Philippe Pétain, born on April 24, 1856 in Cauchy-à-la-Tour (Pas-de-Calais) and died in captivity on July 23, 1951 on the island of Yeu (Vendée), was a French soldier, diplomat and statesman. Elevated to the dignity of Marshal of France in 1918, he was struck with national indignity and stripped of his military distinction in 1945.
A career soldier who had distinguished himself at the École de guerre from the dominant doctrine of the excessive offensive, he was about to end his career as a colonel when the Great War broke out in 1914. A military leader with a major impact, he is generally presented as the winner of the Battle of Verdun and, along with Georges Clemenceau, as the architect of the recovery of troop morale after the mutinies of 1917. Replacing Nivelle in May 1917, he remained commander-in-chief of the French forces until the end of the war, although he was placed under the orders of his rival Ferdinand Foch, who was appointed generalissimo of the Allied troops after the break-up of the front on March 28, 1918.
With immense prestige after the war, he was the head of the post-war army. In 1925, he personally commanded the French forces fighting alongside Spain in the Rif war, replacing Marshal Lyautey. He became an academician in 1929, and was Minister of War from February to November 1934, before being appointed ambassador to Spain in 1939, when the country was ruled by General Franco.
Recalled to the government on May 17, 1940, after the beginning of the German invasion, he opposed the continuation of a war that he considered lost and for which he soon blamed the Republican regime. He became President of the Council, replacing Paul Reynaud, on June 16; the next day, he called for a halt to the fighting. In accordance with Adolf Hitler”s wishes, he had the armistice signed with the Third Reich on June 22, 1940, in Rethondes. On July 10, 1940, he was invested with full constituent powers by the National Assembly, and the next day, at the age of 84, he granted himself the title of “Head of the French State. He kept this position during the four years of the occupation of France by Nazi Germany.
Installed in the free zone in Vichy at the head of an authoritarian regime, he abolished republican institutions and fundamental freedoms, dissolved trade unions and political parties, and introduced anti-masonic and anti-Semitic legislation in August-October 1940. He committed the country to the National Revolution and to collaboration with Nazi Germany. The “Vichy regime”, which he led until July 1944, was declared “illegitimate, null and void” by General de Gaulle at the Liberation.
Taken against his will by the Germans to Sigmaringen and then to Switzerland, where he surrendered to the French authorities, Philippe Pétain was tried for intelligence with the enemy and high treason by the High Court of Justice in July 1945. He was struck with national indignity and sentenced to confiscation of his property and to the death penalty. Although the court recommended that the death penalty not be applied because of his advanced age, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by General de Gaulle. He died on the island of Yeu, where he was buried.
Youth and training
Henri Philippe Bénoni Omer Pétain was born on April 24, 1856 in Cauchy-à-la-Tour, into a family of farmers who had been living in the town since the 18th century. He was the son of Omer-Venant Pétain (1816-1888) and Clotilde Legrand (1824-1857). He had four sisters, Marie-Françoise Clotilde (1852-1950), Adélaïde (1853-1919), Sara (1854-1940) and Joséphine (1857-1862). His mother died and his father remarried to Marie-Reine Vincent. Three other children, half-brothers and sisters, were born: Élisabeth (1860-1952), Antoine (1861-1948).
Although his birth certificate bears the first names Henri, Philippe, Bénoni, Omer, it is Philippe that he chooses and, throughout his life, he takes care to rectify.
His mother-in-law neglected the children of her husband”s first marriage and Philippe Pétain shut himself up, not speaking until he was three years old. He was raised by his grandparents; his grandmother taught him to read. In 1867, at the age of 11, he entered the Saint-Bertin college located in Saint-Omer, thirty kilometers from Cauchy, and showed qualities in geometry, Greek, and English. The family was marked by Catholicism. Philippe served daily mass as an altar boy. A member of the family was canonized in 1881 by Leo XIII; one of his uncles and two of his great-uncles were abbots.
This environment influenced Philippe Pétain; marked at the age of 14 by the defeat of 1870, he decided to become a soldier. His uncle, Father Legrand, introduced him to the lord of the village of Bomy, Édouard Moullart de Vilmarest, who wanted to finance the studies of a young villager who was destined for a military career. Philippe Pétain prepared for the Saint-Cyr school at the Dominican College in Arcueil (1875), where he entered in 1876.
At the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, he was in the Plewna class, along with Viscount Charles de Foucauld, future Blessed, and Antoine Manca de Vallombrosa, future adventurer. He entered among the last (403rd out of 412) and left in the middle of the class (229th out of 336).
Five years as a second lieutenant, seven years as a lieutenant, ten years as a captain (promoted in 1890), he slowly climbed the military ladder. In 1888, he was admitted to the École supérieure de guerre and graduated two years later as a staff officer in the 56th rank.
Several young women from good families (Antoinette Berthelin, Angéline Guillaume, Lucie Delarue, Marie-Louise Regard) refuse his marriage proposals, because he is still only a junior officer.
He had many mistresses and often frequented brothels.
Personal views before the war
Raised as a Catholic, but with a personal “garrison” life, confronted with a certain morgue from his superiors and “good families”, Pétain remained discreet about his opinions, in the spirit of the “grande muette”. His career was slow in the rather aristocratic army of the 1890s. During the Dreyfus Affair, Captain Pétain was not anti-Dreyfus; later, he told his civilian chief of staff Henry du Moulin de Labarthète: “I have always believed, for my part, in Dreyfus” innocence. However, he considered that Dreyfus had defended himself poorly and that his conviction was logical: the idea that Félix Gustave Saussier and Jean Casimir-Perier had condemned Dreyfus knowing him to be innocent would have tormented him, even scandalized him according to the two Petainist ministers, Henri Moysset and Lucien Romier. In any case, he did not participate in the subscription for the “Henry monument”, opened by the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole, of Édouard Drumont, for the widow of Colonel Henry, who was responsible for the condemnation of Captain Dreyfus by his forgeries.
Philippe Pétain was promoted during the period of “republicanization of the army” that followed the Dreyfus Affair: aide-de-camp to Joseph Brugère, a republican general appointed as military governor of Paris by Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau”s government of republican defense in order to reduce the anti-Dreyfus influence in the army.
However, the military man Pétain was not very involved in the political life of the time, and remained very discreet about his personal opinions. Unlike many military men, he did not get involved at any time, neither during the affair of the files in 1904 nor during the debates on the separation of Church and State in 1905.
This image of a republican military man of no party will persist in the inter-war period. He does not seem to have had any anti-Semitic expression before 1938 (in 1919, he signed a petition asking to “come to the aid of the oppressed Jewish masses in Eastern Europe” and in 1938, another against the persecutions in Germany).
At the beginning of his military career, Philippe Pétain was assigned to various garrisons, but did not participate in any of the colonial campaigns.
In 1900, as a battalion commander, he was appointed instructor at the École normale de tir at the Châlons-sur-Marne camp. He was opposed to the official doctrine of the time, which was that the intensity of the shot should take precedence over precision, and which favored bayonet attacks for the infantry and excessive pursuit for the cavalry. On the contrary, he advocated the use of cannons for preparations and artillery barrages, in order to allow the progression of the infantry, which had to be able to fire precisely at individual targets. The director of the school points out the “power of dialectic” with which he defends such adventurous theses.
In 1901, he was appointed assistant professor at the École supérieure de guerre, in Paris, where he distinguished himself by his original tactical ideas. He was there again from 1904 to 1907, then from 1908 to 1911, taking over the chair of infantry tactics from Adolphe Guillaumat.
He then violently protested against the dogma of the defensive prescribed by the instruction of 1867, “the offensive alone being able to lead to victory”. But he also criticized the military instruction code of 1901, which advocated charging in large units, bayonet to the gun, a tactic that was partly responsible for the thousands of deaths in August and September 1914. Humiliated by the defeat of 1870, the staffs were willing to show bravado and revenge. From 1911 onwards, the General Staff advocated an all-out offensive. Pétain, on the other hand, advocated maneuver, material power, movement and initiative: “fire kills”. Thus, he declared to a student officer: “Accomplish your mission at all costs. Get killed if you have to, but if you can fulfill your duty and still stay alive, I like that better.” Among the officers under his command, on October 20, 1912, he was the first commanding officer of Charles de Gaulle, then a second lieutenant in the 33rd Infantry Regiment stationed in Arras.
In September 1913, having to comment, before the assembled officers, on an exercise conceived by General Gallet, who, during maneuvers, had bayoneted machine gun nests, which naturally fired blanks, Colonel Pétain replied that the general commanding the 1st infantry division had just shown, in order to strike the spirits, all the errors that a modern army should no longer commit. After having detailed the firepower of the German weapons, he concluded with : “It is by fire that one must destroy the objective before seizing it. Gentlemen, never forget that fire kills!”
In November 1913, Franchet d”Esperey was appointed commander of the 1st army corps in Lille to replace the anticlerical General Henri Crémer. In January 1914, Franchet d”Esperey appointed Colonel Pétain to fill the vacancy of General de Préval, commander of the 3rd infantry brigade in Arras, who had left the active army due to health problems.
On March 28, 1914, by permutation with General Deligny, Philippe Pétain was appointed to command the 4th infantry brigade, which was composed of two regiments, the 8th infantry regiment garrisoned in Saint-Omer, Calais and Boulogne and the 110th infantry regiment garrisoned in Dunkirk, Bergues and Gravelines. The command of the 33rd infantry regiment was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel Stirn.
When he arrived in Saint-Omer, Philippe Pétain, although an excellent rider, had a bad fall from his horse. Doctor Louis Ménétrel (Bernard Ménétrel”s father) forbade amputation and saved Pétain”s left leg.
Adolphe Messimy, who had become Minister of War again on 12 June and who had taken General Guillaumat as his military chief of staff, sent a refusal on 24 July to General Anthoine, who had come to ask for Pétain”s appointment to the rank of general.
His biographers identify this lack of recognition as one of the elements structuring Pétain”s personality. At the age of 58, in July 1914, Colonel Philippe Pétain was preparing to retire after a relatively modest career.
Promotion of the General of the 1914-1918 war
At the beginning of the First World War, on August 3, 1914, he distinguished himself at the head of the 4th infantry brigade by covering General Lanrezac”s retreat into Belgium. He was one of the officers quickly promoted at the beginning of the war to replace those who had failed: on August 31, 1914, he commanded the 6th infantry division at the head of which he took part in the battle of the Marne (during which he advised on the use of artillery and aviation).
He became a major general on September 14.
Appointed on October 20, 1914 as a corps commander, he took command of the 33rd Corps. Assigned to the sector of the front where he had grown up, he carried out brilliant actions during the offensive in Artois, making the only breakthrough on May 9, 1915, which he rightly considered could not be exploited. In June 1915, he was promoted to command the 2nd army. Having openly disapproved of Joffre”s offensive in Champagne, he was in command of one of the two armies involved. He obtained the best successes and stopped the offensive when the losses became significant. His concern to spare their lives made him popular among his men.
Battle of Verdun
Under the orders of the future Marshal Joffre and General de Castelnau, he was one of the eight commanders at the Battle of Verdun, serving from February 25 to April 19, 1916. His organizational skills, supported by a real charisma, were not unrelated to the victorious outcome of the battle, eight months later, even if the tenacity of his troops, like that of Major Raynal at Vaux Fort, was the decisive factor. His strategic vision of the battle made him understand that the best soldier in the world, if he is not supplied, evacuated in case of injury or relieved after hard fighting, is finally defeated.
Pétain set up a rotation of combatants. He sent exhausted regiments to rest and had them replaced by fresh troops. He organized norias of ambulances, ammunition trucks and supplies on what became known as the “Sacred Way” (Maurice Barrès” term). Understanding the value of aviation in the fighting, he created the first air fighter division in March 1916 to clear the skies over Verdun. He reaffirmed this vision in an instruction of December 1917: “The air force must ensure aerial protection of the tank action zone against observation and bombing by enemy aircraft.
