France under Vichy (1939-1944)

France was deeply affected by the outbreak of the Second World War and its defeat by the Germans, which led to the Occupation and the Vichy regime. It is these turbulent years that we propose to examine, as well as all the trends that ran through France until the Liberation in 1944.

(To illustrate this article: “Work, Family, Homeland” was the motto adopted under Vichy France, here put in colors in a propaganda poster)

This extensive history course on France under the Vichy regime will focus successively on the following:

I. The defeat of France (complete course on the Vichy regime)

France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. The objective was to dissuade them from going to war. The Daladier government made the following declaration to Germany: “France will assume its obligations towards Poland.”
However, no operations were undertaken.

The Maginot Line was a concrete fortification, built to avoid the trenches of the First World War. There was no fighting until May 1940, it was the phony war. However, this phony war demoralized the opinion and also the front. As there was no combat, there was no sacred union either. There was a rise in pacifism in France. This pacifist movement is mainly represented by the CGT, some trade unions, Paul Faure at the PS, the national union of the fighters, the circles converted to fascism, and in September 1939 the communist party.

On March 19, 1940, Daladier became Minister of War and Paul Reynaud replaced him as President of the Council. However, Paul Reynaud announced his resignation on May 9, 1940. The next day, when he learned of the German attack, he reneged on his resignation.
Germany attacked Belgium and the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. The Dyle and Bredan outlines were implemented to stop them. On May 13, a breach was made through the Ardennes forest. Under fire and bombardment, 200,000 Englishmen and 138 Frenchmen embarked for England. On June 4, the city of Dunkirk was taken. The battle of France was already lost. Paris was occupied in turn on June 14. The Germans were able to take the Maginot Line from the rear, heading east. In the following days, the Wehrmacht entered the cities of Lyon, Clermont, Angoulême and Bordeaux without resistance. A great exodus took place in the disorder and panic under the help of planes. At the end of June, no less than 6 million French people were on the road.

For Pétain, it was the “spirit of pleasure” that had caused the defeat of France. Implicitly, Pétain blamed the left. In fact, it is rather the strategy of the General Staff that led to the defeat of France.

II. From the Third Republic to the French State (complete course on the Vichy regime)

On May 19, Reynaud replaced Gamelin with General Weygand. On May 18, he relieved Edouard Daladier of his duties. On June 16, 1940, Paul Reynaud resigned and advised President Lebrun to replace him with Pétain. It was Pétain who immediately asked Germany for an armistice. On June 17, 1940, in a radio message, Pétain declared: “It is with a heavy heart that I tell you today that we must stop fighting.

It was decided to stay in France, rather than move the government to North Africa as had been suggested. On June 22, Germany announced its conditions for the armistice:

—a French army reduced to 100,000 men

—that those who had laid down their arms are taken prisoner until peace was achieved

—the manufacture of war material is forbidden and the material that already exists is delivered to Germany

—the French ships are disarmed

—the north and west of France are occupied

—occupation costs

The armistice was signed with Germany on June 22 and with Italy on June 24. While Pierre Laval Philippe Pétain moved to Vichy on July 1st, 10 days later they had the following article voted:

“Single article.
The National Assembly gives full power to the government of the Republic, under the authority and signature of Marshal Pétain, to promulgate by one or more acts a new constitution for the French state. This constitution will have to guarantee the rights of the Work, the Family and the Fatherland.
It will be ratified by the Nation and applied by the assemblies that it will have created. The present constitutional law, deliberated and adopted by the National Assembly, will be executed as a law of the State.”

—Done at Vichy, July 10, 1940
By the President of the Republic,
Albert Lebrun
The Marshal of France, President of the Council,
Philippe Pétain

This text was accepted by 569 people, 80 people refused, and 17 abstained. The voters were in fact distraught and still under the trauma. Some only became aware of the significance of this vote afterwards.

III. Vichy politics (full course on the Vichy regime)

On July 15, 1940, Pétain revealed the first four constitutional acts: the republic no longer existed, it was replaced by the “French State. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies were adjourned sine die. They will disappear in July 1940. A cult was established around the Marshal, who was very popular. His portrait was in every home, and his government received recognition from foreign countries.

