Handing Power to Pétain

Les Orphelins de la République
Destinées des députés et sénateurs francais (1940-1945)
By Olivier Wieviorka. 2001

Translated and published in the USA as ‘Orphans of the Republic, the Nation’s Legislators in Vichy France’.

France was defeated militarily by Germany in 1940, after Britain had withdrawn from the field of battle. France signed an armistice on 22 June and fighting ceased. The country was divided into an occupied zone (the Northern half along with the Channel and Atlantic coasts) and an unoccupied zone (the remaining two-fifth of the territory). Paris was in the occupied zone.

As German troops approached Paris, the French Government, the President of the Republic, the Council of Ministers and Parliament moved first to Bordeaux on June 10, then to Vichy, where Parliament, in a way, resigned. How did the transition from Republic to authoritarian state happen? The Prime Minister of the time, Paul Reynaud, stood down rather than sign the Armistice. Marshall Pétain was called to head the Government in his place. It was Pétain who signed the Armistice. Then on 10th July 1940, Parliament voted by 570 votes to 80 to give Pétain full powers to change the Constitution. The next day Pétain promulgated three constitutional decrees establishing a personal regime that would function without a Parliament.

In the circumstances the Armistice was an unavoidable necessity, but the 10th July vote was not.

The case that signing the Armistice was unavoidable seems to me clear. In the words of Charles Glass, reviewing in the London Review of Books a 2009 book about the period by Colin Smith (England’s Last War Against France):

“French defeat had been absolute: more than 90,000 soldiers killed, another 200,000 wounded, nearly two million taken prisoner, the army routed and demoralised, the population defenceless. Most French men and women distrusted Britain, whom they blamed for bringing France into a war for which it was unprepared, and for skimping on its own military contribution to the Allied cause: France fielded 67 army divisions along the front to Britain’s five. (Germany had 107.)”

Britain withdrew from the field of battle from May 26. Churchill returned to France on 11 June and met Reynaud’s War Council in Briare, but turned down French appeals for extra support from the RAF. On 3 July, the British navy attacked and destroyed much of the French fleet in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, killing 1 297.

In the face of “absolute defeat”, the alternative to signing an armistice was the continuation of hostilities and in the circumstances enduring pointless loss of life and territory.

The Armistice was meant to be a temporary measure pending the cessation of hostilities with Britain.

The French Government could have gone into exile, as the Polish and other Governments did. It did not do so. It was envisaged that Germany would soon negotiate a peace with Britain, with a restoration of full French sovereignty. Meanwhile, maintaining French institutions in unoccupied France would shield the people from direct German rule.

That the regime that followed the Armistice should have been an authoritarian one was not an unavoidable necessity. Olivier Wievorka, the author of the book reviewed here, quotes Emmanuel Temple, who expressed this thought. Emmanuel Temple was MP for the Aveyron region and Prefect of Algiers at the time; defending himself in 1945 against accusation of collaboration, he gave this account of what had been intended by the vote to abrogate the powers of Parliament:

“I had always thought that between a government preparing from abroad the liberation of the country and a government ensuring on French territory the social service of the nation […] there should not have been a contradiction. The latter should have done its utmost to limit the consequences of the defeat and to go against the implementation of the laws of the victor of the moment. It would thus have reached the day fighting recommenced without incurring blame for the abuses and excesses that it had not been in its power to avoid. […] In spite of everything we trusted in intentions. This idea explains the behaviour of numerous patriots who, although they were in the orbit of Vichy, have never stopped thinking of the Liberation. The attitude taken by the Vichy government on November 8, 1942, and the following days, were for them a tragic disillusionment. At least sincere and energetic men found in the events started by the landing [in North Africa] the opportunity to align their acts with their thoughts and their intentions.” 27 August 1945 in mémoire en défense CEJH [Conseil d’Etat/Jury d’Honneur, bodies responsible for the ‘épuration’ (purging) of collaborators].

Wierviorka is not convinced; he says sarcastically that Temple here gives a definition of a ‘Vichysto-resistant’, meaning that the MP was equating Vichy with the Resistance. It seems to me however that the situation described by Emmanuel Temple could have occurred. Why didn’t it?

Why did Parliament vote in effect for its own abolition?

