From 1934 until 1944 France was engulfed by a civil war. Following the surrender of the French republic, a French state based in Vichy waged war against Jews, Communists and other ‘undesirables’. Technically France was divided into zones of occupation, with the Vichy regime directly responsible for the southern third, and the Nazi occupiers for the rest of the country. But even in those zones French police and civil servants were largely responsible for sending Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz and the other death camps, and for waging war on the left. Pro-fascist French intellectuals vied to demonstrate their anti-Semitism and support for Hitler.
Julian Jackson’s ‘France: The Dark Years’ is the single best available history of Vichy France, the Nazi occupation and the Resistance.
Two myths are rife about the experience of French society in those years. One was presented by the postwar de Gaulle regime and its main opponent, the French Communist Party. Both were eager, for different reasons, to portray a nation united in resisting the Germans and a few collaborators. The other is still trotted out by sources in Washington and Whitehall whenever France seems less keen to wage war at the US’s call–that the French surrendered in a cowardly fashion in 1940 and this is connected to their lack of enthusiasm for war today. Within France these arguments found an echo in the 1980s and 1990s, when it became fashionable in intellectual circles to rubbish the Resistance.
The strength of Jackson’s book is that it traces France’s internal divisions in the years following 1934, when domestic fascism attempted to challenge for power. The spontaneous reaction of French workers culminated in the election of a left wing Popular Front government in 1936 and a mass strike in which workers took over the factories.
This upsurge was contained and defused by the Communist Party, keen at that time to promote unity between Stalin’s Russia and the French state. But the French ruling class had suffered a terrible fright. In 1940 its fear of the left and the working class meant it was largely prepared to accept Hitler as a saviour.
A relatively junior general, de Gaulle fled to London as the French government surrendered. He found little support among the upper classes. The parliament elected in 1936, including a majority of the Socialist Party deputies, voted power to Marshal Pétain, who proceeded to demolish the institutions and laws of the French republic, dating in large part back to the 1789 revolution. The resistance to Vichy and Nazi rule began among small groups of intellectuals. It gathered strength in 1941 after Hitler invaded Russia and the Communist Party switched its position to promoting military resistance to Hitler.
Jackson’s book spends a lot of time dealing with intellectual figures whose names will be known to few today. But it is clear, if sometimes understated, that the Resistance relied largely on the left and the working classes. In August 1944 de Gaulle was desperate to forestall the Communist-led Resistance from taking control of Paris in an insurrection which largely liberated the capital. In whole swathes of the south and centre the left effectively had power. Jackson plays down the possibility of revolution. The small but real contribution of the Trotskyists, the syndicalists and others to the left of the Communist Party is ignored.
In the late 1980s and 1990s a series of trials of French collaborators for crimes against humanity revealed the complicity of the French state in the deaths of Jews. Some were open fascists who were sheltered by the Catholic church, among others, in the postwar years. What made this more chilling was the complicity of bureaucrats prepared to sanction mass murder who went on to high office and honour under the Gaullist regime. The revelation that the Socialist President Mitterrand had served Pétain, was rewarded by the Vichy state and continued to honour Pétain’s memory, and that one of his closest allies was the man responsible for rounding up the Jews of Bordeaux, revealed how deep sympathy with the Nazis went.
There are close links between today’s fascists and Vichy. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the National Front, has made little secret of his liking for Pétain and his dislike of Jews. In 1992 one of the National Front’s candidates was a prewar fascist who had been involved in the massacre of Resistance fighters in 1944.
In a previous book on the Popular Front of 1936 Jackson was not prepared to attach the label fascist to the French far right of those years. There is still an ambivalence about doing so in this book, despite the overwhelming evidence of the right’s keen complicity with Hitler.
But read this book to remember what happened in France in those years, and to understand that Le Pen and his cohorts are the spiritual heirs of Pétain and the French Hitlerites.
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