unoccupied zone in which the French government would retain full authority.

The National Assembly removed to Vichy in the unoccupied zone and, prompted by Pierre Laval, voted by a huge majority (569 to 80) to accord “all powers to the Government of the Republic under the authority and the signature of Marshal Pétain, for the purpose of promulgating, by one or several decrees, a new Constitution of the French State”.

This was very similar to the authority granted de Gaulle in 1958, although in his case the majority in favour was smaller.

In 1940 Pétain was what President Coty of the Fourth Republic called de Gaulle: “the most illustrious of Frenchmen”. He was the “Hero of Verdun”, the commander who cared for the ordinary soldiers and was reluctant to engage in bloody offensives. Both Left and Right admired him and, although he despised politicians and “the regime of the parties”, he served in several of the fleeting governments of the 1930s. Always inclined to pessimism, distrustful of the British, he had been very quick to decide that the war was lost and an armistice necessary, in order to maintain the French Army in being and to prevent the German occupation of the whole of France. Urged to leave France and continue the war from north Africa, he said: “I consider it my duty to remain with the French people. Whatever happens, I won’t leave.” He was to keep this promise, disastrously for himself.

Like de Gaulle, Pétain was a man of the north, in his case Picardy. “To understand the Marshal,” his Interior Minister, Marcel Peyrouton, said, “it was necessary to know the French peasant”. Pétain had the peasant’s strength, his sense of the concrete and his intensely conservative instinct. In 1940 he felt himself to be France – just as de Gaulle believed that he embodied the nation.

The two men had long been associated. Pétain advanced de Gaulle’s career against conservative army opposition, even though their views on the conduct of war were diametrically opposed. He employed de Gaulle to write books and articles for him. The intimacy faded, ending in disagreement, well before 1940. More than once de Gaulle later said that the Marshal “was an exceptional man. He was an exceptional leader. I have not changed my mind. Unfortunately for France and for himself he died in 1925 and he did not know it.”

There was no single Vichy. It was not a Fascist regime. There were indeed French Fascists who were ready to work for a German conquest of Europe, but they were mostly based in Paris and regarded Vichy with impatience and contempt. The Marshal’s government was rightwing and authoritarian – pre-Fascist. The veteran royalist ideologue Charles Maurras hailed Pétain’s coming to power as “a divine surprise”, but Maurras was as anti-German as he was anti-­British. Those around the Marshal planned a “National Revolution”. The Republican slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, was replaced by a new triad: “Work, Family, Fatherland”.

At one level the National Revolution was backward-looking: a revulsion from modernity, stressing the virtues of rural life. Church leaders were mostly pro-Vichy, though Pétain himself was scarcely a model Catholic. It was hostile to capitalism, in favour of artisan workshops and small businesses; anti-communist and ready to equate Socialism with Bolshevism; anti-semitic – there was no need for the Nazis to prompt Vichy to enact anti-Jewish laws. On another level some officials at Vichy were modernising technocrats. Much of their work would be carried on after the war by governments of the Fourth Republic.

Despising the “regime of the parties”, Vichy and Gaullism were at one in agreeing that governments must govern, that the constitution of the Third Republic made this impossible, and that the executive must be strengthened...

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