From this period, he earned the title of “victor of Verdun”, even if this appellation was mostly exploited later, under the Vichy regime. This bachelor received more than 4,500 letters from admirers during the first world conflict.
However, Joffre, Foch and Clemenceau attributed the victory at Verdun to Nivelle and Mangin. Some criticize Pétain for his pessimism. In fact, as Pétain”s reputation grew among the soldiers after Nivelle”s mistakes (in 1917), there were two traditions of the Verdun victory, as Marc Ferro, Pétain”s biographer, writes: “that of the military and political leaders, who credited it to Nivelle, and that of the combatants, who only knew Pétain.
On December 25, 1916, General Nivelle, crowned by the recapture of the forts of Vaux and Douaumont, took command of the French armies, while Joffre, who had been appointed Marshal, was in charge of the North-Eastern front. General Pétain was appointed Chief of the General Staff, a position specially created for him. He was opposed to Nivelle, who was not very sparing with the blood of his men, and whose strategy of excessive offensive contrasts with Pétain”s pragmatism.
Nivelle”s command led to the Battle of the Chemin des Dames in mid-April 1917: 100,000 men were put out of action on the French side in one week. Although the French had not broken through, discontent was growing, leading to mutinies in many units. Nivelle was dismissed, and Pétain found himself in a position to succeed him, thanks to his reputation at Verdun and his positions aimed at limiting losses. On 15 May 1917, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Armies. His command sought to restore the confidence of the troops by improving the living conditions of the soldiers, by granting more liberal leave, by putting an end to ill-prepared offensives, and by condemning the mutineers, of whom only a minority of the leaders would be shot, despite the demands of some politicians.
In order not to waste soldiers” lives, he launched more limited offensives, all of which were victorious. He took back from the Germans during the second battle of Verdun in August 1917 all the ground lost in 1916. He took back the Chemin des Dames ridge during the Battle of Malmaison in October 1917.
On March 21, 1918, the Germans broke the British front in Picardy, threatening Amiens. Pétain was a possible candidate for the title of generalissimo of the Allied troops, but, with the support of the British, Clemenceau, who considered him too defensive and pessimistic, preferred Foch, a supporter of the offensive, at the Doullens conference of March 26. At this conference, Douglas Haig, representing the British and supported by the American representative, demanded and obtained that Pétain be excluded from the inter-allied staff. Foch, who had been responsible for coordinating the Allied troops, was now its supreme commander. But each commander of a national army retained the right to appeal any of Foch”s decisions to his government. Pétain retained his role as general-in-chief of the French armies, but in fact came under Foch”s orders.
On May 27, 1918, the Germans broke through the French front at the Chemin des Dames, as General Duchêne, who was under the protection of Foch, refused to apply the defensive doctrine prescribed by Pétain, which consisted of transforming the first defensive position into a line of alert and disorganization, in order to postpone firm resistance to the second position a few kilometers behind. The French army was forced to retrograde on the Marne. Pétain advised caution, while Foch chose the counter-offensive, which proved to be victorious in July. Foch was unable to reach Pétain directly and had his major general, General Anthoine, dismissed. On 22 June 1918, the War Committee withdrew Pétain”s right to appeal to the government in the event of disagreement with Foch, as he had refused to sanction Anthoine. On 30 June, the appointment of General Buat as major general was imposed by Foch and Clemenceau on Buat and Pétain in order to make relations between Foch”s and Pétain”s staffs more flexible and efficient, in the hope that the French army would obey Foch directly.
In August 1918, the military medal was awarded to Pétain: “A soldier at heart, he has never ceased to give dazzling proof of the purest spirit of duty and high abnegation. Has just acquired imperishable titles to national recognition by breaking the German rush and victoriously driving it back”.
In October 1918, he prepared a great offensive that would have led Franco-American troops to Germany. This great offensive, planned for November 13, did not take place: against his advice, Foch and Clemenceau agreed to sign the armistice requested by the Germans on November 11.
At the request of the officers of the GQG, Marshal Foch approached the President of the Council, Georges Clemenceau, on 17 November 1918. On November 19, 1918, General Pétain learned by telephone at noon that he was going to be awarded the Marshal”s baton, and then, in the early afternoon, he watched, impassive on his white horse, followed by General Buat and twenty-five officers of the GQG, as the troops of the 10th Army officially entered Metz through the Serpenoise gate to the cheers of a jubilant crowd.
Pétain was elevated to the dignity of Marshal of France by decree on November 21, 1918 (published in the Journal officiel on the 22nd). He received his marshal”s baton in Metz on December 8, 1918.
He is one of the very few leading military actors of the Great War to have never wanted to publish his war memoirs. In 2014, an unpublished manuscript by Philippe Pétain was published, which recounts the conflict as Pétain had lived it. The various testimonies about him, “beyond the inevitable references to the great soldier concerned about the lives of his men, emphasize his secretive character, his lack of humor, his coldness, his marmoreal appearance, a term that often returns under the pen of the various authors.” The historian Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac reminds us that “Pétain was, from 1914-1918, a leader of a pessimism that Clemenceau considered intolerable, although he always covered it up.
Popular, covered with honors (on April 12, 1919, he was elected member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences), married (on September 14, 1920, at the age of 64, to Eugenie Hardon, 42 years old and with no descendants), Pétain progressively became the main reference for veterans during the interwar period, taking advantage of the sidelining and deaths of the other marshals.
He remained head of the army until 1931 (dismissing Joffre and then Foch, whom he succeeded at the French Academy), regardless of the political regime in place (in 1924, at the time of the cartel of the left, he opposed the hypothesis of a military coup d”état envisaged by Lyautey, whom he dismissed from Morocco by intervening personally during the Rif war in support of Franco). He had a major influence on the reorganization of the army, surrounded by a cabinet of which de Gaulle was one of the leaders.
However, from 1929 onwards, his opposition to Maginot pushed him out of the leadership of the armies in favour of the generation of Foch”s collaborators (Weygand). He relied on his popularity with the Leagues to obtain, after February 6, 1934, the Ministry of War, to which he could not return in 1935 or during the Popular Front. The Chautemps cabinet chose him as ambassador to Franco after the end of the Spanish war until June 1940.
General-in-Chief of the French Army (he remained so until February 9, 1931), he estimated in 1919 that 6,875 tanks were needed to defend the territory (3,075 tanks in front-line regiments, 3,000 tanks in reserve at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief and 800 tanks to replace damaged units).
He writes: “It is heavy, but the future is the maximum of men under the armor”.
From 1919 to 1929, with the presence of a friend as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (General Buat until 1923, then after his death General Debeney), he opposed the construction of defensive fortifications, advocating instead the constitution of a powerful mechanized battle corps capable of carrying the fight as far as possible into enemy territory from the very first days of the war. He managed to remain the main instigator of the strategy, obtaining, in June 1922, the resignation of Marshal Joffre from the presidency of the Commission for the Study of the Organization of the Defense of the Territory, created fifteen days earlier, and opposing, during the session of the High Council of the War on December 15, 1925, the construction of a continuous defensive line. He advocated defensive hubs on the invasion routes.
During the meeting of March 19, 1926, and against the opinion of Foch, who considered that Pétain wrongly gave tanks a capital importance, he advocated and obtained the study of three tank prototypes (light, medium and heavy).
However, he had to give in and accept the construction of the Maginot Line when André Maginot, then Minister of War, declared during the parliamentary debate of December 28, 1929: “It is not Pétain who commands, but the Minister of War.
In 1925 and 1926, Pétain fought the revolt of the forces of Abd el-Krim, leader of the fledgling Rif republic in Morocco, against their Spanish neighbors. Pétain replaced Marshal Lyautey with little regard, and commanded the French troops in the campaign with the Spanish army (450,000 men in total), which included Franco. The campaign was victorious, partly due to the Spanish use of chemical weapons on the civilian population. Abd el-Krim complained to the League of Nations about the use of mustard gas by the French air force on douars and villages.
From the moment Charles de Gaulle was assigned to the 33rd infantry regiment commanded by Philippe Pétain, then a colonel, the destinies of the two men crossed regularly. Charles de Gaulle was assigned to this regiment on October 9, 1912, upon graduating from Saint-Cyr with the rank of second lieutenant. In 1924, during a visit to the École de guerre, Pétain was surprised by the low marks given to de Gaulle. His teachers did not appreciate his independence, a trait he shared with Pétain. Pétain”s intervention probably led to an upward correction of these marks.
In 1925, Charles de Gaulle was seconded to the staff of Philippe Pétain, vice-president of the Conseil supérieur de la Guerre. Pétain was a candidate for the Académie française and had been able to appreciate the quality of De Gaulle”s writing by reading La discorde chez l”ennemi, published in 1924. He asked him to prepare a book on the history of the soldier to help him support his candidacy. De Gaulle prepared the book, Le Soldat à travers les âges (The Soldier through the Ages), which was almost finished by the end of 1927, when de Gaulle held three remarkable lectures at the École de Guerre, entitled respectively: “War Action and the Leader”, “Character” and “Prestige”, in the presence of the Marshal. But his opinion of Pétain changed because of the Marshal”s attitude towards Lyautey at the time of his ouster. When in January 1928 Pétain wanted to have the book retouched by another of his collaborators, de Gaulle protested vigorously. In 1929, Pétain succeeded Foch at the Académie française without having needed the book. Pétain asked de Gaulle to write the eulogy of his predecessor under the dome, but did not use the proposed text.
In 1931, on his return from Lebanon, de Gaulle, who wanted a teaching chair at the École de guerre, was assigned, against his wishes, to the General Secretariat of National Defense (SGDN) in Paris. When asked, Pétain replied to de Gaulle: “You will be employed there on work that will certainly help you to develop your ideas. De Gaulle was strategically out of step and in literary conflict with his superior; Pétain, on the other hand, considered that he had helped his subordinate, who was showing a little too much pride. In 1932, de Gaulle dedicated his book Le Fil de l”épée (The Thread of the Sword) to Marshal Pétain: “For nothing shows better than your glory, what virtue action can draw from the lights of thought. In 1938, de Gaulle re-used the text of Le Soldat à travers les âges to write his book La France et son armée. Pétain opposed the publication of the work, but finally agreed to it after a verbal explanation with his former penholder, who nevertheless corrected the dedication proposed by the marshal. The latter kept a tenacious grudge against de Gaulle whom he considered “proud, ungrateful and bitter.
On June 20, 1929, he was unanimously elected member of the Académie française, in the 18th chair, where he succeeded Marshal Foch.
On January 22, 1931, he was received at the Académie française by Paul Valéry, whose acceptance speech, which recounts his biography, recalls and develops a phrase that Pétain insisted on, “fire kills” and includes considerations on the way in which “the machine gun has durably modified the conditions of combat on land” and the rules of strategy. The speech also recalls the disagreements, in mutual respect, between Pétain and Joffre. Marshal Pétain”s acceptance speech is a tribute to Marshal Foch, whom he succeeded.
According to Jacques Madaule, Philippe Pétain opposed the election to the French Academy of Charles Maurras, who was to be one of his greatest supporters, and he congratulated François Mauriac for having campaigned against him.
Philippe Pétain was not openly anti-Semitic before coming to power: for example, he strongly criticized Louis Bertrand, who had protested against the election of André Maurois, a Jew, to the Académie française, for which Maurois was grateful. Nevertheless, in his private correspondence with the Pardee couple, American neighbors of his house in the Var, Philippe Pétain complained about the Jews.
On February 9, 1931, he was replaced by General Weygand as vice-president of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (corresponding to the function of supreme commander of the Army), and appointed inspector general of territorial air defense.
On December 2, 1931, he wrote to Pierre Laval, then President of the Council, asking him to create a powerful air force for defense and attack, independent of the Army and Navy. To do this, he recommended taking 250 million francs from the funds allocated to the construction of the Maginot Line.
He remains influential in the military and political world, is active in the anti-parliamentary movement the French Recovery, which wants a strong executive.
After the crisis of February 6, 1934, on February 9, 1934, Philippe Pétain was appointed Minister of War in the radical Doumergue government, a position he held until the cabinet was overthrown on November 8, 1934.
