Mitterrand and Vichy

Une Jeunesse Française
François Mitterrand, 1934-1947 (A French Upbringing and Youth, François Mitterrand, 1934-1947)

By Pierre Péan
Fayard, 1994

What was Vichy?

France was thrashed militarily in 1940 by Germany; at the end of May, Holland and Belgium had capitulated; the British had left the field of battle and repatriated their ten divisions. On 14 June the German army was in Paris; on the 16 it crossed the Loire, on the 19 it had reached the Atlantic coast. With more than half of the country already occupied, and only the prospect of further defeats, an armistice was decided on, in an atmosphere of cataclysmic shock.

On 10 July 1940 Parliament assembled to give full powers to Marshall Pétain; the regime was established legally and with near unanimity. 80 parliamentarians out of over 700 voted against; Communist MPs, who had been expelled from Parliament and in some cases imprisoned following the banning of the party in 1939, naturally were absent.

The government settled in the spa town of Vichy. It was recognised by many countries, for example there was a U.S. embassy there, until November 1942. Pétain was the hero of Verdun, from the time of the Great War; he had also played a useful role in 1917 at a time of mutiny; he had calmed things down and improved the lot of the ordinary soldier. He had the reputation as a hero but also as a friend of the common soldier; he was not upper class or a man of inordinate ability. He was chosen in 1940 because he mustered wide support. The great concern was to preserve national unity. The motto he adopted,‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’ (Work/Labour, Family, Country/Motherland) appealed; it was a time to be patriotic (Patrie), to atone through work, good honest toil, (there was a strong and widespread feeling of guilt associated with the defeat) and a time to return to family values. His association with Franco and with right wing movements were deemed less important than his overall prestige. He was 84 in 1940.

The armistice was signed under duress, and meant to be temporary. It stipulated that France and its colonial possessions stop fighting; part of the army would remain armed, to defend the French empire which would be untouched; the fleet would be disarmed except that portion deemed necessary for France to keep order in its colonial possessions. Prisoners of War would remain in captivity in Germany until peace was signed [bis zum Abschluss des Friedens]; German prisoners would be sent back to Germany as well as named Germans. Part of France would remain unoccupied.

The situation thus set up was unstable and untenable: the terms of the armistice were not and could not be respected over a long period. The unanimity formed round Pétain, under the shock of the catastrophe, unravelled as the course of the war changed and the demands of the occupier hardened. Thus Vichy was one thing in July 1940 but something else when it ended on 23 October 1944.

François Mitterrand (1916-1996) was candidate of the Left for all elections for the Presidency from 1965 (except 1969); he was elected president in 1981, the only Socialist president in French history. The story of Mitterrand begins as the story of someone who was a marshallist (someone who rallied round Marshall Pétain) and worked in his administration, while being anti-German and anti-collaboration. The logic of his work in the prisoner movement took him to clandestine activity and brought him into contact with Resistants. Mitterrand’s case was not unique. Péan said:

“A great majority of Resistants who fought to liberate France in 1944 had been marshallists.” The present reviewer has come across this idea twice in recent months. The historian and Resistant Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac provided a living illustration at the 18 June commemorative conference this year at the Institut Français when he said, in answer to a question, that he was a marshallist when, in September 1941, after captivity, he arrived in London to join De Gaulle. And in July this year Alan Massie, reviewing a book about the period in the Literary Review, said:

“Our authors seem surprised that so many who started in Vichy ended up in the Resistance; in fact, that was a common trajectory.”

So, this fact seems to be well established. Who would have guessed it?

Péan makes the point that the pendulum of objectivity has yet to rest over that regime; at first it was treated with silence, in the name of national reconciliation. But after the work of Robert Paxton and Serge Klarsfeld on its anti-Semitic actions, it became impossible to think of the regime as other than a “dense mass of traitors, cowards and anti-Semites”. As a result,

“There is no longer enough space given to the experience and feelings of many French people who both trusted Pétain and were anti-German, even became, sooner or later, Resistants. The fact is that a great majority of Resistants who fought to liberate France in 1944 had been marshallists.”

