Philippe Petain and Vichy France: the hero that fell

Few men over the last century can have experienced such a change of fortune as Philippe Pétain. During the First World War, Pétain was hailed as the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, helping the French keep the Germans at bay during the 1916 Battle of Verdun. In May 1917 he was made commander-in-chief of French forces. His first task was to quell the French mutiny, which he did through a mixture of discipline and reform.

Pétain’s popularity improved even further when he limited French offensives to the minimum, claiming he was waiting for ‘the tanks and the Americans’.

Pétain and World War Two

World War Two and on 10 May 1940 Hitler‘s troops invaded France. A month later, having swept aside French resistance and dispatched the British forces at Dunkirk, the swastika was flying over the Arc du Triomphe.

France surrenders

On 17 June, the French prime minister, Paul Reynaud, resigned, to be replaced by the 84-year-old Philippe Pétain. Pétain’s first acts were to seek an armistice with the Germans and order Reynaud’s arrest. On 22 June, 50 miles north-east of Paris, the French officially surrendered, the ceremony taking place in the same spot and in the same railway carriage that the Germans had surrendered to the French on 11 November 1918.

Northern France, as dictated by the terms of the surrender, would be occupied by the Germans, whilst southern France, 40 per cent of the country, would remain nominally independent with its own government based in the spa town of Vichy in central France, 200 miles south of Paris. Pétain would be its Head of State. A small corner of south-eastern France, around Nice, was entrusted to Italian control; Italy having entered the war on the 10 June.

Pétain and Vichy France had the support of much of the nation. The French considered the British evacuation at Dunkirk as nothing less than a betrayal, and many labelled General Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped France to begin his life of exile in London, a traitor. Indeed, he was later sentenced to death – in absentia by the Vichy government.

The end of democracy

On 10 July 1940, the French Chamber of Deputies transferred all its powers to Pétain, dissolving the Third Republic and thus doing away with democracy, the French Parliament and itself. Philippe Pétain, never a fan of democracy, which he regarded as a weak institution, was delighted. Strong, central government was Pétain’s way, and relishing his new role in Vichy’s Hotel du Pac, Pétain immediately set about decreeing swathes of new legislation, much of it anti-Semitic, and becoming the most authoritative French head of state since Napoleon.

Pétain’s Vichy Government was not a fascist regime and Pétain was not a puppet of the Nazis, at least he liked to think so – but the anti-Semitic laws were his own. Right from the start the Vichy Government set out its stall, actively doing the Nazi’s dirty work with little interference: conducting a vicious civil war against the French resistance, implementing numerous anti-Jewish laws, and sending tens of thousands of Jews to the death camps. Within six months, 60,000 non-French citizens had been interned in thirty concentration camps that had sprung up in France with alarming speed and efficiency.

Whilst in Northern France the Germans rounded up the Jews for deportation and death, in the south the French did it for themselves. The Jews however were safe in Italian-controlled south-east France with Mussolini himself ordering the protection of the Jewish population – much to the annoyance of both the Germans and the French. But, following the Italian withdrawal in September 1943, the French authorities moved in and the Jewish population suffered.

Pétain and Hitler

In October 1940, Philippe Pétain met Hitler, and although Pétain resisted Hitler’s demands that France should participate in the attack on Britain, photographs of the two men shaking hands were soon seen across the world – evidence of Vichy’s complicity with the Nazis.

In November 1942, French troops fighting under the Vichy flag fought British and American forces in Morocco but surrendered after only three days. Hitler, viewing their performance as treacherous, responded by occupying the Vichy-controlled part of France. Pétain, who’s power, although far-reaching, was always dependent on Hitler’s favour, was now reduced to little more than a figurehead as the Germans took over the practical running of Vichy.

Paris liberated

On 6 June 1944, D-Day, Operation Overlord went into action, the Allied invasion of France. Major-General von Choltitz, Hitler’s commanding officer in Paris, surrendered on 25 August as the French general, Philippe Leclerc, led the Allies into the city. They were ecstatically welcomed and the witch-hunt for known collaborators began immediately. The following day, De Gaulle made his triumphant return to Paris, marching down the Champs-Elysees, declaring Paris ‘liberated by her own people with the help of the armies of France’, a rather fanciful exaggeration of the facts.

For a country that had enthusiastically supported Pétain and the Vichy Government and, in 1940, had labelled De Gaulle a traitor, now, five years on, it seemed every Frenchman had been an active member of the Resistance.

Within a fortnight of Paris’s liberation Pétain and his Vichy colleagues had relocated to the German town of Sigmaringen and from there formed a government-in-exile but any pretence of power or influence which had in practice long since deceased, disappeared entirely.

Death of the fallen hero

On 15 August 1945, Pétain was tried for his collaboration with the Nazis and convicted. The 89-year-old Marshal was sentenced to death by firing squad. De Gaulle however stepped in and taking into account Pétain’s age and his First World War record, commuted Pétain’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Pétain was imprisoned, in relative luxury, on the island of Île d’Yeu, on the Atlantic coast of France. Increasingly frail, he needed constant care. He died on 23 July 1951, aged 95.

 Rupert Colley

See also articles on Charles de Gaulle and his ‘Appeal of 18 June’, and the Fall of France.

Read more about the war in World War Two: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.