Wieviorka gives the number of Parliamentarians, Chambre des Députés and Sénat together, as 538 ‘Left’ and 362 ‘Right’. The Left in 1940 however was weakened by the absence of communist MPs who had been removed (some imprisoned) after the dissolution of the Communist Party in 1939 and by the divisions among the Socialists. The SFIO leader and ex-Prime Minister of the 1936 Popular Front, Léon Blum, remained silent during the debate on the vote. It is possible that, at the time, it seemed appropriate for civilians to put their trust in the military, Pétain being a Marshall who had earned his vast prestige in WW1.

The 1875 constitution of the Third Republic (1871-1940) gave weak powers to the President of the Republic, which is why there is little mention of Albert Lebrun, the President in 1940. He later explained in his memoirs that the 10th July vote did not indicate support for fascism or for collaboration with fascism.

But what did the vote mean?
The French historian Olivier Wieviorka has examined in his book The Orphans of the Republic, the positions and the destinies of French MPs in the 1940 Parliament between 1940 and 1944. Eighty voted against the full powers to Pétain. In 1945 the rest were made ineligible for public service during the anti-collaboration purge, unless they could prove they had taken part in the Resistance. The mere fact that they had been members of that Parliament was enough to disqualify them from office, according in particular to De Gaulle. Three quarters of the elected representatives were eliminated from political life in 1945. (Amnesties however took place in the following 10 years.)

Wieviorka shows that their actions were in fact diverse. Of the 80 who voted against the full powers, some became collaborators, some resistants, some neither, and the same is true of the 570 who voted for giving full powers. Some supported Pétain for reasons that had nothing to do with the war, thinking he would support agriculture, that he would reinstate the Catholic Church to its old positions, that he would curb the Left. Many were too old to fight in the Resistance. Many, as today, were also Mayors of their towns with a very strong sense of their responsibility towards their electors, a responsibility even more important in time of war, and they wanted to be with their compatriots and stand between them and the occupier. Wieviorka cites cases of heroism; for example when the occupier asked them to draw up lists of hostages to be killed in reprisals, Mayors refused or put only their own names down. And who else would have stood between the occupier and the population? Leaving the country was seen at the time as a disgrace for elected representatives and leaders of the nation.

A certain number, which Wieviorka says is estimated at between 200 and 250, voted for Pétain because of his political programme: “revision of the constitution, defence of the family, instauration of a corporative order, promulgation of an anti-Semitic legislation”. Wieviorka notes that “the desire to revise the constitution, to have the recourse to a strong man, the rejection of the class struggle” was found among the Left and the Right.

In this context he mentions the deputy and ex-Minister L.O. Frossard, who edited a newspaper called Le Mot d’Ordre from Marseilles, during the war. The socialist ex-Prime Minister Léon Blum had expressly encouraged him to accept a post in the first Pétain Government.
I followed up his position by reading the 1941-2 edition of this newspaper which is available on microfilm in the British Library.

Frossard is an example of a Left-wing politician of the time. He had been a communist, then a socialist then an unaligned ‘Left’; before the war he edited a newspaper called La Justice. In 1940 he relocated to Marseille in the unoccupied zone and renamed his paper le Mot d’Ordre [the Watchword]. The paper reported on the various fronts of the war (the French against the British in Syria [the paper’s position being anti-British], the Russian front), reported speeches by Pétain, Hitler and British leaders, gave news of the regulations concerning food and other rationing, and listings for the many cinemas and theatres in the Mediterranean city, together with magazine-like items on the arts and fashion. The editorials, however, consisted almost exclusively of political discussions about the kind of regime that should be established after the war. A constant theme, apart from the necessity for maintaining national unity, was an admiration and respect for the working class, the desire for worker participation, the ideal being that workers should no longer have the status of employees, but should be co-owners. Frossard often mentioned Vichy’s ‘National Revolution’ and its new labour code, asking himself what this could amount to.
In April 1942, the editorial celebrated the anniversary of the Commune, Frossard reminiscing on ceremonies he attended in his young days, where two survivors of the Commune were present.
Le Mot d’Ordre reported the Riom Trial of 1942, conducted at the instigation of Vichy to try politicians and military men considered responsible for the defeat, The accused, among them Blum and Daladier, acquitted themselves with eloquence and dignity, and gave back prestige to the political class. The Trial, since it was not producing results favourable to Vichy and the Reich, was abandoned and Blum and Daladier taken to Buchenwald (they survived).
You get the feeling, reading the newspaper, of an uncertain period, where people are dealing with the unknown, and at the same time looking ahead and thinking seriously about the post war future.