Une Jeunesse Française, François Mitterrand 1934-1947, is about one such trajectory, that of François Mitterrand. In his investigation Péan used archive material plus interviews with contemporaries: there are no secondary sources, and no bibliography, only a list of original sources. He writes as if this was “the first book on the subject”. He is also anxious to gather facts and let the reader draw their own conclusions: he presents the fragments of evidence, and readers can compose their own mosaic.

Some constants emerge: Mitterrand was Catholic, loyal to family and family friends, ambitious, a lover of high culture, fastidious; he liked danger and he liked being an influential leader.

From the beginning of his political life Mitterrand was the object of virulent attacks, especially from the right. In 1965, unbeknownst to the present reviewer leafleting in support of his first bid for presidency, his wartime record was already used against him. The more or less sympathetic 2005 film by Guédiguian Le Promeneur du Champ de Mars (in English, The Last Mitterrand), about a young man writing a biography of Mitterrand, has what could be construed as a prurient interest in the murky past. No attempt is made to give a context, or the beginning of an explanation, never mind a complete picture (it would admittedly have made a long film).

Mitterrand went to the front in 1939 at the age of 23, carrying Pascal’s Pensées and the Imitation of Jesus Christ. He was involved in the fighting near the Belgian border, many of his comrades were killed around him; he was seriously wounded at Verdun on 14 June, and taken prisoner. His first POW camp in Germany housed intellectuals (teachers, priest, lawyers, students; he had just qualified as a lawyer) among whom he made useful contacts, like Bernard Finifter, a White Russian Jew, the group’s interpreter. Mitterrand escaped, was caught and sent to another camp, an Oflag, POW camp for officers. This camp had a 35, 000 volume library, a daily lecture programme to which Mitterrand contributed with his brilliant erudition and eloquence, and a camp magazine for which he wrote.

He escaped again and finally ended up in Vichy in January 1942; Vichy was obviously not supposed to harbour escaped prisoners, but through contacts Mitterrand was given accommodation and an official post in the Commissariat for the Resettlement of Prisoners of War in that town. “Who you knew” overcame regulations.

There were initially two million prisoners, so the Commissariat for Prisoners of War had a lot to do. Gradually, some prisoners were released, foremost those who had fought in the 14-18 war, and those who had several children. The Commissariat helped wives and families of prisoners, and helped returning prisoners; 349, 000 had returned from captivity, either escaped or released, by the end of 1941. These men had been mobilised in 1939 and therefore had already been away over two years; they often had no work to go back to. The Commissariat provided escaped prisoners with false papers, accommodation and work. It also encouraged and facilitated escapes, by manufacturing and sending false papers for example in the “Pétain parcels” sent to POW camps in Germany, the papers hidden behind the frames of photographs of the Marshall. The expertise gained in this work carried over in the Resistance clandestine manufacturing of false papers. Mitterrand is said to have made over a dozen false sets of papers over that time.

Through the Commissariat, POW self-help groups were set up in every département, for practical and moral support. Mitterrand travelled between these centres, and wrote for the internal newsletter. These groups had more than a practical purpose. Returning prisoners often did not feel welcome: they were living reminders of the defeat, especially if they had been made prisoners without being involved in any fighting. The men came back from the experience of captivity changed men, with a different mentality, and they wanted to keep that new spirit alive. Mitterrand, when himself a prisoner, observed that the hierarchy that developed within the camps was not the same as the traditional hierarchy of money and inherited privilege. Instead, the leaders emerged “one knew not how”. He also observed erstwhile notables losing their self-respect and dignity when erstwhile “lesser beings” in the same situation kept theirs. This was an eye opener for him. The values of the prisoner movement were friendship, solidarity, fraternity, justice; an elite of the heart transcended differences of class and opinion. These “treasures of spirituality”, and the love of the good led to a desire for a new social contract.