On January 24, 1941, the National Council was created to represent the people, but in reality it was almost ineffective. The regime promoted Christian principles, family, work, corporatism, paternalism, authoritarian centralism, and the power of the administration.

At the beginning of the regime, the government was mainly influenced by the extreme right, by the spiritualists, by the pacifist and anti-communist left. Then between 1941 and 1942 it was the technocrats and admirals who exercised influence. Between 1942 and 1943, it is rather the liberals. After 1943, the government became more authoritarian and extremist.

The vision of France as a land of welcome was rejected. It was” France for the French”. In this sense, foreigners were interned in concentration camps, and anti-Nazi immigrants were handed over to the Germans. A vast outline of denaturalization affected 15,000 French people. An anti-Semitic policy was put in place.

In October 1941 and June 1941, two statutes on Jews were created, anticipating German wishes. These statutes were put in place for two reasons: the anti-Semitism of some, who were supported by Pétain, and to preserve French sovereignty by taking measures themselves, rather than taking orders from the Germans. These statutes were inspired by German regulations: Jews were excluded from positions of influence such as the civil service, the arts, teaching, etc.; access to universities and the liberal professions was henceforth subject to a numerus clausus. In July 1941, it was decided to “Aryanize” Jewish businesses. In 1942, the word “Jewish” was added to the identity card. In order to implement these measures, a commissioner for Jewish issues was created in March 1941.

But foreigners and Jews were not the only ones targeted; the regime also attacked the Freemasons. On August 13, 1940, Freemasonry was dissolved. Those responsible for the old order were also targeted: secular teachers, the administration, which was purged, the municipal councils of large cities, which were dissolved, and the former leaders of the Third Republic, including Léon Blum, Jean Zay, Daladier, Pierre Mendès France, Raynaud, Georges Mandel and Édouard Herriot.

The implementation of Catholic principles. The majority of Catholics supported the regime, but in the end, the measures were not so much in favor of Catholics.

As for the question of control over the education of youth, it is relative since there is a diversity of youth organizations. But these organizations had to respect the ideas of the regime. In July 1940, the Compagnons de France and the Chantiers de Jeunesse were created.

The government also favored large families and housewives: advantages were granted to future wives who did not have a profession, priority cards were set up for large families, heads of families were allowed to work overtime, and divorce was made more difficult.

The major labor and management union confederations were dissolved in the summer of 1940. The government wanted a corporate organization: that is, an organization based on class collaboration and allowing the profession to manage itself. The state wanted to avoid any economic action in this area. But the presence of the occupying forces and the shortages turned these corporate organizations into a means of control and distribution in the hands of the state, especially in the agricultural sector. In October 1940, a labor charter was adopted, but it had no practical effect. The law of August 16, 1940, established organization committees, one for each industrial sector, which allowed for collaboration between the State, big business and technocrats.

As for the State, Pétain worked on a constitution throughout the occupation. However, it remains to be seen whether the population will adopt this entire program. The creation of the Légion des combatants, which brought together all the veterans’ associations, was partly intended to achieve this. This heterogeneous organization by its members, shows itself sometimes passive but sometimes active, which involves conflicts of competence with the authorities. These conflicts caused it to stop, which had two consequences: in December 1941, an activist group broke away: the legionnaire order service, and the second consequence was the liberation of the administration, whose numbers increased from 600,000 civil servants to about 1 million.

The government’s cultural policy was to introduce the principles of a return to the French tradition, whether through the arts, radio, theater, sports or cinema.

From November 1940 to March 1942, the association Jeune France promoted a decentralized popular culture. The state became more involved in the cultural field, but this propaganda had little impact.

IV. Victims and Damage of the Occupation (complete course on the Vichy regime)


Vichy intended to ignore the German presence, but it was physically imposed on the French. Two Alsatian departments and the Moselle was annexed to the Reich in 1940. Half of France was occupied.

The Vichy laws applied as in the non-occupied zone. However, this sovereignty was subject to German goodwill. In the southern zone, the German military presence was not visible and Vichy retained the external aspects of its sovereignty. German pressure was exerted on the government and not on the population.