His presence, popular among the veterans who had marched, contributed to the image of national unity desired by Doumergue. It is symbolic of the end of the second cartel of the left: the governments of the two years 1934
Then, when Hitler came to power, France gradually abandoned its disarmament policy, even though budgetary choices contributed to maintaining a downward pressure on military credits. In addition, strategic defensive choices absorbed a large proportion of the funds. The controversy of the 1940s over who was responsible for the delay in French rearmament (which Pétain attributed to Édouard Daladier and Léon Blum at the Riom trial, the latter denouncing in reply the low level of appropriations allocated when Pétain was Minister of War), and the controversy over the strategic choices that led to defeat, explain the diversity of historiography assessing Pétain”s time in government.
For Guy Antonetti, the resumption of spending – which he situates in 1935 – followed the inflection of the more offensive foreign policy of renewed alliances, initiated under the government of Gaston Doumergue (1934) and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Barthou, then under the government of Pierre Laval (1935). An article by Philippe Garraud in 2005, devoted to the question of rearmament, considers that, in general, “the balance sheet of the armament policy from 1919 to 1935 is extremely limited and, throughout this period, manpower and operations absorb the largest part of the reduced budgets” and that “rearmament really begins in 1936 with the implementation of the partial program of 1935 and the 14 billion plan”, while specifying that “at the end of this transitional period, the year 1935 nevertheless seems particularly important, and even pivotal: On the one hand, it marked the beginning of French rearmament, even if the increase in the budget was still limited; on the other hand, it saw the development of numerous prototypes, which would begin to be the subject of major orders the following year. As for rearmament, Jean-Luc Marret situates the “first signs” of it at the time of the reorientation of French foreign policy by Louis Barthou (in 1934) and Pierre Laval (in 1935).
Pétain limited the work on the Maginot Line, believing that the Ardennes were a natural barrier that was difficult for the Germans to cross. On June 15, 1934, he obtained the vote for an additional credit of 1.275 billion francs for the modernization of the armament.
A supporter of combat tanks, he decided before April 1934 to adopt the B1 tank, the prototypes of which he had had made during his command. The same year, he also decided to adopt the D2 tank and to study a light tank. Concerned about the training of senior officers, he ordered that all applicants to the École supérieure de guerre should undergo preliminary training in tank and air force units.
On May 31, 1934, summoned before the Finance Commission, he expressed his views on fortification and renewed his reservations about the effectiveness of the Maginot Line. He explained what fortification was for him: concrete was a means of saving manpower, but the essential thing was a powerful army, without which it was only a false security. The purpose of fortification is to allow the regrouping of troops for the offensive or counter-offensive. He will have this sentence: “the Maginot line does not protect against an enemy penetration, if the army is not equipped with motorized reserves able to intervene quickly. Nevertheless, he supported the principle of this line. However, according to Robert Aron, the strategic conceptions he defended at that time were in line with his experience of the Great War, thus:
“Between the two wars, the strategic conceptions that he was to defend and impose on the French Army were still strictly in line with his experience at the beginning of the other conflict: he did not believe in the offensive role of tanks or armored divisions. He advocated the construction of the Maginot Line, behind which our 1939 combatants believed they were safe and would wait peacefully for the German offensive, which would be launched elsewhere.
On October 27, 1934, he convinced Louis Germain-Martin, Minister of Finance, to sign the “Pétain plan for 1935” for a sum of 3.415 billion francs, which included the construction of 1,260 tanks. The fall of the government and the replacement of Marshal Pétain by General Maurin, a supporter of heavy and slow tanks, delayed the implementation of this plan by several months.
After his ministerial experience, Pétain enjoyed great popularity, both on the right and on the left. The famous campaign launched by Gustave Hervé in 1935, entitled “We need Pétain”, bears witness to this. The desire to call on Marshal Pétain in case of danger is not specific to the right, and the radical-socialist Pierre Cot declared in 1934: “Mr. Marshal, in case of national danger, France is counting on you.
He then participated in the High Council of War, where he supported the offensive war policy promoted by Colonel de Gaulle, who was for a time his “pen-bearer”, advocating the concentration of tanks in armored divisions.
In the Revue des Deux Mondes of February 15, 1935, he wrote: “It is essential that France have a rapid, powerful cover based on aircraft and tanks. And during a conference at the École de Guerre in April 1935: “Mechanized units are capable of giving operations a rhythm and amplitude unknown until now. The airplane, by bringing destruction to the most distant vital centers, breaks the framework of the battle. As in the preface to a book by General Sikorsky: “The possibilities of tanks are so vast that we can say that the tank will perhaps be the main weapon tomorrow.
On April 6, 1935, in a speech to President Lebrun at the École supérieure de Guerre, he said: “It is necessary to take into account the perspectives opened up by the armored vehicle and by aviation. The automobile, thanks to the track and the armor, puts speed at the service of power. Victory will belong to the one who will be the first to exploit to the maximum the properties of modern machines and to combine their action. In 1938, he prefaced General Louis Chauvineau”s book Une invasion est-elle encore possible, which advocated the use of infantry and fortifications as a means of defense against the “continuous front.” In this preface, Pétain considered that the use of tanks and aircraft did not change the facts of the war.
At the instigation of the great military leaders (Foch, Joffre), the governments of the late 1920s allocated significant budgetary efforts to the construction of defense lines. This strategy was symbolized by the costly and, moreover, incomplete Maginot Line, which was stopped at the Belgian border. Winston Churchill, in his book on the Second World War, expressed the opinion that the Maginot Line could have been of great use if it had been properly operated and that it seemed justified, particularly in view of the numerical ratio between the populations of France and Germany.
Winston Churchill considered it “extraordinary that it was not extended at least along the Meuse”. But Marshal Pétain was opposed to this extension. He argued strongly that the hypothesis of an invasion through the Ardennes should be excluded because of the nature of the terrain. As a result, this possibility was discarded.
After the success of the blitzkrieg waged by the Germans via the Ardennes, Pétain could no longer ignore the fact that the debacle of 1940 was also due to the “great military leaders”, whose strategic orientations the government authorities had merely followed. However, he had the politicians in charge before 1940 judged as exclusively “responsible” for the defeat.
France officially recognized the new Franco government on February 27, 1939. On March 2, 1939, Pétain was appointed French ambassador to Spain. Hostile to the Spanish nationalists, the French left protested in the name of the Marshal”s “republican” reputation. Thus, L”Humanité honored him in comparison to the “felonious general” Franco, while in Le Populaire of March 3, 1939, Léon Blum described Pétain as “the most noble, the most humane of our military leaders,” a formula that the supporters of the rehabilitation of the former “head of the French state” were able to take advantage of after the Second World War. For the time being, the appointment of Pétain – who enjoyed great prestige in Spain – aimed to improve the image of the French Republic by mitigating the memory of French support for the Spanish Republicans during the Civil War.
On March 24, 1939, the Marshal presented his credentials to the Minister of the Interior, Serrano Súñer, who received him very coldly. According to the historian Michel Catala, he would remember this poor reception and his ties with Franco would remain very critical, despite the subsequent propaganda depicting privileged relations between the Vichy regime and the dictatorship of the Caudillo. In the immediate future, Pétain”s mission was to ensure Spain”s neutrality in view of the next European conflict. In the name of France”s diplomatic rapprochement with Spain, it was his responsibility to supervise, within the framework of the Bérard-Jordana agreements, the repatriation to Madrid of the Bank of Spain”s gold reserves and the Republican armaments that the former Spanish Republic had transferred to the safety of France during the civil war. The French ambassador knew how to surround himself with a quality team of experienced diplomatic personnel and dedicated military officers. Within a few months, the Marshal was reconciled with the Spanish elite. His active presence in the country resulted in a strengthening of France”s image, despite a very Francophobic Spanish press.
In spite of many misgivings on the French side, particularly because of Franco-Spanish military tensions in Morocco in March-April 1939, Pétain committed his authority to the President of the Council Daladier in order to carry out the Bérard-Jordana agreements, a sine qua non condition demanded by the Franco authorities. France finally gave in, without obtaining any significant quid pro quo. The official declaration of Spanish neutrality on September 4, 1939, seemed to crown the French efforts, but was more the result of Franco”s realism, taking into account the weak Spanish military capabilities following the civil war. The “façade of détente in the summer of 1939” masked the failure of the French policy of conciliation aimed at obtaining good neighborly relations and a military agreement between the two countries. Although the Caudillo cautiously inclined towards a de facto neutrality, he did not loosen his ties with the Third Reich and fascist Italy.
Aware of the fragility of Spanish neutrality, Pétain asserted that it “would depend a great deal” on France”s attitude. His “main strategic objective” remained reconciliation “at any price with Italy and Spain in order to concentrate all of France”s efforts against Germany,” emphasizes Michel Catala. Moreover, since August 1939, the Marshal had expressed his wish to abandon his plenipotentiary mission. The partial re-establishment of Franco-Spanish commercial and cultural relations in the last months of 1939 and the first months of 1940 did not alter the ambiguity of Franco”s position vis-à-vis the Axis and France. At most, Pétain can be credited with a beginning of normalization – “superficial and eminently temporary” – of Franco-Spanish relations.
In spite of the failure of his strategy with regard to Franco, “Pétain”s personal success is undeniable” since he confirmed his authority over the French military and established his ability to impose his views on the government, in addition to acquiring a reputation as a fine diplomat. However, Michel Catala doubts that the marshal realized the fiasco of his mission as ambassador, given his German policy in Vichy, where he showed “the same obstinacy and the same blindness in pursuing a policy of concessions in order to obtain improvements in the conditions of the armistice.
Man of the recourse to the armistice
When war was declared in September 1939, Marshal Pétain, from Madrid, refused a proposal from the President of the Council, Édouard Daladier, to join the government, and he prudently kept away from official solicitations. This proposal had been inspired by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, the radical-socialist Édouard Herriot, as a condition for his eventual acceptance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, Pétain made no secret of his personal hostility to the war against Hitler. “As much as it is certain that he had no part in the intrigues hatched with a view to a compromise peace, it is also obvious that he had, from the beginning, his role in the calculations of Laval and certain members of the peace plot,” emphasizes historian Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac.
As the leader of the “defeatist” parliamentarians, Pierre Laval was already thinking about a Pétain government in which he would be the real leader, and at the end of October 1939 he told one of his interlocutors: “I am not, as they say, related to Pétain, but I know his prestige. What will be asked of him? To be a mantelpiece, a statue on a pedestal. His name! His prestige! Not more.
On November 3, 1939, a report from the Italian ambassador noted that “Marshal Pétain is the representative of the peace policy in France. If the question of peace became acute in France, Pétain would play a role.
When he came to power on March 21, 1940, the military situation deteriorated, and the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, also thought of using Marshal Pétain”s prestige with the French people, and offered him a place in the government in early May, to no avail. Judging the situation to be favorable for him, Pétain agreed to return to Paris and join the government, notes historian Gérard Boulanger.
When he returned to office, the Marshal “shared the contempt of the anti-parliamentary right for the regime that had showered him with honors. France, according to his heart, was the peasant France from which he came, respectful of hierarchies and the established order, such as he wished to revive in Vichy. His political views were short: he could not stand political chatter; he reproached the socialist teachers for having encouraged anti-patriotism, just as the Popular Front had encouraged disorder. His proverbial good sense goes hand in hand with great ignorance and simplistic views on foreign policy. He saw nothing more in Hitler than a plebeian William II; he had no doubt that he could be accommodated in return for a few sacrifices,” analyzed Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac. Moreover, Pétain”s actions were marked by an Anglophobia and defeatism that were already noticeable in 1914-1918.
On May 17, 1940, a week after the German offensive, Pétain, then 84 years old, was appointed Vice President of the Council in the government of Paul Reynaud. Franco had advised him not to agree to support this government. For Reynaud, it was a question of raising the morale of the French, closing ranks and strengthening his own image in parliament. This appointment was well received in the country, in Parliament and in the press, although it received less publicity than that of Weygand as Generalissimo, or that of Georges Mandel, a supporter of the Resistance at all costs, as Minister of the Interior.