Prisoners were thus a fertile ground for politics; the Vichy regime, well aware of this, encouraged “Pétain circles” in the POW camps. Strange as it may sound, a classless society based on fraternity and solidarity was one of the aims of Vichy’s “National Revolution’ ideology. The Vichy POW Commissariat was the battleground of influence over the prisoners. There was the Pinot-Mitterrand line, led by Maurice Pinot, who was the head of the Commissariat. They lined up against the Collaborationist tendency, and against a movement headed by De Gaulle’s nephew, Michel Cailliau. Collaborationists in Paris also created an “Association of POWs 39-40”, with the support of the Germans. Pinot fought to limit that influence.

Another battleground for influence was the Pétain Youth movements. It had a magazine, where on 23 January 1943, Mitterrand wrote an enthusiastic and inspiring article praising the poetry of Aragon, not mentioning that Aragon was linked to the clandestine Communist Party and his poetry published underground. Was Mitterrand already inclining to the left, or did he put his love of poetry above politics? Péan does not decide. The Youth movements, created to keep the youth in the Pétain straight and narrow, were also a reservoir of manpower for the Resistance, as well as a source of employment and hiding places. There were links between the prisoner movement and the Youth movement and also with a third group Mitterrand was associated with: the Army of the Armistice; these soldiers and officers were the first to engage in acts of Resistance, hiding arms and officers in preparation for an Allied landing in the South of France. On 11 November 1942, however, they obeyed orders not to rise when the Germans occupied the Southern zone, except one officer in one location. The ORA (Organisation de Resistance de l’Armée) was then created in November 1942, with links to General Giraud in Algiers.
In December 1942, a collaborationist was placed at the head of the POW Commissariat, apparently without Pétain’s knowledge. Pinot considered himself dismissed and left. Mitterrand was part of a group of ex-POWs presented to the Marshall; one of them told the surprised Marshall the news of the replacement. Mitterrand then resigned, but others in his position and in agreement with him were asked not to resign from the Commissariat, so as to remain as useful sources of information and resources. Mitterrand continued writing for the newsletter and to be active in one regional self-help group; he also, financed by the Giraudist Organisation of Resistance of the Army, ORA, continued his work with the prisoner movement clandestinely under a variety of names, risking capture, deportation and death. This fate happened to others in the movement and Mitterrand narrowly escaped arrest on several occasions.

Mitterrand met De Gaulle in Algiers in December 1943, where De Gaulle approved Mitterrand as leader of the prisoner movement, in preference to his own nephew.
The aims of the movement were:
1. To protect ex-POWs in France against German police.
2. To help each other find work.
3. To facilitate escapes
4. To take part with everything in their power in the fight against the occupier.
In March 1944 the Pinot-Mitterrand, the Cailliau and the Communist prisoner movements were amalgamated. The aims of the amalgamated group were as above, plus
“To take part in the great struggle for the liberation of France and the return of all those exiled.” The movement was now categorically opposed to Vichy, and recognised only the authority of the National Council of the Resistance. This Council was led by Georges Bidault, a former colleague of Pinot.

The name of the organisation had changed, to include, as well as the POWs, the deported, that is those sent to Germany after June 1940, politicians like the ex prime ministers Blum and Daladier, who were in Buchenwald, those involved in the resistance, Jews, Freemasons and the 600 000 Frenchmen sent for forced labour. The manifesto called on “all victims of captivity without distinction of political or religious opinion” to rally round the movement.

The prisoner movement, which included Jews, did not consider the Jews a special case; they were one category among those persecuted and deported. Neither London nor Algiers, nor De Gaulle, nor the underground press specifically mention the anti-Jewish measures, but include them with measures against Gaullists, Communists and Freemasons. The word “anti-Semitism” was not pronounced at Pétain’s trial (23 july-14 August 1945) or in any post-war editorials; the words used were “persecution of non-Aryans” or “racial policies”.