France had to pay compensation:

– Four hundred million a day in 1940, to maintain 18 million soldiers.

– 300 million in 1941

– 500 million in November 1942 from the invasion of the sum following by Germany

– Seven hundred million in June 1944 after the landing.

But Germany also recovers the resources of France: the gold, the catches of war, the purchases us defeated by the Germans in France, the forced cession of participation of French companies.

In total, the sums taken by the occupier amounted to about 700 billion. Vichy could not sustain such an effort, so he resorted to inflation by using the printing press.

Germany also had an impact on production: 12 to 17% of French agricultural production was sent to Germany. As for industrial production, the construction, automobile, lime and cement industries work 75% for Germany; the paint and rubber industries work 60% for Germany; and the textile industries 55% for Germany.

The labor force was also requisitioned by Germany: at the end of 1941, 1.6 million French people were working for Germany, and by the summer of 1944, 2.6 million.


Repression was carried out by the Germans, the collaborators and the Vichy authorities. Two hundred thousand to 250,000 people were arrested, especially Jews, communists and resistance fighters. From the summer of 1941, more than 300,000 hostages were executed.

This policy was carried out in the occupied zone by Germany with the help of the Vichy administration, and in the southern zone by the government of Pétain.

In May 1941, the first major roundup of Jews took place in the northern zone. The Germans implemented the “final solution” after 1942: on July 16 and 17, the Vel’s d’Hiv’s roundup involved 13,000 Jews.

In February 1943, the Vichy government initiated a new roundup.

In total, there were nearly 75,000 “racial” deportees.

The daily life of the French

In the summer of 1940, all goods were subject to general rationing: food, clothing, shoes and heating. In September 1940, the French were entitled to 350 g of bread per day, and in April 1941 to only 275 g per day. Each French person received ration tickets to the exchange. These take into account the age and professional activity of each French person. The shortage affected all products, especially food, and was even more severe in the city. This led to the development of the black market and the massive use of substitute food.

The population supported the Marshal, but in a passive and sentimental way: they were more attached to this person than to his policies. They also thought that the Marshal was playing a double game with the Germans.

This support grew with time, but more to the detriment of Pétain’s entourage than of Pétain himself.

The resistance was perceived in different ways: some people were happy but did not take part in it, others were reluctant. Overall, the population was entirely hostile to the collaboration, reserved about the internal resistance, increasingly sensitive to the action of de Gaulle, but they based their hopes above all on the allies; their greatest concern remained the worries of everyday life, such as shortages.

This population found an outlet in cultural activities: it was the golden age of cinema, but theater, radio, museums, and sports remained good entertainment. The cultural creation remains rich at this time.

V. The radicalization of Vichy (complete course on the Vichy regime)

In the spring of 1941, the first signs of disaffection affected the French. At that time, the first acts of a latent civil war were taking place, and the “V” signs of protest appeared at the same time as the leaflets of resistance movements. This situation led to a radicalization of Pétain’s policies.

On August 12, 1941, Pétain gave a speech in Saint-Étienne in which he noted the “bad wind that was blowing over several regions of France.

Political parties were abolished, as were the allowances of deputies and senators who were no longer in office. Police resources were strengthened, “power commissioners” were appointed and special justice was implemented by “special sections”. Ministers and civil servants were all required to take an oath of loyalty.

The trials of the men of the Third Republic took place in February 1942. These trials in Riom were quickly considered a farce: the men were judged on laws that did not exist, and some were even convicted before the trial. Faced with the protests, the Germans encouraged Vichy to put an end to the trial in April 1942. The “new order” project was abandoned in the face of what became a police state, where the press was muzzled.

The return to power of Pierre Laval in April 1942 marked a new rise in authoritarianism and the dominance of the Reich, leading to collaboration.


In economic matters, collaboration consisted of participating in the German economy in exchange for profit. Collaborations, which brought together admirers of fascism, did not exceed 40,000 to 50,000 people: less than 1% of the population.