Like most of his ministers or members of parliament, Paul Reynaud underestimated the initially taciturn and passive old man that was Pétain, and he did not imagine that he could play more than a purely symbolic role.
However, as early as May 26, in a note to Paul Reynaud, Pétain refused to consider the military leaders as responsible for the defeat, and blamed the disaster on “the mistakes that we all made, this taste for the quiet life, this abandonment of effort that brought us to where we are. This moralistic interpretation of the defeat is not without announcing the calls for national contrition and the policy of moral order that will characterize the Vichy regime.
On June 4, he demonstrated his Anglophobia and pessimism before the American ambassador Bullit. Accusing England of not providing sufficient aid to France in peril, he explained that in the event of defeat “the French government must do everything possible to come to terms with the Germans, without worrying about the fate of England. On the 6th, he did not react when General Spears, Churchill”s representative to the French government, warned him that if France came to an agreement with Germany, “she would not only lose her honor, but physically she would not recover. She would be tied to a Germany whose throat our fists would soon close.
From June 13 onwards, when the battle of France was lost and the government had retreated to Touraine, Pétain openly became one of the most consistent advocates of the armistice within the government. That day, he read a note to the Council of Ministers in which he declared that there was no question of him leaving France to continue the fight.
On June 14, 1940, Paris was occupied by the German army. The Government, the President of the Republic and the Assemblies took refuge in Bordeaux. Pétain confirmed himself as the leader of the armistice supporters, and put his resignation on the line.
Pétain is opposed to the project of fusion between the British and French governments.
President of the Council and armistice
On June 16, 1940, believing himself to be in a minority within the Council of Ministers, wrongly it seems, Paul Reynaud presented the resignation of the Government and suggested, followed by the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, that Marshal Pétain be entrusted with the presidency of the Council, a choice that was immediately approved by the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun (see Philippe Pétain”s government). He seems to have hoped that if Pétain failed to obtain an armistice, he would be able to return to power very quickly.
On June 17, 1940, following the advice given on June 12 by General Maxime Weygand, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Pétain asked the Germans, through the intermediary of the Spanish government, for the conditions of an armistice.
From the Lycée Longchamps (today the Lycée Montesquieu) he recorded a speech that was broadcast on the radio and in which he declared, even though he had only asked for the conditions of an armistice and that negotiations had not begun: “It is with a heavy heart that I tell you today that we must stop fighting. The speech had a disastrous effect on the morale of the troops and precipitated the collapse of the French armies. From June 17 until the armistice took effect on the 25th, the Germans took more prisoners than they had since the beginning of the offensive on May 10.
In the same speech, Pétain anticipated the creation of his own regime by declaring that he was “donating his person to France”. On June 20, 1940, in a new speech written, like the first, by the Jewish intellectual Emmanuel Berl, he announced the negotiations for the armistice. He detailed the reasons for this, as well as the lessons that, according to him, should be learned. He criticized the “spirit of enjoyment”: “The spirit of enjoyment has prevailed over the spirit of sacrifice. We have claimed more than we have served. One wanted to spare effort; today one meets misfortune”.
The armistice was finally signed on June 22, 1940 in the clearing at Compiègne, after being approved by the Council of Ministers and the President of the Republic.
On June 25, 1940, Pétain announced the “severe” conditions of the armistice and described the territories that would be under German control. Demobilization was one of these conditions. He announced: “It is towards the future that we must now turn our efforts. A new order is beginning. According to him, the causes of the defeat are to be found in the spirit of relaxation: “Our defeat came from our relaxation. The spirit of enjoyment destroys what the spirit of sacrifice has built.
On June 29, 1940, the government moved to the Clermont-Ferrand region and then, due to limited accommodation capacity, moved again on July 1 to Vichy, in the zone not occupied by the German army. This city had the advantage of an extremely efficient telephone network and the presence of a multitude of hotels that were requisitioned to house the various ministries and embassies.
Head of the Vichy regime
On July 10, 1940, a law, known as the “constitutional” law, voted by the two Chambers (569 votes for, 80 votes against, 20 abstentions, 176 absent and 1 not taking part in the vote) meeting in the National Assembly at the Vichy casino “gave all powers to the government of the Republic, under the authority and signature of Marshal Pétain”, without any control by the Assembly, with the task of promulgating a new Constitution. This constitution never saw the light of day.
The “French State” (the new official name of France, replacing the name “French Republic”) would thus remain a provisional state.
The constitutionality of this reform was challenged on several grounds, including the fact that the constitution cannot be changed under direct threat from an enemy. Above all, the confusion of all powers (constituent, legislative, executive and judicial) in the same hands was contrary to the very foundations of the constitutional laws of 1875, based on a separation of powers. The result was an anti-democratic regime, without a constitution and without parliamentary control.
This regime was described as a “pluralist dictatorship” by Stanley Hoffmann, who demonstrated, among other things, its dictatorial aspects in a publication published in 1956. Other authors, such as Robert Aron, Robert Paxton and Marc Ferro, evoke, with regard to Pétain, dictators and his regime, even Mussolini. For Aron: “The first period, from the Armistice to December 13, 1940, is the one during which Pétain could still have the illusion of being an authoritarian head of state, who owed nothing to anyone and whose power in France was almost equivalent to that of the dictators Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain, or Mussolini in Italy.
According to Paxton, “Pétain himself had more in common with Franco and Salazar than with Hitler,” while for Ferro it was the example of Salazar that inspired the Marshal”s program, thus: “The regime instituted actually evokes Salazarism and : “The regimes of Kemal, Horthy, Franco, had his preferences in relation to that of Mussolini because of the duality Mussolini-Victor-Emmanuel III and according to the idea that he had of his power: “the Marshal is accountable only to his conscience”, but by far he preferred that of Salazar.
On July 11, 1940, in three “constitutional acts,” Pétain proclaimed himself head of the French state and assumed all powers.
By his constitutional act no. 1 of July 11, 1940, he repealed article 2 of the constitutional law of February 25, 1875, thus destroying the very foundation of the Republic, knowing that this article of law – which could not be modified since the revision of August 14, 1884 – was the one that established the republican regime in France.
Pierre Laval said to him one day: “Do you know, Monsieur le Maréchal, the extent of your powers? They are greater than those of Louis XIV, because Louis XIV had to submit his edicts to Parliament, whereas you do not need to submit your constitutional acts to Parliament, because it is no longer there”, Pétain replied: “That is true”.
In addition to the traditional regal attributes (the right of pardon, appointment and dismissal of ministers and senior officials), Pétain added rights that were unheard of even in the days of the absolute monarchy. He could write and promulgate a new constitution on his own, he could designate his successor (who was the vice-president of the Council), he “had full governmental power, he appointed and dismissed the ministers and secretaries of state, who were responsible only to him” and he “exercised legislative power in the Council of Ministers. The laws, adopted on his authority alone, were promulgated with the formula: “We, Marshal of France, having heard the Council of Ministers, decide…”. However, out of caution, Pétain avoided taking the right to declare war on his own: to do so, he had to consult the possible assemblies.
Until April 1942, Pétain remained both head of state and head of government, with Pierre Laval, Pierre-Étienne Flandin and Admiral François Darlan only vice-presidents of the Council. He governed in an authoritarian manner.
Thus, on December 13, 1940, he abruptly ousted Pierre Laval from power, not out of disavowal of the latter”s policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany, but out of irritation at his overly independent way of conducting it. He was replaced by Flandin. At the same time, Pétain signed the dismissal of many mayors, prefects and senior Republican officials, including the prefect of Eure-et-Loir, Jean Moulin, and the president of the Court of Auditors, Emile Labeyrie.
The Marshal precociously suppressed all institutional checks and balances to his authority, and everything that was too reminiscent of the republican regime, which was henceforth hated. The very word “Republic” disappeared. Public freedoms were suspended, as were political parties, with the exception of those of the Parisian collaborationists, which remained in the northern zone. The trade union centers were dissolved, the remaining departmental unions were unified in a corporatist labor organization. Freemasonry was outlawed.
All elected assemblies were put on hold or abolished, the Chambers as well as the General Councils. Thousands of municipalities, whose mayors had not wanted to sign an oath of allegiance (not to the State, but to Pétain himself), were dismissed and replaced by “special delegations”, appointed by decree of the central power, and whose presidency fell to personalities presenting the guarantees demanded by the marshal Special courts were set up.
On July 30, 1940, Pétain promulgated the creation of the Supreme Court of Justice (known as the “Court of Riom”), an exceptional jurisdiction in charge of conducting the trial of politicians and General Maurice Gamelin whom the Marshal considered responsible for the country”s unpreparedness and military defeat. Léon Blum, Édouard Daladier and General Gamelin were thus arrested. In addition, Pétain planned to have Paul Reynaud and Georges Mandel sentenced, but they were also incarcerated and could not be included in the Riom proceedings. The Riom trial, which was supposed to serve Vichy propaganda by judging the Popular Front ministers and, beyond that, the democratic institutions of the Third Republic as the only ones responsible for the debacle, turned into a confusion of the accusers, who in turn became the accused. Blum and Daladier jostled the judges with their knowledge of national defense issues, recalling in particular the responsibility of the Doumergue government, of which Pétain was a member as Minister of War, in the reduction of military credits in 1934. All in all, on April 11, 1942, Pétain postponed the trial sine die by a “laconic decree. The accused, still awaiting trial, remained interned. At the end of March 1943, the Vichy regime gave in to the demands of the German authorities who, under the pretext of preventing an American liberation attempt, transferred the prisoners to the territory of the Reich.
Moreover, on August 2, 1940, Vichy had Charles de Gaulle sentenced to death in absentia (even though Pétain claimed that he would see to it that the sentence was not carried out) and then his companions, who were stripped of their French nationality along with those who joined them. Unfair trials were brought against various Republican personalities, such as Pierre Mendès France, who was sentenced in June 1941 in Clermont-Ferrand for alleged “desertion” (the Massilia affair, a trap ship), along with Jean Zay and some others.
In the fall of 1941, thanks to openly backdated laws, Vichy sent several communist prisoners to the guillotine, including the deputy Jean Catelas, in reprisal for anti-German attacks.
Playing on the reputation of the “victor of Verdun” as much as possible, the regime exploited the Marshal”s prestige and spread an omnipresent cult of personality: photos of the Marshal appeared in the windows of all stores, on the walls of housing estates, in all government offices, as well as on the walls of classrooms in all school buildings and in those of youth organizations. It can be found even on the calendars of the PTT. The role of Bernard Ménétrel, doctor and private secretary to the Marshal, was predominant in this communication and propaganda effort.
The face of the head of state also appeared on stamps and coins, while busts of Marianne were removed from town halls. St. Philip”s Day, every May 3, was celebrated as a national holiday. A hymn to his glory, the famous Maréchal, nous voilà! was played in many ceremonies instead of the Marseillaise.
For those who doubt, propaganda posters proclaim: “Are you more French than him?” or “Do you know the problems of the day better than him?
Pétain also required an oath of loyalty from state officials to his own person. Constitutional Act No. 7 of January 27, 1941, already obliged secretaries of state, high dignitaries, and senior officials to swear loyalty to the head of state.
After his speech of August 12, 1941 (the so-called “ill wind” speech, in which he deplored the growing challenges to his authority and his government), Pétain extended the number of civil servants who had to take an oath to him. Constitutional acts no. 8 and no. 9 of August 14, 1941, concerned the military and the judiciary respectively. The oath was taken by all the judges except for one, Paul Didier, who was immediately dismissed and interned in the Châteaubriant camp. Then all civil servants had to swear loyalty to the Head of State by constitutional act no. 10 of October 4, 1941. It therefore concerned schoolteachers as well as postal workers. Nevertheless, in the occupied zone, where the authority of Vichy was less assured, senior civil servants appointed before 1940 discreetly avoided taking the oath to Pétain and, after the war, were able to keep their posts.