Péan quotes at length a Jewish communist, Edgar Morin, later a sociologist, a militant in the prisoner movement initially with Michel Cailliau. For Morin, from 1941 to the beginning of 1944, many people were “pétaino-gaullist”: they saw Pétain as the shield, and De Gaulle as the sword. François Mitterrand thought that way until the end of 1942. Morin described the cataclysm of 1940, itself following the panic of people faced with unexpected and formidably disturbing events from 1934. The vote of the 10 July [when Parliamentarians voted to give Pétain full powers to govern and change the constitution] was not a vote for collaboration, but the seizing of a branch by a drowning man. Here is a translation of part of the interview with Morin; note that he used the phrase “Northern zone” (zone nord) to mean the Northern half of France that was occupied in 1940 and which contained Paris, where the German administration was, as well as some offices of the Vichy administration, and “Southern zone” (zone sud) to mean the Southern half of the country which was unoccupied until 11 November 1942, and which contained the town of Vichy. The two zones remained different throughout the war because of continued differences between the Vichy and Paris administrations.

“The Vichy exclusion laws, which ostracised French Jews, did not affect me. I was a student at Toulouse and the numerus clausus instituted by Vichy was not implemented by the university where I was. I was however shocked by the expulsion, in autumn 1940, of two Jewish professors, Jankelevitch and Meyerson, and two Freemason professors, Albert Payet being one of them. I remember vividly Jankelevitch’s last class: I was there, and many students, among whom the one who would become my wife, manifested their support for the teacher and their anger at this measure.

What was happening in the occupied zone was very different. There was the yellow star and then the big round ups…I was personally in danger as a Resistant, but not as a Jew, because I had “Aryan” identity papers. I lived in a different world, the world of the Resistance, where I felt very well integrated. When I moved to the Northern zone, at the beginning of 1944, I felt quasi invulnerable under my identity of “Gaston Poncet”.

I learnt the horror of Auschwitz during the Occupation, end 43-beginning 44, in a thick document from the clandestine press agency directed by Martinet, containing the testimony of people who has escaped from Auschwitz. I was among the rare people who got to know. The population knew practically nothing. That is why you can’t argue from posterior knowledge, as if all French, marshallists, Resistants, victims’ families, knew that all deported Jews were going to be exterminated.

Vichy spontaneously passed anti-Jewish laws—not on the orders of the Germans —following a tradition that came from Maurras and nationalist sentiment … these measures of exclusion were obviously not taken with mass homicidal intentions. It was the extermination of the Jews decided by Hitler in 1942 which, retroactively, turned these laws into a first step in the discrimination, which facilitated their arrests. With the Touvier trial, people had reduced Vichy to the Milice and the Vel’ d’hiv. But the Vel’ d’hiv is not Vichy, it is the French police acting under German order in the Northern zone. The Milice is a late manifestation of Vichy which had grown closer and closer to Nazi Germany.

Anti-Semitism is one aspect of Vichy, but there are many other aspects. Vichy changed over time. When the Parliamentarians voted the full powers to Pétain, it was not for collaboration; that came after. The country collapsed. Alesia [the battle where Julius Caesar beat the Gauls under Vercingetorix] was small beer [de la bibine] compared to the debacle of one of the greatest armies of the world in June 1940. There was a feeling of cataclysm. Vichy, at the beginning, was a branch to a drowning man. There you found an odd mix, with people like Berl, renovating socialists, pacifists, the old Maurras reactionaries, and then a process of separation began. With the turn of the war, the life forces that supported Vichy haemorrhaged away. Successive separations happened. Over four years, there was a very rapid evolution, whereas people try to fix Vichy in a sort of immutable entity. That’s where they go wrong!

You must not forget also that from 1941 to the beginning of 1944, a good part of the population was pétaino-gaullist. Pétain was the shield; De Gaulle, the sword. This mentality was invisible externally, because neither the press of occupation, nor the press of the Resistance, mentioned it. Obviously, this pétaino-gaullism started crumbling from the time the Southern zone was invaded and the Allied landed in North Africa, and then it collapsed.

Finally, it must be remembered that the French defeat came on top of a previous mental confusion which it then amplified. The left, before 1933, was pacifist and against the Versailles treaty which amputated Germany; but being antifascist, it had to oppose the German claims. The right, which was anti-German, started out admiring the hitlerian “order”. Strange permutations from communism to fascism, from nationalism to collaboration, from pacifism to Resistance took place.
The first year of Vichy brought together pacifists, collaborators, nationalists, and reformers around a kernel that became harder and harder, that of the marshallist order. Then from autumn 1941, the layers separated. The Resistance took off and communism came back to life, because the USSR now was the symbol of the hope for a new world.