Wieviorka makes the point that the actions of members of parliament varied according to their personal situation but also with the evolution of events.
The British continued the war; they bombed Germany, and France, from the air (the bombing of the Renault factory in Billancourt, a crowded suburb, with large loss of life on the ground, caused great resentment according to Le Mot d’Ordre); they invaded the French colonies. That meant that the Armistice, which was meant to be temporary prior to the signing of the peace, remained in force. See below extracts from the text of Armistice, in particular the clause regarding prisoners of war “to remain in Germany “until conclusion of a peace”. The liberation of those who had fought in 1914-18, and those in charge of large families was negotiated by French Mayors over time. Over a million, however, remained in Germany throughout the war.

In October 1942 Pétain signed a treaty of collaboration with Hitler, which appalled many Members of Parliament; the French colony Algeria, considered then “an integral part of France”, was invaded by the United States in November 1942. This led to the occupation of the rest of metropolitan France, which removed to a large extent the justification of Vichy. The Russian front showed that German military success might not last, which induced some Parliamentarians to change sides. Repression against Jews, Freemasons, Socialists and Communists gave the lie to the idea that Pétain stood for French unity. Shortages of food and heating materials were worsening. All these elements altered the positions of the erstwhile Parliamentarians and gradually reduced the support enjoyed by Vichy in 1940. The great mass of elected representatives ended up rejecting Vichy.

Wieviorka points out that the situation Parliamentarians had created on 10 July 1940, which was meant to be temporary, was legally irreversible, Parliamentarians no longer having any legal means to unseat Marshall Pétain. He says that the activities of the members of Parliament during the War ranged from a minority in active collaboration to a minority in active resistance, with all degrees in between. Around 250 deputies and senators engaged in various ways in Resistance work which often enabled them to be eligible for election after the Liberation. Wieviorka concludes that, on the whole, if the Members of Parliament are representative of the French, and he thinks they are, then “the country did not behave so badly”. This seems to me a much better way of looking at the defeat and the reaction to it than the myth that De Gaulle saved the honour of France. He wasn’t there.

Annex [not in the book reviewed here]

Terms of the Armistice [Extracts]


In the occupied parts of France the German Reich exercises all rights of an occupying power. The French Government obligates itself to support with every means the regulations resulting from the exercise of these rights and to carry them out with the aid of French administration.

Clause 1

All French authorities and officials of the occupied territory, therefore, are to be promptly informed by the French Government to comply with the regulations of the German military commanders and to cooperate with them in a correct manner.

Clause 2

It is the intention of the German Government to limit the occupation of the west coast after ending hostilities with England to the extent absolutely necessary.

Clause 3

The French Government is permitted to select the seat of its government in unoccupied territory, or, if it wishes, to move to Paris. In this case, the German Government guarantees the French Government and its central authorities every necessary alleviation so that they will be in a position to conduct the administration of unoccupied territory from Paris.


The French war fleet is to collect in ports to be designated more particularly, and under German and/or Italian control to demobilize and lay up -— with the exception of those units released to the French Government for protection of French interests in its colonial empire.


The French Government is obligated to forbid any portion of its remaining armed forces to undertake hostilities against Germany in any manner.

Clause 1

French Government also will prevent members of its armed forces from leaving the country and prevent armaments of any sort, including ships, planes, etc., being taken to England or any other place abroad.

Clause 2

The French Government will forbid French citizens to fight against Germany in the service of States with which the German Reich is still at war. French citizens who violate this provision are to be treated by German troops as insurgents.

Clause 4

The French Government will see to it that in the occupied region necessary technical personnel and rolling stock of the railways and other transportation equipment, to a degree normal in peacetime, be retained in service.


There is an immediate prohibition of transmission for all wireless stations on French soil. Resumption of wireless connections from the unoccupied portion of France requires a special regulation.


French troops in German prison camps will remain prisoners of war until conclusion of a peace.


This agreement is valid until conclusion of a peace treaty. The German Government may terminate this agreement at any time with immediate effect if the French Government fails to fulfil the obligations it assumes under the agreement.


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