A whole literature, relayed by the controlled press and by many official or private speeches, finds quasi-idolatrous accents to exalt the marshal as a messianic savior, to celebrate his “sacrifice”, to compare him to Joan of Arc or Vercingetorix, to praise the old man”s physical stamina and robustness, or the beauty of his famous blue eyes. A centuries-old oak tree was named after him in the forest of Tronçais. Many streets were renamed and took his name by order.
The oath taken by holders of the Francisque states: “I give my person to Marshal Pétain as he gave his to France. Henri Pourrat, who was awarded the Goncourt Prize in 1941 for his book Vent de Mars, became the official preacher of the new regime and became the hagiographer of the French head of state with the release of his book Le Chef français (The French Leader) published by Robert Laffont in 1942.
However, the popularity of the marshal was not based solely on the propaganda machine. He was able to maintain his popularity by making numerous trips throughout the southern zone, especially in 1940-1942, where large crowds came to cheer him on. He received numerous gifts from all over the country, as well as an abundance of daily mail, including thousands of letters and drawings from school children. Pétain also maintained contact with the population through a number of receptions in Vichy, and especially through his frequent radio speeches. He knew how to use sober and clear rhetoric in his speeches, as well as a series of striking formulas, to make people accept his absolute authority and his reactionary ideas: “The earth does not lie”, “I hate these lies that have done you so much harm” (August 1940), “I have spoken to you up to now in the language of a father, I am now speaking to you in the language of a leader. Follow me, keep confidence in eternal France” (November 1940).
In addition, many bishops and churchmen put their moral authority at the service of an ardent cult of the marshal, hailed as the providential man. On November 19, 1940, the Primate of the Gauls, Cardinal Gerlier, proclaimed in the presence of the Marshal at the Primatial Church of Saint John in Lyon: “For Pétain is France, and France today is Pétain! In 1941, the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops of France assured the Head of State of its “veneration” in a resolution that had no equivalent in the 20th century. But many French people of all backgrounds and beliefs shared a similar confidence in the Marshal. In particular, the old monarchist leader Charles Maurras hailed his arrival as a “divine surprise.
Based in Paris, the “ultras of the Collaboration” were generally hostile to Vichy and the National Revolution, which they considered too reactionary and not committed enough to supporting Nazi Germany. However, following Philippe Burrin and Jean-Pierre Azéma, recent historiography insists more on the bridges that exist between the men of Vichy and those of Paris.
An ultra-collaborationist like the future head of the French Militia, Joseph Darnand, was thus a fervent supporter of the Marshal throughout the Occupation. The French fascist leader Jacques Doriot proclaimed until the end of 1941 that he was “a man of the Marshal”. His rival Marcel Déat had tried in 1940 to convert Pétain to his project of a single party and totalitarian regime, but Pétain refused to accept him (disappointed, Déat left Vichy for good and from then on attacked Pétain in his newspaper L”Œuvre, to the point that the Marshal, in 1944, managed never to countersign his appointment as minister. Others surrounded Pétain with their unbounded veneration, such as Gaston Bruneton, who was in charge of social action for French workers in Germany (volunteers and forced laborers) in close collaboration with the DAF (German Labor Front), or who was entrusted with important functions by Vichy.
Establishing a counter-revolutionary and authoritarian regime, the Vichy regime wanted to carry out a “National Revolution”, with strong anti-Semitic overtones, which broke with the republican tradition and established a new order based on authority, hierarchy, corporatism, and inequality between citizens. Its motto “Work, Family, Homeland”, borrowed from the “Croix-de-Feu”, replaced the triptych “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. In the summer of 1940, a speech by Marshal Pétain warned that the new regime “would be a social hierarchy. It would no longer be based on the false idea of the natural equality of men, but on the necessary idea of equal “opportunities” given to all French people to prove their ability to “serve”.
The National Revolution was Pétain”s priority, and he made it his personal business to encourage it through his speeches and interventions in the Council of Ministers. However, as early as August 1941, he admitted on the radio “the weakness of the echoes that his projects have met” among the mass of the population. After Laval”s return to power in April 1942, the National Revolution was no longer on the agenda.
Recent historiography, since the works of Henri Michel, Robert Paxton or Jean-Pierre Azéma, tends to show that the desire to finally be able to “straighten out” France in his own way largely pushed Pétain, in June 1940, to withdraw France from the war through the armistice. It was also his desire to accept the agreement with the victor: the National Revolution could only prosper in a defeated France, because it was the defeat that rendered obsolete the republican institutions that had provoked it and justified the need for such a revolution. For the Petainists, an Allied victory would also mean the return of the Jews, the Freemasons, the Republicans and the Communists.
According to these historians, Pétain also neglected the danger and contradiction of undertaking his reforms under the gaze of the occupier. This illusion was denounced at the time by General de Gaulle”s Free France, as well as by a number of Resistance fighters, some of whom had initially been tempted by Pétain”s program, but who felt that it was dangerous to err on the side of priorities and futile to undertake reforms as long as the Germans were not driven out of the country.
In August 1943, François Valentin, the head of the French Legion of Combatants, appointed to this position by Pétain himself, went to London, recorded and broadcast on the BBC a resounding message in which he made his self-criticism and denounced the serious fault of the Marshal and his followers: “One does not rebuild one”s house while it is burning!”
But, if historians have determined Pétain”s intentions, this was not always the case for people living at the time, and, if Pétain conducted an anti-Semitic policy, for example, those who admired him did not necessarily have such ideas. Finally, there were many “vichysto-resistance fighters” who were often seduced by the National Revolution but hostile to the collaboration and the occupier.
The first measures were taken by the law of August 13, 1940, which dissolved the secret societies and prohibited Freemasonry in France and in all the colonies and territories under French mandate.
By decree, taken a few days after the law, the headquarters of the obediences were occupied by the police and the places of practice (Masonic temples) were closed. In September 1940, the government obliged all public officials to make a declaration, in order to serve the new regime, certifying that they were not Freemasons; if they were, they were excluded from the civil service or the army.
The second measures were notably directed against the Jews as early as the law of October 3, 1940, although the Marshal seems to have been impervious to anti-Semitism before the war: he supported the candidacy of André Maurois for the Académie française, was represented at the funeral of Edmond de Rothschild in 1934, was a witness at the wedding of the Israelite economist Jacques Rueff in 1937, and was godfather to his daughter in 1938.
By the third week of July 1940, for example, measures were taken to remove Jewish officials, and a commission was established to review and cancel thousands of naturalizations granted since 1927. In October 1940, without any particular request from the Germans, hastily adopted exclusion laws against the Jews were enacted (see article: Vichy regime).
According to the testimony of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paul Baudouin, Pétain personally participated in the drafting of the status of the Jews and insisted that they be further excluded from the medical and educational fields, for example. The original draft of this text, which was rediscovered in October 2010, annotated in the hand of the Marshal, thus proving his personal involvement, confirms that Pétain tightened the first version and extended the exclusion to all Jews in France, whereas it was initially intended to concern only Jews or descendants of Jews naturalized after 1860.
The discriminatory texts of October 3, 1940 were tightened on June 2, 1941: they excluded French people of the “Jewish race” (determined by the religion of their grandparents) from most public functions and activities. Quotas were set for the admission of Jews to the bar, to universities and to the medical profession. At the time of the June 2 Statute, the list of prohibited occupations was extended beyond measure.
At the same time, a law of March 29, 1941, promulgated by the Marshal, created a “General Commission for Jewish Questions”.
The marshal”s entourage included men from all walks of life, mixing in a baroque way, within his “pluralist dictatorship”, modernist technocrats and revolutionaries disillusioned with Marxism, as well as Mauretans and reactionaries. However, Pétain personally showed orientations close to those of L”Action française (the only newspaper he read daily) and above all cited the conservative and clerical regimes of Salazar and Franco, with whom he had been personally acquainted since 1939, as an example to those close to him.
In parallel with the development of a centralized power, the marshal devoted himself to the “recovery of France”: repatriation of refugees, demobilization, provisioning, maintenance of order. But far from limiting himself to managing current affairs and ensuring the material survival of the population, his regime was the only one in Europe to develop a program of internal reforms, independent of German demands.
Some measures taken at that time have survived, such as the creation of a Ministry of Reconstruction, the unification of the building permit, the transformation of the geographic service of the armies into IGN in July 1940, the nationalization of the municipal police by a law in April 1941 in order to facilitate the control of the population, or a family policy, already initiated by the end of the IIIrd Republic and prolonged under the IVth Republic. Other measures were adopted: a campaign against alcoholism, a ban on smoking in theaters, and the inclusion of Mother”s Day in the calendar. Others still bear the mark of the reactionary projects of the Head of State, such as the penalization of homosexual relations with minors. Many foreigners who were supposedly “surplus to requirements in the French economy” were forcibly incorporated into foreign workers” groups (GTE). The Écoles normales, bastion of secular and republican education, were abolished at the end of 1940 and the baccalaureate became compulsory in order to teach in primary schools. Future teachers had to train “on the job” by doing internships for more than a year in kindergartens or elementary schools. The laws of October 11 and 27, 1940, against the employment of women sent thousands of them back to the home, willingly or by force. Divorce was made much more difficult, and the number of legal proceedings and convictions for abortion literally exploded compared to the interwar period. In September 1941, the first general statute for civil servants appeared. In 1943, Pétain refused to pardon an abortionist sentenced to death, who was guillotined. Another break with the Third Republic was the close relationship with the churches: Pétain, who was personally not very religious, saw religion as a factor of order, as Maurras did, and did not fail to attend every Sunday mass at the Saint-Louis church in Vichy.
With the aim of “restoring” France, the Vichy regime created very early on, under the direction of Joseph de La Porte du Theil, a loyalist who was very close to Marshal Pétain, training camps that lasted six months and that later became the Chantiers de la jeunesse française (French youth camps). The idea was to bring together an entire age group (replacing the military service banned by the Germans), and, through a life in the open air, using methods similar to scouting, to inculcate in them the moral values of the new regime (worship of hierarchy, rejection of the corrupting industrial city), as well as veneration for the head of state.
Other means of control were also set up in the economic field, such as the Professional Organization and Distribution Committees, which had jurisdiction over their members or the power to distribute raw materials, a power of capital importance in these times of generalized restrictions.
On May 1, 1941, Pétain gave an important speech to the workers in Saint-Étienne, in which he stated his desire to put an end to the class struggle by prohibiting both liberal capitalism and the Marxist revolution. He set out the principles of the future Labor Charter, promulgated in October 1941. It prohibited both strikes and lockouts, established the system of a single union and corporatism, but also set up social committees (a forerunner of works councils) and provided for the notion of a minimum wage. The Charter appealed to many trade unionists and theoreticians of all stripes (René Belin, Hubert Lagardelle). But it struggled to be implemented, and soon came up against the hostility of the working class to the regime and its ideas, the worsening of shortages, the introduction of the STO (compulsory labor service) in September 1942, and finally the struggle waged against it by the clandestine unions of the French Resistance.
True darlings of Vichy, the peasants were for a long time the real beneficiaries of Pétain”s regime. As a landowner in his residence in Villeneuve-Loubet, a vast agricultural estate that he managed himself, the marshal affirmed that “the land does not lie” and encouraged people to return to the land – a policy that ended in failure, with less than 1,500 people in four years trying to follow his advice. The Peasant Corporation was founded by a law of December 2, 1940. Some of its members broke away from the regime at the end of 1943, and it also served as the basis for the creation of an underground peasant unionism at the end of 1943, the Confédération générale de l”agriculture (CGA), which was officially created on October 12, 1944, when the authorities dissolved the Corporation paysanne, and which would continue in the form of the FNSEA in 1946.
Frequently and complacently developing the dolorist vision of a “decadent” France that was now atoning for its previous “faults,” Pétain kept the French in a defeated mentality: “I never stop reminding myself every day that we have been defeated” (to a delegation, May 1942), and showed particular concern for the prisoner soldiers, the very images of defeat and suffering: “I think about them because they are suffering” (Christmas 1941). According to his chief of staff, Henry du Moulin de Labarthète, a third of the marshal”s daily work time was devoted to prisoners. Vichy dreamed of making them propagators of the National Revolution upon their return.