If you don’t take into account the fact that people’s minds were in a state of near panic, when faced with the formidable, unexpected and bewildering events which happened from 1934 to 1944, if you don’t take into account the mistakes, the lurches and you want to fix all that, then you can’t understand that era in its complexity, its evolutions, its contradictions…”

Péan interviewed over a hundred people; not one mentioned the subject of anti-Semitism in connection with Mitterrand. Péan, in one of his rare conclusions, said that in the course of his research he acquired the conviction that Mitterrand was never anti-Semitic; he quoted with approval someone who said that Mitterrand was “allergic” to anti-Semitism. Even though anti-Semitism was a common sentiment, it was not general. Colonel de la Roque for example, leader of an extreme right wing movement of the thirties admired for a time by Mitterrand, said that a wave of anti-Semitism would be as disastrous for France as the wars of religion [of the sixteenth century] had been.

People criticized Mitterrand because he did not break off relations later with anti-Semitic friends, or with ex-Vichy men, who had been exonerated in the post war purges; those included businessmen and industrialists, who were mostly left alone after the war.

Péan has five chapters interspersed throughout the book, all entitled “Baggage”, Baggage (1) Baggage (2) etc, where he describes the links Mitterrand had with his extended family, his seven brothers and sisters and their spouses and children, as well as family friends; these friends of the family are of a different sort from personal friends he made independently: although not related by blood, they are like family, in that you don’t choose them and they are there for ever. Some of Mitterrand’s family and family associates were of the extreme right; one of his sisters, after a failed marriage, lived with an ex-Cagoulard who had a post in Vichy’s Commissariat to Jewish Affairs (the Cagoule was a right-wing terrorist organisation). Mitterrand, a wanted man in Paris, took refuge with the mother of this man, a woman he had known well as a child, or with his own sister, the partner of this man. Mitterrand put family and friends above politics, and so did his family and friends, coming to his help when he needed it, regardless of his opinions and activities, or of the fact that his presence put them in danger.

Péan uses the modern word “baggage” to mean family loyalty, a burden which in the modern world you would discard, to conform, or to permit your ascent in the world. Putting family and friends, openly, before politics, is something that is not fashionable today. It dates Mitterrand to a previous era.

His attachment to the French Empire also dates him; Mitterrand, like many people, blamed the defeat on the degeneracy of the politicians of what came to be known as the Third Republic (1875-1940); writing an editorial during the Pétain trial he cast his mind back to the greatness of France during the Great War, and during the conquest of Senegal, Morocco and Indochina. Later, he was in favour of granting independence to Tunisia and Morocco, but wanted to keep Algeria French. He was in the government when the French perpetrated atrocities in the Algerian war. But it is easier for people in the West to dwell on the Second World War than to remember the colonial wars.

After 1944, Mitterrand said that the genuine, early Resistants came from Pantin or Bobigny (working class districts), unlike those who came after the battle asking for places in the new regime:

“On the last day of the insurrection [of Paris] we reviewed some of our franc corps. Badly dressed, badly equipped, dirty, they possessed the mark of a surprising nobility. But they came from Courbevoie, Pantin, Bobigny or Montrouge. The others, or, to be more precise, the other, the bourgeoisie, waited until it was effectively all over.”

Thus a Resistant, who had been a right-wing Marshallist, fought to liberate Paris in 1944 alongside working class men. Mitterrand had gone further than others in his political evolution through the influence of people he met in the Resistance, and through the influence of his wife.
What makes the book of interest today is that through the case of Mitterrand, we get a detailed picture of some aspects of the Vichy regime, and in particular the prisoner movement. The prisoner movement gives examples of the importance of personal contacts in Vichy, the diverse nature of the people involved, the political divergences and the infighting, the personal danger and the political thinking about the future. The word “Vichy” takes on a new meaning.