After 9 months of fighting, including heavy, sustained losses, the Third French Republic signed an armistice with Nazi Germany. The new regime, headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, was known as Vichy France.
Noted for its authoritarian, anti-Semitic and xenophobic tendencies, the new regime worked in collaboration with the Nazis and oversaw the rounding up and deportation of French Jews, bolstered the Nazis with forced labour, foodstuffs and raw materials and persecuted other ‘undesirables’.
Debates have raged amongst historians about whether Vichy France was simply a puppet state of the Germans, whether it had its own agenda and how Vichy France can be viewed in relation to the French Republic. Only 4 senior Vichy officials were tried for crimes against humanity: a tiny number compared to how many were involved in upholding the new regime. Here are 5 of the most important figures in Vichy France.
1. Philippe Pétain
A First World War hero, nicknamed the ‘Lion of Verdun‘, Pétain became Head of State following the fall of France in 1940. After months of brutal warfare and the realisation that there was no way France could continue to fight the Germans, many initially welcomed Pétain’s prominent reappearance in national politics.
However, he quickly began to show authoritarian tendencies: the Third Republic was voted out of existence and parliament adjourned indefinitely, a new motto, “Travail, famille, patrie” (“Work, family, fatherland”) put in place and Pétain gave himself virtually untouchable governing power.
The new government collaborated with the Nazi regime, with Pétain signing anti-Semitic laws into place and acquiescing to Axis requests for supplies and defence in the colonies. Despite everything, Pétain retained his popularity with the French people.
After the fall of the government, Pétain was tried for treason by the new provisional government, led by Charles de Gaulle. He was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death, although due to his advanced age, this was commuted to life imprisonment. Many agitated for his release, but it was seen as too unpredictable a decision for the new government.
Pétain died in 1951 after becoming increasingly infirm. Charles de Gaulle later described Pétain’s life as
“successively banal, then glorious, then deplorable, but never mediocre”
2. René Bousquet
Born in 1909, Bousquet became a national hero after rescuing dozens of people from drowning in floods: he was awarded the Legion of Honour and rose rapidly within the government, being named sous-préfet for Vitry-le-François in 1938, and a préfet in 1940 following the French armistice with Germany.
In 1942, Bousquet was appointed general secretary to the Vichy France police: despite attempts to gain autonomy for the French police, they remained firmly in collaboration with the Nazis. Bousquet helped facilitate the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and the Marseille Roundup, cancelled orders not to arrest minors or parents of small children, and oversaw the transportation of thousands of Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
Under pressure from the French paramilitary, Bousquet destroyed his archives and resigned his post in December 1943. He spent much of the rest of the war in Germany. In 1944, he was tried and found guilty of indignité nationale (national unworthiness) for his involvement in the Vichy government.
Unusually, Bousquet managed resurrect his political career in the 1950s and was close to President Francois Mitterrand. In 1991 he was indicted for war crimes by the national government: shortly before his trial was to begin, he was murdered. His killer claimed the act was justified by Bousquet’s war crimes.
3. Louis Darquier de Pellepoix
Darquier had long been involved in Fascist politics: his views, particularly on anti-Semitism, were well-known and well publicised. In 1942, he was appointed the Vichy’s Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs: the SS had found his predecessor too moderate in his approach to what Darquier described as the ‘Jewish problem‘.
Under Darquier, mass deportations of French Jews to concentration camps began, and despite his enthusiastic anti-Semitism, he was fired in February 1944 for incompetence. He later claimed that Auschwitz’s gas chambers were never used to kill humans and those Jews who had testified were lying.
Following the end of the war, Darquier fled to Spain, where he was protected by Franco’s Fascist regime. Requests for his extradition were refused, and he was tried and sentenced to death in absentia in 1947 by the French High Court of Justice.
4. Paul Touvier
Touvier was born to a conservative Catholic family in 1915, and after a relatively obscure childhood, was mobilized for the war effort in 1939. The Touvier family were firm supporters of Philippe Pétain’s and although Paul initially fought against the Wehrmacht, he deserted the French army.
The establishment of the Milice (Vichy France’s militia) opened up a new career path for Touvier, who was eventually appointed head of intelligence under Klaus Barbie in the Chambéry Milice. In June 1944 he organised the execution of 7 French Jewish prisoners in retaliation for the assassination of the Vichy France Minister for Propaganda Philippe Henriot by the Resistance.
After the liberation of France, Touvier went into hiding. In his absence, he was sentenced to death for treason and collusion with the Nazis: the statute of limitations expired before his punishment could be carried out and Touvier later had his lawyers request a pardon. The pardon was granted in 1971 in the face of public outcry. He was arrested in 1989 having fled indictment once again, and died in prison in 1996.
5. Pierre Pucheu
Pucheu was a successful industrialist: his politics, including opposition to the Munich Agreement, were initially aligned to his business interests, although he became increasingly right-wing in reaction to what he perceived as the growth of communism.
Following the occupation in 1941, Pucheu’s political profile rose considerably and he was made Minister of the Interior in 1941. Despite his enthusiasm for anti-Semitism and anti-communism, Pucheu did not like the German occupation of France and pushed for a some degree of French independence, aligned with German interests.
As a result of this stance, Pucheu was replaced in 1942. Promised safe passage, he arrived in Morocco in 1943, where this was rescinded and he was quickly arrested and charged with treason. In March 1944 he was executed on the orders of Charles de Gaulle for his collaboration with the Nazi regime.