The French Resistance played a huge role in the liberation of France. Made up of men and women from all walks of life, they worked together in small, regional groups in order to gather and pass on intelligence to the Allies and to sabotage and undermine the Nazis and Vichy regime wherever possible.
Women were often marginalised within the Resistance: they made up only about 11% of its members. Nonetheless, those women who were involved achieved remarkable things and acted with great courage and character to help collect and pass on intelligence and participate in sabotage operations.
1. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade
Born in Marseille and educated in Shanghai, Fourcade met a former French military intelligence officer, codenamed Navarre, in 1936 and was recruited by him in 1939 to work for a network of spies, later known as the ‘Alliance’. Navarre was arrested and imprisoned in 1941, leaving Fourcade to lead the movement.
She did so extremely successfully, managing to recruit agents who gained important military intelligence which was subsequently transmitted to the British clandestinely. During this time, Fourcade spent months on the run, giving birth to her third child and leaving him hidden at a safe house during this time.
In 1943, Fourcade headed to London to work with British intelligence briefly. This secondment was forcibly extended by her control officers, who only allowed her to return to France in July 1944. Following the end of the war, she helped take care of over 3,000 resistance agents and survivors and chaired the Committee of Resistance Action from 1962 onwards.
Despite her prominent role within the French resistance and leadership of the longest-running spy network, she was not decorated after the war or designated as a resistance hero. She continued to maintain a relatively high profile in international politics for the rest of her life, and was involved in the trial of Klaus Barbie, the so-called Butcher of Lyon, for war crimes in the 1980s.
2. Lucie Aubrac
Born in 1912, Lucie Aubrac was a brilliant history teacher and committed supporter of communism. She and her husband Raymond were some of the first members of the French Resistance, forming a group called La Dernière Colonne, better known as Libération-sud.
The group carried out acts of sabotage, distributed anti-German propaganda and published an underground newspaper. Few other women had such prestigious roles in Resistance groups or activities. Lucie continued to teach history and perform her role as a dutiful mother and wife during this time.
When her husband was arrested, she executed a daring scheme to break him and 15 other prisoners free from the Gestapo. In 1944, Lucie became the first woman to sit in a parliamentary assembly when Charles de Gaulle created a consultative assembly.
Lucie’s story has since been tainted by accusations from Klaus Barbie that her husband Raymond was actually an informer, whilst historians began noting inconsistencies within Lucie’s memoirs, published in English as Outwitting the Gestapo. Some believe the Aubracs’ communist sympathies led to the attacks on their character. Lucie died in 2007, and was dubbed by President Sarkozy as ‘a legend in the history of the Resistance’.
3. Josephine Baker
Better known as an iconic entertainer of the Roaring Twenties, Baker was living in Paris at the outbreak of war in 1939. She was quickly recruited by the Deuxième Bureau as an ‘honourable correspondent’, gathering intelligence, information and contacts at parties and events she attended. Her work as an entertainer also provided her with an excuse for moving around a lot.
As the war progressed, she carried notes written on invisible ink on her sheet music across Europe and North Africa, as well as housing supporters of the Free France movement and aiding them to get visas. She later ended up in Morocco, ostensibly for her health, but she continued to carry messages (often pinned to her underwear) with information across to mainland Europe and to Resistance members. Baker also toured French, British and American troops in North Africa to provide entertainment.
Following the end of the war, she was decorated with the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, as well as being made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. Her career continued to be successful, bolstered by her wartime heroics.
4. Rose Valland
Valland was a respected art historian: in 1932, she began working in the curatorial department of the Jeu de Paume in Paris. In 1941, following the German occupation of France, the Jeu de Paume became a central storage and sorting depot for artworks looted by the Nazis from assorted public and private art collections. Over 20,000 works of art passed through the museum’s walls.
For the next four years, Valland kept notes about what was brought to the museum and where it was headed. She spoke decent German (a fact she hid from the Nazis) and so was able to understand much more of proceedings than she ever let on. Valland’s work also allowed her to pass on details of shipments of art so that they would not be targeted by members of the Resistance for sabotage or detonation, including details of a shipment of nearly 1000 modernist paintings to Germany in 1944.
Following the liberation of Paris, Valland briefly came under suspicion of being a collaborator, but was exonerated quickly. After months of working with the Monuments Men, she finaly turned over her detailed notes on repositories of looted art.
It’s thought that her work allowed over 60,000 pieces of art to be returned to France. Valland also acted as a witness during the Nuremberg Trials (including that of Hermann Goering, who stole large quantities of art) and worked with the French army and government to continue to return art to France.
She received the Légion d’honneur for her services and was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance as well as being decorated by the German and American governments.
5. Agnès de La Barre de Nanteuil
Aged just 17 when war broke out, de Nanteuil joined the Red Cross in 1940 and later joined the Resistance where she was known as Agent Claude. Having been a keen member of the scouts as a teenager, she took up a role as a scout leader which allowed her to travel from place to place on a bicycle with messages hidden in her handlebars, or to place landing lights for parachuters.
In March 1944, she returned home to find the Gestapo waiting for her: one of the other members of the Resistance had revealed her identity under torture. De Nanteuil was imprisoned and tortured for information multiple times, but disclosed nothing. In August 1944, she was packed into an old cattle car for deportation to Germany when she was shot: either in an attack by British planes or by a Nazi soldier to prevent her escaping.
She died from her injuries a few days later: before she passed away, she forgave the Resistance worker who had betrayed her. She was posthumously awarded the Resistance Medal by Charles de Gaulle in 1947.