The period following the armistice also saw the creation of the “Légion française des combattants” (LFC), which was later joined by the “Amis de la Légion” and the “Cadets de la Légion”. Founded by the very anti-Semitic Xavier Vallat on August 29, 1940, it was presided over by Marshal Pétain himself. For Vichy, it was to serve as the spearhead of the National Revolution and the regime. In addition to parades, ceremonies and propaganda, the active legionnaires had to monitor the population and denounce deviants and “bad” people.
Within this legion, a Service d”ordre légionnaire (SOL) was formed, which immediately embarked on the path of collaborationism. This organization was commanded by Joseph Darnand, a hero of the First World War and the 1940 campaign, and a fervent supporter of Pétain (asked in 1941 to join the Resistance, he refused, according to Claude Bourdet”s testimony, because “the Marshal” would not understand). This same organization became the “French Militia” in January 1943. At the end of the war, when Vichy had become a puppet regime under the orders of the Germans, the Militia, which numbered a maximum of 30,000 men, many of whom were adventurers and common law criminals, took an active part in the fight against the Resistance, with the public encouragement of Marshal Pétain as well as of Pierre Laval, its official president. Hated by the population, the Militia regularly perpetrated denunciations, torture, raids and summary executions, which were mixed with countless thefts, rapes and assaults on the public highway or against public officials.
Pétain waited until August 6, 1944 to disavow them in a note to Darnand, too late for the latter to be fooled: “For four years,” Darnand recalled in his caustic reply to the Marshal, “you encouraged me in the name of the good of France, and now that the Americans are at the gates of Paris, you are beginning to tell me that I am going to be the stain on the history of France. We could have done this before!”
In terms of foreign policy, Pétain withdrew the country from the ongoing world conflict from the outset, and affected to believe that the latter no longer concerned France at all. Although he refused to enter the war on the side of either side until the end, he did not refuse to fight against the Allies whenever he had the opportunity to do so, and in October 1940 he announced his intention to take back by force the territories under the authority of Free France. He therefore practiced a “dissymmetrical neutrality” that benefited the Germans. He chose to get along with the victor and imagined that France, with its colonial empire, its fleet and its willingness to cooperate, could obtain a good place in a Europe that was permanently German. This can be perceived as a certain naivety on the part of Pétain: in Nazi ideology, France was indeed the irreducible enemy of Germany, it had to be crushed and could not benefit from any privileged place at its side.
It is well established, since the works of Eberhard Jäckel and especially Robert Paxton, that Pétain actively sought and pursued this collaboration with Nazi Germany. It was not imposed on him. Less interested in foreign policy than in the National Revolution, his real priority, Pétain let Darlan and Laval implement the concrete aspects of state collaboration. But one is in fact the other side of the coin, according to the concordant findings of contemporary historiography: the Vichy reforms could only be implemented by taking advantage of France”s withdrawal from the war, and they could not survive an Allied victory. In addition, the “Pétain myth” was essential to make many French people accept collaboration. The prestige of the victor of Verdun, his legal, if not legitimate, power, blurred the perception of duties and priorities in people”s disarray.
After having affected for three months to remain neutral in the ongoing conflict between the Axis and the United Kingdom, Pétain personally and officially committed the Vichy regime to collaboration, by his radio speech of October 30, 1940, following the Montoire meeting of October 24, 1940, during which he met Hitler. This “Montoire handshake” was later widely broadcast in the newsreels and exploited by German propaganda.
It is true that the armistice had initially limited the German occupation to the northern and western half of the country. But the autonomy of the southern zone was quite relative, because Pétain, with or without preliminary discussions, most often bowed to the demands of the German authorities, when his government did not spontaneously go along with them.
This state collaboration had several consequences. The Marshal, while his prestige remained immense, refrained from protesting, at least publicly, against the exactions of the occupying forces and their French auxiliaries or against the de facto annexation of Alsace and Moselle, contrary to the armistice agreement. To the parliamentarians of the three departments, whom he received on September 4, 1942, when the massive and illegal incorporation of the French of Alsace and Lorraine, known as the malgré-nous, into the Wehrmacht began, he advised only resignation. The day before, he had asked Laval to submit an official protest, which was not followed up.
In 1941, the Pétain regime was de facto allied with the German military forces in the Syrian War against the Allies.
General Weygand, known for his hostility to collaboration, having been dismissed in November 1941, Pétain obtained an interview with Göring at Saint-Florentin on December 1. But it was a failure, as the Germans refused to give in to his demands: extension of Vichy sovereignty to all of France except Alsace-Lorraine, reduction of occupation costs and the number of prisoners of war, and strengthening of the Empire”s military resources.
In April 1942, under German pressure, but also because he was disappointed with Darlan”s poor results, Pétain agreed to the return to power of Pierre Laval, who now held the title of “head of government”.
There was no difference in foreign policy between a “Vichy Pétain” and a “Vichy Laval”, as André Siegfried, Robert Aron and Jacques Isorni have suggested. Although he had no personal affection for Laval, Pétain covered his policies with his authority and charisma, approved his policies in the Council of Ministers, and even sometimes the words of his speeches. For example, on June 22, 1942, Laval pronounced these resounding words: “I hope Germany will win because, without it, Bolshevism will be everywhere tomorrow”: Charles Rochat testified in writing for the High Court of Justice that Pétain had endorsed them, even changing an initial “I believe” into an even more critical “I wish”.
In June 1942, in front of a delegation of visitors to Vichy, Pétain assured them that he was acting “hand in hand” with Laval, that the latter”s orders were “like the” and that everyone owed him obedience “like the”. During Pétain”s trial, Laval stated unambiguously that he only acted after having deferred to the Marshal”s advice: all his actions had been approved beforehand by the Head of State.
On the basis of the census, 6,694 foreign Jews, mostly Poles, men between 18 and 60 years old living in the Paris region, received a summons for “examination of their situation” (the green ticket), asking them to go, accompanied by a relative, to various assembly sites on May 14, 1941. More than half of them (3,747) obeyed and were immediately arrested while the person accompanying them was asked to go and get their things and food. They were transferred by bus to the Austerlitz train station and deported the same day by four special trains to the internment camps of the Loiret region (about 1,700 to Pithiviers and 2,000 to Beaune-la-Rolande)
The vast majority of the victims of this operation were deported in the first convoys of June and July 1942 and murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In October 1941, the Germans executed 48 hostages in reprisal for the death of Karl Hotz, Feldkommandant of the occupying troops in the Loire-Inférieure department. Following these reprisals, which aroused general indignation, Pétain had secret thoughts of taking himself as a hostage at the demarcation line, but his minister Pierre Pucheu quickly dissuaded him in the name of the policy of collaboration.
Even in the spring of 1944, Pétain never condemned the deportations, roundups and almost daily massacres, remaining silent, for example, on the Ascq massacre, where 86 civilians were massacred by the Waffen SS in the North, near Lille.
On the other hand, he did not fail to denounce the “terrorist crimes” of the Resistance or the allied bombings of civilian targets. He encouraged the members of the French Volunteer Legion (LVF) who fought in the USSR under German uniforms, guaranteeing them in a public message that they held “a share of our military honor.
The Vel”d”Hiv” raid
When, at the end of June 1942, Laval informed the Council of Ministers of the forthcoming roundup at the Velodrome d”Hiver, the minutes show that Pétain accepted as “just” the delivery of thousands of Jews to the Nazis. Then, on August 26, 1942, the southern zone became the only territory in all of Europe from which Jews, often interned by Vichy since 1940 in the very harsh camps of Gurs, Noé, Rivesaltes, were sent to their deaths even though no German soldier was present.
On this subject, the historian André Kaspi writes: “As long as the free zone is not occupied, one breathes better there than in the northern zone. Who would deny it? Especially not those who lived through this sad period. Hence this conclusion: Vichy sacrificed foreign Jews to better protect French Jews, but without Pétain, the Jews of France would have suffered the same fate as those of Belgium, the Netherlands or Poland. For two years, they benefited in a certain way from the existence of the French state. For the lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, this “argument falls apart” when we see Pétain”s personal involvement in anti-Semitic policy from October 1940.
In August 1942, a telegram signed by Pétain congratulated Hitler for having defeated the Allied landing attempt at Dieppe.
On September 4, 1942, Pétain promulgated the first law establishing the compulsory labor service, supplemented by the law of February 16, 1943. In about ten months, the STO organized the forced departure of more than 600,000 French workers, who were to reinforce Nazi Germany in spite of themselves.
When the Allies landed in North Africa on November 8, 1942, in Morocco, Oran and the port of Algiers, Pétain officially gave the order to fight them, declaring: “France and its honor are at stake. We are under attack. We are defending ourselves. That is the order I give. The very existence of Vichy was then in question: if the Vichy forces did not resist the Allied invasion, the Germans would inevitably invade unoccupied France and the rest of North Africa. For a few days, the Allies had to face a real resistance from the Vichy Army, obeying the orders of its leaders.
In reaction to this landing, on November 11, violating the armistice agreement, the Germans invaded the southern zone. Pétain refused the idea of going to North Africa, of ordering the Toulon fleet to sail, of putting France back on the Allied side. To justify his decision, he went so far as to say in private that his doctor had advised him not to fly… Above all, he wanted to be able to continue to “serve as a screen between the people of France and the occupier”. He protested against this invasion in a declaration that was broadcast several times on the airwaves. In fact, as Robert Paxton and R. Franck point out, he remained faithful to his 1940 choice, closely associating withdrawal from the war, collaboration and national revolution.
His decision disappointed countless French people who still believed in a hypothetical secret “double game” on the part of the Marshal and imagined that he was secretly preparing to resume the struggle and take revenge against the enemy. Many of them broke away from the Vichy regime while generally maintaining their respect for Marshal Pétain and sometimes joined the clandestine ranks of the “vichysto-resistance fighters” inspired in particular by Generals Giraud and de Lattre de Tassigny. The nickname of “Marshal Pétoche”, which some had given him, spread.
The dissidence of most of the Empire, the end of the “free zone”, the scuttling of the French fleet at Toulon on November 27, 1942, and the dissolution of the armistice army meant that Vichy lost its last assets against the Germans. By maintaining his policy of collaboration, Pétain lost much of the popularity he had enjoyed since 1940, and the Resistance intensified despite the tougher repression.
Pétain officially had his former loyalists François Darlan and Henri Giraud stripped of their French nationality and sentenced to death, after they had defected to the Allied camp in North Africa. He did not protest at all when, at the end of 1942, and again in the autumn of 1943, a wave of arrests hit his own entourage and drove away a large number of advisors and loyalists, including Maxime Weygand, Lucien Romier and Joseph de La Porte du Theil, who was interned in Germany. He granted increasing delegations of power to Pierre Laval, who had become his successor once again, placing his loyal followers in all the key positions and, from November 26, 1942, obtaining from him the right to sign laws and decrees alone.
At the end of 1943, seeing the fate of the Axis sealed, Pétain tried to play in France the role of Marshal Badoglio in Italy, who in September 1943, after having served Fascism for a long time, brought the country over to the Allied side. Pétain hoped that a new government, less compromised in the eyes of the Americans, with a new constitution would be able, on “D-Day”, to remove General de Gaulle from the game and negotiate with the liberators for Vichy”s impunity and the ratification of his actions.
On November 12, 1943, while Pétain was preparing to make a radio speech the next day in which he would announce to the nation a constitutional revision according to which it would be up to the National Assembly to designate his successor, which would have called into question Laval”s official status as dauphin, the Germans, through the intermediary of Consul General Krug von Nidda, blocked this project.
After six weeks of “power strike”, Pétain submitted. The draft republican constitution was finalized and approved by Pétain on January 30, 1944 (Projet de constitution du 30 janvier 1944) but it was never promulgated. Pétain further increased Laval”s powers while accepting the gradual fascization of his regime through the entry into the government of Joseph Darnand, Philippe Henriot and Marcel Déat (January 1, January 6 and March 16, 1944).