The source of State collaboration was the certainty of German victory and therefore the need to collaborate for a peace treaty that would be favorable to Vichy: it was a matter of preserving French sovereignty and not of being an auxiliary of Germany, of defending French interests in what would perhaps be a future German Europe. But Adolf Hitler, if he was ready to pretend to collaborate, did not want to give anything to France, and wanted to exploit this country without any compensation.

It is possible to distinguish several phases in the state collaboration:

-On October 22, 1940, Laval met Adolf Hitler and Ribbentrop in Montoire, to whom he proposed collaboration. He obtained a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Pétain, which took place on October 24, and whose main effect was to accentuate the propaganda. “I am entering the path of collaboration today,” Pétain explained to the French. Petard dismissed Laval on December 13, 1940, annoyed by the initiatives that Laval was taking without informing him.

-In February 1941, Admiral Darlan tried to renew interrupted contacts. In May, the Paris Protocols were similar to a cobelligerence between France and Germany. Darlan apparently did not understand the significance of this text, but nationalists such as General Weygand did, and the latter wanted the protocols to fail.

—The Germans forced Laval to return in April 1940. In June, Laval declared: ‘I hope for a German victory, because without it, Bolshevism would take hold everywhere tomorrow France increased its supplies of food and industrial production to Germany. While the vassalization of France to Germany intensified, the Jews were further persecuted.

—The Allied landings took place in Algeria and Morocco on November 7 and 8. Admiral Darlan’s rallying to the Allies led to the rallying of the French West African colonies. Germany retaliated on November 11, by invading the southern zone. The government had to give in more and more to the collaboration, especially when the STO (Obligatory Labor Service) was set up. The Service d’ordre legionnaire became the French Militia in January 1943, a sign of its fascination. In 1944, a militia state even tried to establish itself.

VI. The Resistance (full course on the Vichy regime)

Originally, the French who refused the 1940 armistice was the first resistance fighters. The first act in this sense was that of de Gaulle on June 18, 1940: sent to Churchill by Raynaud to examine the means of continuing the war, General de Gaulle launched an appeal on the BBC. When the hoped-for rallies did not materialize, Churchill agreed to recognize de Gaulle as “leader of the Free French. But de Gaulle was unknown and without means, he appeared to be a puppet in British hands. In September 1941, “Free France” created an embryonic government, the French National Committee. From the rallying of small colonial contingents, an army was born: the “Free French Forces”. However, there was still no contact with the internal resistance.

In France, isolated acts of resistance began in the summer of 1940: leaflets, graffiti, and the first resistance movements, such as the Musée de l’Homme network, dismantled by Germany in early 1941.

In the southern zone, there were several large resistance movements

  • Combat, directed by Henri Frenay, which brought together the Christian Democrats.
  • Libération, directed by Emmanuel d’Astier de La Vigerie, which brought together trade unionists and socialists.
  • Franc-Tireur, directed by Jean-Pierre Lévy, which brought together republicans, often Freemasons
  • Front National, from May 1941 onwards, which brought together the Communist Party and underground workers

In the northern zone, it was much more difficult to organize resistance movements, but a few large movements also emerged:

  • Front National, as in the southern zone
  • Libération — Nord, which brought together left-wing men
  • Civil and military organizations, which brought together men from the right
  • Ceux de la Résistance Libération, which included many former members of Colonel de La Rocque’s PSF.
  • Défense de la France, which brought together young people, often Christians

There were, of course, other resistance movements, sometimes located in certain cities.

The unification of Resistance movements

The Communist Party joined the resistance after Germany’s attack on the USSR in June 1941. It proposed to move from propaganda and intelligence to an armed struggle, inspired by guerrilla warfare, with rapid actions.

The resistance movements then set up small military intervention groups.

In 1941 and 1942, an attempt was made to link Free France with these resistance movements. The leaders of the movements met with de Gaulle, who was considered too far right, while de Gaulle sent Jean Moulin.

Jean Moulin, a former prefect, obtained the merger of the three major movements in the southern zone into a united Resistance movement. Later, he also obtained the merger of the bodies in the movement in the northern zone.

These movements recognized de Gaulle, and the Zionist paramilitary groups in the Secret Army. In July 1942, “la France combattante” became “la France libre”.