In the last months of the Occupation, Pétain now affected to be a simple “prisoner” of the Germans, while continuing to cover up with his authority and his silence the collaboration that continued until the end, as well as the atrocities of the enemy and the French Militia. In August 1944, he tried to delegate Admiral Auphan to De Gaulle to regularly hand over power to him, provided that the new government recognized the legitimacy of Vichy and safeguarded “the principle of legitimacy that I embody. “No response was given to this monument of candor.
On August 17, 1944, the Germans, in the person of Cecil von Renthe-Fink, “the Führer”s special diplomatic delegate to the French head of state,” asked Pétain to allow himself to be transferred to the northern zone. The latter refused and asked for a written statement of this request. Von Renthe-Fink renewed his request twice on the 18th, and then returned on the 19th, at 11:30 a.m., accompanied by General von Neubroon, who told him that he had “formal orders from Berlin”. The written text was submitted to Pétain: “The Reich government gives instructions to carry out the transfer of the head of state, even against his will”. Faced with the Marshal”s renewed refusal, the Germans threatened to bring in the Wehrmacht to bomb Vichy. After having taken the Swiss ambassador, Walter Stucki, as a witness to the blackmail he was being subjected to, Pétain submitted, and “when at 7:30 p.m. Renthe-Fink entered the Marshal”s office at the Hôtel du Parc, with General von Neubronn, the Head of State was supervising the packing of his bags and putting away his papers. The next day, August 20, 1944, he was taken against his will by the German army to Belfort and then, on September 8, to Sigmaringen in southwest Germany, where the dignitaries of his regime had taken refuge.
At Sigmaringen, Pétain refused to continue his duties and to participate in the activities of the governmental commission chaired by Fernand de Brinon. He cloistered himself in his apartments, while preparing his defense after learning that the French High Court of Justice was preparing to indict him in absentia.
On April 23, 1945, after having obtained from the Germans that they take him to Switzerland, and from the Swiss that they accept him on their territory, Pétain asked to return to France. Through the intermediary of Minister Karl Burckhardt, the Swiss government transmitted this request to General de Gaulle. The provisional government of the Republic decided not to oppose it. On April 24, the Swiss authorities took him to the border and on April 26 he was handed over to the French authorities. General Kœnig was in charge of him in Vallorbe. The marshal was then interned at the fort of Montrouge.
Trial and conviction
The trial of Marshal Pétain began on July 23, 1945 before the High Court of Justice, which had been created on November 18, 1944. After six other magistrates had recused themselves, the court was presided over by Paul Mongibeaux, promoted on this occasion by General de Gaulle”s provisional government, first president of the Court of Cassation, assisted by the president of the criminal chamber at the Court of Cassation, Donat-Guigne, and Picard, first president of the Court of Appeal. All three had taken an oath of loyalty to the Marshal. The public prosecutor was represented by the public prosecutor André Mornet, honorary president of the Court of Cassation. The investigation was carried out by Pierre Bouchardon, president of the High Court commission, personally chosen by de Gaulle. The jury of twenty-four was made up of twelve members of parliament (and four alternates) and twelve non-parliamentarians from the Resistance (and four alternates). This jury was chosen from two lists, the first of which was made up of fifty parliamentarians who had not voted for Pétain”s full powers, and the second made up of personalities from the Resistance or close to it. The defense used its right of recusal for some of the names that came out of the draw, notably Robert Pimienta and Lucie Aubrac.
After defense challenges, the jurors are:
Defended by Jacques Isorni, Jean Lemaire and the President of the Bar, Fernand Payen, Philippe Pétain declared on the first day that he had always been a hidden ally of General de Gaulle and that he was only responsible to France and to the French people who had appointed him and not to the High Court of Justice. Under these conditions, he would not answer the questions put to him. Numerous personalities came to testify, either for the prosecution: Édouard Daladier, Paul Reynaud, Léon Blum, Pierre Laval, or for the defense: General Weygand, Pastor Marc Boegner, or even the chaplain of the prisoners of war Jean Rodhain, the only man of the cloth to testify for the defense.
The trial ended on August 15, 1945 at 4:30 in the morning. Following the recommendations of the public prosecutor André Mornet, the court found Philippe Pétain guilty of intelligence with the enemy and high treason. It sentenced him to death, to national indignity, and to the confiscation of his property. However, it attached to these sentences a vow not to carry out the death sentence, because of his advanced age.
The verdict of the High Court of Justice found Philippe Pétain guilty of national indignity and sentenced him to national degradation; this decision entailed “dismissal from all functions, jobs, public offices and constituted bodies
Fulfilling the wish of the High Court of Justice, General de Gaulle, head of the Provisional Government of the Republic, commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment on August 17, 1945. Given the penalty of national degradation (article 21 of the ordinance of December 26, 1944), Philippe Pétain was automatically excluded from the Académie française (the ordinance provided for his exclusion from the Institute). However, the Academy refrained from electing a replacement for him in the 18th chair during his lifetime, a consideration that also benefited Charles Maurras (while Abel Bonnard and Abel Hermant were replaced in 1946).
Philippe Pétain was imprisoned at the Portalet fort, a mountain fort in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques (then the Basses-Pyrénées), from August 15 to November 16, 1945. The only photo of Pétain imprisoned there was taken clandestinely by Michel Larre, who was in charge of the maintenance of the fort at that time. During the Vichy regime, this fort was used as a place of detention for several political figures. It was then transferred to the fort of Pierre-Levée on the island of Yeu, off the coast of the Vendée. Apart from his guards, he was the only occupant of the fort. His wife, in turn, settled on the island and was allowed daily visits.
During these years, Philippe Pétain”s lawyers and several foreign dignitaries, including former King Edward VIII and Queen Mary, called on successive governments to release him. However, the latter, entangled in the political instability of the Fourth Republic, preferred not to take any risks on a subject that was sensitive to public opinion. At the beginning of June 1946, the American president Harry Truman intervened without success to demand his release, proposing to grant him political asylum in the United States.
Philippe Pétain”s mental health declined from the end of the 1940s onwards, with moments of lucidity becoming increasingly rare. After having taken a position in this regard as early as 1949, General de Gaulle declared on May 26, 1951, in Oran, in a speech delivered in the Place d”Armes before a crowd of about 8,000 people, that “it is deplorable for France, in the name of the past and of the indispensable national reconciliation, that the last Marshal should be allowed to die in prison. In view of this situation, after a medical examination carried out by Professor René Piedelièvre, the High Council of the Judiciary, presided over by Vincent Auriol, President of the Republic, in order to soften a foreseeable end, authorized on June 8, 1951 the “release” of the prisoner and his house arrest “in a hospital or any other place that could be used for this purpose. The transfer to a private home in Port-Joinville took place on June 29, 1951, less than a month before his death.
Death, burial and grave
On July 23, 1951, Philippe Pétain died in Port-Joinville, at the age of 95. He was watched over by Jean Rodhain and buried the next day in the cemetery of the same town.
The transfer of Marshal Pétain”s remains to the necropolis of Douaumont near Verdun was requested several times by the Association to Defend the Memory of Marshal Pétain (ADMP) from 1951 onwards, in the name of “national reconciliation. This transfer corresponds to a wish of Pétain, as written in his will of 1938, who wished to rest next to the hundreds of thousands of French soldiers who fell during the battle of Verdun. The association organized a petition to this effect in May 1954, supported by numerous 1914-1918 veterans” associations, which gathered nearly 70,000 signatures. Successive French governments always opposed this request. According to Henry Rousso”s analysis, it was a question of “forgetting the Marshal of 1940 for the benefit of the general of 1916, of using the memory of the veterans of the Great War, for whom Pétain remained the man of “We”ll get them!
On the night of February 19, 1973, the coffin of Marshal Pétain was kidnapped by members of the extreme right, at the instigation of Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, a former member of the OAS, in order to transfer his remains to Douaumont. Despite the precautions taken, the kidnapping was discovered a few hours later; it quickly made the headlines in the French media and mobilized the authorities. The commando then abandoned its route to Verdun, which was too risky, and headed back to Paris. The coffin was hidden in a garage in Saint-Ouen while Tixier-Vignancour tried to negotiate a transfer of the body to the Invalides. Hubert Massol, leader of the commando, finally surrendered on February 21, after the arrest of his accomplices, and indicated where the coffin was located. The coffin was brought back to the island of Yeu the next day and reburied after a brief ceremony. This time the grave was concreted.
Philippe Pétain”s grave was decorated with flowers on behalf of the President of the Republic on November 10, 1968 (under General de Gaulle, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice), on February 22, 1973 (under Georges Pompidou, following the reburial after the theft of the coffin), and in 1978 (under Valéry Giscard d”Estaing, on the occasion of the 60th commemoration of the 1918 victory). During the presidency of François Mitterrand, it was decorated with flowers on September 22, 1984 (day of the meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Verdun), then on June 15, 1986 (70th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun), then every November 11 between 1987 and 1992. This practice only ceased after numerous protests, including those from the Jewish community.
His grave is vandalized once or twice a year, resulting in complaints being filed.
From the Great War to 1940
A military man who succeeded late in life, Pétain owed his first prestige less to his role at Verdun than to his management of the morale crisis in 1917. By stopping the unnecessarily deadly offensives and by liberalizing the leave system, he gained and kept the reputation of an understanding leader, even in certain pacifist circles, who was concerned about sparing the blood of the soldiers. Even if some people recall (to exalt or to denounce) his role as the “shooter” of the mutineers of 1917, it is this reputation that is maintained during the inter-war period.
Contrary to a vivid legend that contributed enormously to his great popularity during the Occupation, Pétain was not providentially “brought out of the closet when he asked for nothing” in 1940 at the age of 84; it would be an exaggeration to say that he then “returned to service”, as many Frenchmen would believe. His time between the wars was indeed that of a recognized and active man: made Marshal in 1918, he was, after 1934, the last holder of the prestigious “dignity in the State”, along with Franchet d”Esperey; member of the French Academy, Inspector General of the Army, very influential on military doctrine, he was a short-lived Minister of War in 1934 and then French ambassador to Spain in 1939. He already appeared to some as a possible recourse.
During these years, he avoided taking sides that were too clear-cut, which even gave him a reputation in republican and even left-wing circles as a moderate and politically reliable soldier. Not very clerical, unlike a Foch or a Castelnau, he did not interfere in the crisis of 1924, when the latter led a mass movement against the anticlericalism of the Herriot government; he avoided denouncing the Popular Front and Republican Spain in public; he was informed of the “Cagoule” plot to overthrow the Republic and to bring a prestigious military man (himself or Franchet d”Esperey) to the head of the State, but he did not compromise himself (1937). In 1939, when he was appointed ambassador to Franco, Léon Blum protested in Le Populaire that the Spanish dictator was being sent “the best we have”. Only Colonel de Gaulle suspected that he had a taste for power, and confided: “He will accept anything, as long as his senile ambition wins.
In May 1940, Paul Reynaud was no more suspicious of Pétain when he called him to the vice-presidency of the Council. However, after having remained silent for a long time at first, Pétain took the lead of the supporters of the armistice.
Marshalists, Petainists and opinion during the Occupation
There is no doubt that a majority of French people, stunned by the rout of an army they believed to be invincible, welcomed the armistice as a relief, as well as the maintenance of a French government led by a providential savior and likely, in their eyes, to act as a screen between them and the occupier. Very few perceived at the time that the withdrawal from the war condemned the country to a long occupation requiring agreement with the victor. Moreover, Olivier Wieviorka points out, neither the majority of French people nor the majority of parliamentarians who voted him full powers wanted to give him a mandate to exclude the Jews, to break up national unity or to hitch France to the German tank.
Contrary to a still persistent legend, in 1940 there were not “forty million Petainists” who became forty million Gaullists in 1944.