For the Allies, especially Roosevelt, de Gaulle was only an apprentice dictator. Conflicts arose between de Gaulle and the Allies, who consequently distrusted each other.

De Gaulle decided to rely on the resistance.

In May 1943, Jean Moulin created the National Committee of the Resistance, which recognized de Gaulle as the leader of the resistance. Jean Moulin was tortured shortly afterwards by the Gestapo.

On May 30, 1943, de Gaulle left for Algiers where the CFLN, the French Committee of National Liberation, was set up on June 3. It was this CFA that took the name of “Provisional Government of the French Republic” in June 1944 before the landings, and which constituted a state counter-power in the spring of 1944, in opposition to Vichy.

VII. The liberation of France (complete course on the Vichy regime)

The Allied armies won a quick victory. On June 6, 1944, the Germans contained the Normandy landings.

However, on July 25, the breakthrough of Avranches for the German front, and pushes it back to the north.

On August 15, the landing in Provence was even more effective.

In November 1944, the Germans only controlled a few pockets in France. The Resistance fighters contributed to the victory, but also suffered losses: in particular, the massacre of the Resistance fighters in Vercors in July 1944.

From August 19 to August 25, Paris was the scene of a general insurrection. De Gaulle got the Americans to send General Leclerc’s second armored division to Paris, which entered the city on August 25. The same evening, he receives the surrender of the Germans. The next day, de Gaulle went down the Champs-Élysées after lighting the flame.

The question was then who would occupy the vacant seat to govern France.

Three groups revolve around power at the Liberation:

de Gaulle, who on June 14 went to Bayeux, the first liberated French town, to dismiss the sub-prefect put in place by the Americans, and put in a local resistance leader.

The Americans, including President Roosevelt, were suspicious of de Gaulle. The Americans would prefer the project of a military administration for the occupied territories. They were considering the creation of a new currency.

The Vichy officials, but for fear of sanctions, quickly withdrew.

In August 1944, Pierre Laval feared that de Gaulle was in power, and feared the resistance, which he considered to be communist. He strategically had the presidents of the Chamber and the Senate brought back, but his attempt failed.

The question was how the CNR would react. De Gaulle, hoping to strengthen his legitimacy, multiplied the symbolic signs to show the continuity of the state in his name. This is also why he was suspicious of the insurrection that took place in Paris, and why he hurried to intervene in Paris with the Leclerc division. In this sense, while the leaders of the CNR were waiting for him at the town hall, de Gaulle went instead to rue Saint-Dominique, to the Ministry of War, his former ministry. He comments on this decision in his memoirs: “The State was going home.”

At the town hall, he refused to proclaim the republic, to signify that the republic had never ceased to be. He spoke as a real head of state would speak to his subordinates. The CNR did not stand in the way of de Gaulle’s return. The popular consecration that General de Gaulle received on August 26, 1944, showed the support of the population. In September 1944, the Americans recognized the GPRF as the legal government of France.

But if power was established in Paris, it was more difficult to manage the situation elsewhere. The local resistance forces imposed their authority in the regions, refusing to bow to the GPRF’s prefects and commissioners. The “colonels of the resistance” wanted to punish traitors: this policy led to the shearing of women too closely linked to the occupier, to the imprisonment of men, and sometimes to executions. The communist party let de Gaulle establish his authority.

Between August and December 1944, de Gaulle tried to establish his authority. He negotiated with the United States for emergency aid, and traveled to the different regions of France. The FFI here and the FTP were integrated into a regular army. In October 1944, he decided to dissolve the Patriotic Militias. Special courts of justice were created. A High Court of Justice was set up for the great figures of the Second World War: Pétain was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment; Laval wanted to poison himself, but he was shot; Joseph Darnand, leader of the militia, was sentenced to death.

In all, 2,853 death sentences were handed down, of which 767 were executed, and 38,000 prison sentences. The Civic Chambers deprived 48 people of their civil and political rights because of national unworthiness.

→ To understand the history of France after the Vichy regime, refer to our: 20 contemporary history cards (1945–2017).

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