Stanley Hoffmann”s distinction between “marshalists” and “petainists” has indeed become an accepted part of contemporary historiography. The “Maréchalists” trusted Pétain as a shield for the French. The “Petainists”, who were in a much smaller minority, also approved of his reactionary ideology and his domestic policies, and even of state collaboration. Maurras himself publicly diagnosed the gap between public support for the Marshal and distrust or opposition to the work of the National Revolution in December 1942: “A very clear and strong current of national affection had been unleashed. It was growing. Only it went to the man, it stopped in front of the work”.
Many early Resistance fighters were thus for a time mistakenly Marshalists, believing that Pétain was playing a double game and that by preparing for revenge, they were responding to his secret wishes. Henri Frenay and the clandestine journal Défense de la France praised Pétain in 1941-1942, before coming back from their illusions and denouncing his role as ambiguous and harmful.
Others, the “vichysto-resistants”, participated in the Vichy regime and the implementation of its policies before turning away from it, especially after November 1942, while maintaining their respect for Pétain and for all or part of his ideas. Often, they had no fundamental objection to these ideas, but considered that the time chosen to apply them was inappropriate, as long as the Germans still occupied the territory.
Some of those who had been disappointed by the Third Republic also believed that Pétain”s regime could be used to implement their own projects, and rallied to all or part of his National Revolution. Thus, Emmanuel Mounier, who obtained the re-publication of Esprit in November 1940 and whose first issue of the journal appeared rather favorable to the National Revolution, broke with Pétain in May 1941 out of a radical rejection of anti-Semitism and joined the Resistance. His magazine ceased publication after July 1941. François Mitterrand, an escaped prisoner working in the official Vichy offices, was received by Marshal Pétain in September 1942 but joined the Resistance a few months later.
While many “Parisian collaborationists” despised Vichy and his leader, whom they considered too reactionary and still too uncommitted to the Third Reich, many of the ultra-collaborationists were very fervent followers of Pétain, whose public calls to collaborate with the occupier they considered to be relayed: thus Joseph Darnand or Jacques Doriot, who called himself “a man of the Marshal” until the end of 1941. A clearly pro-Nazi group in the northern zone even called itself the “Jeunes du Maréchal” (Young Marshal”s Youth). Many ultras were more or less early appointed members of the Petain government in Vichy: Gaston Bruneton, Abel Bonnard, Jean Bichelonne, Fernand de Brinon, and later Philippe Henriot or Marcel Déat.
The pioneering work of Pierre Laborie and many other historians now makes it possible to better understand the evolution of public opinion under Vichy. Generally speaking, the National Revolution, Pétain”s primary concern, was of little interest to the French, and “slipped” from 1941 onwards. Collaboration was widely rejected, but many people mistakenly believed that the Marshal was acting in good faith and wanted to protect the French, or even that he was forced by the Germans to collaborate or even imprisoned by a “collaborator” entourage. Taking up the ancestral theme of the good monarch deceived by his bad ministers, the mass of French people distinguished between the marshal and his ministers, starting with the very unpopular Pierre Laval, who was unanimously hated, and who alone was responsible for all the turpitudes and failures of the regime.
However, many French people do not know the difference, whether they are Resistance fighters or not. In many schools, the teacher neglected to teach the pupils “Le Maréchal, nous voilà! Overall, Pétain”s prestige was much lower among the workers than among the peasants or the bourgeoisie, and there were many nuances to this. The prisoners of war, cut off from French reality since 1940 and pampered by the regime”s propaganda, generally remained Marshalists or Pétainists longer than other Frenchmen. While the vast majority of the French episcopate remained very Maréchalist or even Petainist until 1944, Catholics were, along with the Communists, one of the categories most involved in the Resistance. Finally, the southern zone, the “kingdom of the Marshal”, was much more marked by the presence of Pétain and his regime than the northern zone, where the head of state, Vichy and the National Revolution were much more distant realities. In his native Nord-Pas-de-Calais, cut off from the Hexagon and directed from Brussels, Pétain and his regime were not held in any esteem: the Occupation was too brutal from the outset, worse than the one already suffered between 1914 and 1918, and traditional Anglophilia was too strong to leave any room for the themes of collaboration and domestic “recovery.
After the roundups of Jews in the summer of 1942, the invasion of the southern zone in November 1942, and the introduction of the STO, Vichy was discredited on a massive scale, but the majority of people did not see the Marshal as a protector. However, the latter became more and more distant in the eyes of the French.
On April 26, 1944, when Pétain came to Paris for the first time in four years, a large crowd cheered him and sang La Marseillaise.
Opinion polls taken in the autumn of 1944 did not show a clear majority of French people in favour of condemning the “traitor” Pétain, however, the proportion demanding capital punishment continued to increase as the months went by. When asked whether the Marshal should be sentenced, the responses were as follows:
The PCF led a virulent campaign against “Pétain-Bazaine,” likening the Vichy leader to the famous traitor of the 1870 war. Pétain”s sentence to the ultimate punishment, and then his pardon, were approved by a majority.
However, an ordinance of August 9, 1944 denied the legality of the Vichy regime and reaffirmed republican legality as of June 18, 1940. The nullity of the Vichy legislation is specified in article 2 of the text: “All constitutional, legislative or regulatory acts, as well as the decrees taken for their execution, under whatever name, promulgated on the continental territory after June 16, 1940 and until the re-establishment of the provisional government of the French Republic, are consequently null and void.
After the Second World War
At the Pétain trial, the lawyer Jacques Isorni, along with his colleagues Jean Lemaire and the bâtonnier Fernand Payen, launched the legend of the “misappropriation of an old man”: Pétain was allegedly abused by Pierre Laval, who took advantage of his old age. During the Fourth Republic, the Gaullist RPF used the famous phrase of Charles de Gaulle in his memoirs: “old age is a shipwreck”, “the tragedy is that the Marshal died in 1925 and that no one noticed”. The historian Éric Roussel, among others, has shown that this Gaullist judgment does not explain the choices of the French head of state, and that it really only has an electoral purpose: in order to rally as many votes as possible against the despised “party system,” the Gaullists must rally the ex-Pétainists without denying their action in the Resistance, hence this convenient excuse for Pétain”s age.
In reality, as Marc Ferro, Jean-Pierre Azéma and François Bédarida show, Pétain”s choices were perfectly coherent and enjoyed the support of the most diverse sectors of society. Yves Durand emphasizes that he built his regime as if he had time ahead of him, without worrying about the possibility of his imminent demise. As for the famous “absences of the Marshal” reported by Jean-Raymond Tournoux, Marc Ferro or Jean-Paul Brunet (he would suddenly start talking about the day”s menu or the weather outside in front of visitors), this was above all a tactic to evade embarrassing questions by playing on the respect that his octogenarian status inspired. In fact, at the end of his regime, both observers and ultra-collaborationists were still publicly praising his health and clarity of mind.
For Robert Paxton, the journalist Robert Aron helped launch the parallel legend of the “sword and shield”: Pétain tried to resist German demands on the one hand, and secretly sought to help the Allies on the other, while de Gaulle prepared for revenge. These two theses are the hobbyhorses of the apologists for Pétain”s memory, but these distinctions were shattered after the publication of his book La France de Vichy in 1973. With German and then French archives to back them up, today”s historians demonstrate, following his lead, that Pétain sought collaboration, whereas Adolf Hitler did not believe in it and never wanted to treat France as a partner. If collaboration did not go as far as it could have, it was because of Hitler”s reluctance, and not because of any resistance on the part of Pétain to the demands of the occupier. Thus, the collaboration responded to the fundamental and intangible choices of both Pétain and Laval, whom the marshal appointed and allowed to act by helping his government with his charisma. As for the famous “double game” of the marshal, it never existed. The few informal talks he authorized with London at the end of 1940 had no follow-up, and they carried no weight in relation to his constant maintenance of state collaboration until the end of his regime in the summer of 1944.
Moreover, by excluding, on his own initiative, entire categories of the national community (Jews, Communists, Republicans, Freemasons, and of course Resistance fighters), Pétain made them more vulnerable to German repression, and excluded them from his hypothetical protection, just like the Alsatians-Mosellans, who were abandoned and, for many of them, died or were wounded for life because of Hitler, in the hands of an enemy power. Thus Pétain appears today to historians, in the words of Jean-Pierre Azéma, as “a pierced shield.
Since 1945, eight requests for a review of the Pétain trial have been rejected, as well as the repeated request to transfer his remains to Douaumont. In a note to Alexandre Sanguinetti on May 4, 1966, General de Gaulle, then President of the Republic, stated his position on this question as follows:
“The signatories of the “petition” concerning the “transfer” of Pétain”s remains to Douaumont have in no way been mandated by the 800,000 veterans to take up this political issue. They are only mandated to assert the specific interests of their associations. Tell them that.
In the wake of the purge, most of the roads named in honor of Pétain in France were renamed, a few remaining, the last one until 2013.
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac officially recognized the responsibility of the state in the roundup of the Vélodrome d”Hiver, and in 2006, for the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, his speech mentioned both the role of Pétain in the battle and his disastrous choices in the Second World War.
A long legal battle took place from October 1984 to September 1998 concerning the memory of Marshal Pétain. On July 13, 1984, Jacques Isorni and François Lehideux published an advertisement in the daily newspaper Le Monde entitled “Français, vous avez la mémoire courte” (“Frenchmen, you have a short memory”), in which they defended Marshal Pétain in the name of the Association for the Defense of Marshal Pétain”s Memory and the National Pétain-Verdun Association. Following a complaint lodged by the National Association of Resistance Veterans for glorifying crimes or offenses of collaboration with the enemy, the public prosecutor issued a final dismissal order on May 29, 1985, but the examining magistrate referred the parties to the Paris Criminal Court a week later, which acquitted the defendants on June 27, 1986 – a decision confirmed by the Paris Court of Appeal on July 8, 1987. The decision of the Court of Appeal was overturned by the Court of Cassation on December 20, 1988. On January 26, 1990, the Paris Court of Appeals reversed itself, declaring the civil parties admissible; it overturned the acquittal judgment and ordered the defendants to pay one franc in damages and to publish the judgment in Le Monde. The appeal to the Supreme Court filed by the defendants was rejected by the Court on November 16, 1993. Finally, on September 23, 1998 (in the Lehideux and Isorni v. France decision), the European Court of Human Rights decided by fifteen votes to six that there had been a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights – relating to freedom of expression: the majority opinion of the judges was that it should be possible to present a person, whoever he may be, in a favorable light and to promote his rehabilitation – if necessary by overlooking the facts of which he may be accused – and that the criminal conviction suffered by the applicants in France was disproportionate.
“The whole career of this exceptional man had been a long effort of repression. Too proud for intrigue, too strong for mediocrity, too ambitious to be an arriviste, he nourished in his solitude a passion to dominate, long hardened by the conscience of his own value, the setbacks he encountered, the contempt he had for others. Military glory had once lavished its bitter caresses on him. But it had not fulfilled him, for lack of having loved him alone. And here, suddenly, in the extreme winter of his life, events offered his gifts and his pride the long-awaited opportunity to blossom without limits, on one condition, however, that he accept the disaster as the flag of his elevation and decorate it with his glory. In spite of everything, I am convinced that in other times, Marshal Pétain would not have consented to wear the purple of national abandon. I am sure, in any case, that as long as he was himself, he would have taken the road to war as soon as he could see that he had been mistaken, that victory was still possible, that France would have its share. But, alas! The years, underneath the envelope, had eaten away at his character. Age delivered him to the maneuvers of people skilled in covering up his majestic lassitude. Old age is a shipwreck. So that nothing was spared us, Marshal Pétain”s old age was going to be identified with the shipwreck of France.”
– Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de guerre, l”Appel, 1940-1942.
Juger Pétain, texts by Sébastien Vassant and Philippe Saada, drawings by Sébastien Vassant, éditions Glénat, coll. 1000 Feuilles, 133 pages, 2015.
The name of Marshal Pétain was given to a liner of the Messageries Maritimes but this one, if it was indeed launched under this name, was renamed La Marseillaise before it was put in service.
The village of Beni Amrane in Algeria was named “Maréchal Pétain” between 1942 and 1943.