The Vichy government seen by a Gaullist in 1942.
In May June 1940 France suffered a catastrophic military defeat. The Armistice of 22 June divided France in two parts, the occupying forces controlling the Channel and Atlantic coasts and hinterland, plus the Paris region and Alsace-Lorraine. The remainder, the so-called Free Zone, had its own government, in Vichy. That government administered all of France (except the North and Alsace-Lorraine), and dealt with the problems thrown up by the defeat: the two million prisoners, the millions of refugees, the disorganisation of food supplies, and longer term problems such as unemployment.
Not knowing how long the situation would last, the government dealt with the urgent problems but also embarked on a programme of total reorganisation of the country. Results of this reorganisation were kept on after the war because they were plainly fair and useful, for example, pay as you go state old age pensions, regrouping of farm plots, the Paris transport system, and legislation against alcoholism.
Robert Paxton, in his authoritative book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, showed that useful work was done under Vichy. The latest passing acknowledgment comes from the historian Antony Beevor:
“On 2 January 1946, just before his departure, De Gaulle appointed Monnet to head the Commissariat Général du Plan. This was to provide centralised planning writ large. Monnet brought in almost the whole team from the Délégation Générale à l’Equipement National, even though it had been created by the collaborationist Vichy regime. These bright young “technocrates” from the top schools of the French administration had worked on projects to modernise France within the “new European order” of the Third Reich. After the war they were the very same people who were to run the European Coal and Steel Community, headed of course by Monnet, and then in 1958, the European Economic Community.”
None of that is generally remembered. In January 1944 the General Council of the Resistance issued a Programme for victory and reconstruction that was also in large part a punitive revenge programme targeting all those who had worked for Vichy. Everyone in France today, from Sarkozy to the Communist Party, invokes the Resistance Programme as the basis for modern, socially fair France. But this Programme erased from memory the experience of almost all Resistants, who had supported Vichy in 1940, and of all those who worked throughout the war to liberate prisoners and to organize food and transport, as well as set the foundations for modern France. It tars all supporters of Pétain as ‘traitors’. From then on only the repressive side of Vichy was ever mentioned.
In 1945 people were asked to believe that apart from a bunch of traitors Frenchmen and women had supported De Gaulle and the Resistance, and that they owed their liberation to them. They were also asked to believe that all who supported Pétain had been traitors, and therefore they themselves had been traitors. The best way to deal with this contradiction was to opt for the first myth. But the French gained nothing by this, as the English and the Americans play on the second myth when it suits them. For example, the head of SNCF, the State Railway company, had to apologise publicly for the role played by the SNCF during the war, when he wanted to negotiate a contract in California in 2010. The English media hark on about ‘the dark years’, and at the time of French opposition to the Iraq war, the French were branded as the ‘surrender monkeys’.
This denial of the reality of Vichy has left France open to this sort of humiliation.
A well respected Gaullist wrote about Vichy half way through the war, before either myth had taken root. He was Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Tissier, the Comptroller of the Free French. His four books ‘The Government of Vichy’, ‘The Nazification of Vichy France’, ‘I worked with Laval’ and ‘The Riom Trial’ were published by Harrap, (the firm that later published Churchill’s Memoirs)
These books were advertised and favourably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement of 1942 and 1943. De Gaulle wrote a foreword to ‘The Riom Trial’.
One TLS advertisement read:
‘A former Councillor of State and Principal Private Secretary to Laval when he was Premier of France discusses the problems and examines the work of the Vichy government, in agriculture, industry, finance, social reform etc; and shows the results that must arise from the unsatisfactory situation at the Armistice combined with present policy.”
Tissier described objectively Vichy achievements. As a De Gaulle supporter, Tissier was hostile to Vichy, because it negotiated the Armistice, and that to him was a betrayal of France and of Great Britain; the men of Vichy were in his eyes treacherous, cunning, hypocritical and without honour. Nevertheless, as he claimed himself, he gave ‘a plain and objective analysis of the legislative work of Marshal Pétain and his Government.’ He acknowledged that Vichy’s actions, given wartime constraints, could not be other than they were. He thought that Vichy had to deal not just with problems brought up by war, occupation and blockade, but also problems that dated from before the war. These included: weakness of executive power, depopulation, destruction of the family, and the Jewish question. Tissier was himself thinking about what should be done post war to address these questions. His answers were sometimes much more drastic than Vichy’s answers, as we will see.
The Government of Vichy
Tissier used information from the press and radio, and the Official Gazette (le Journal Officiel) which listed all laws, decrees and orders emitted, and modified, by Vichy; there were an enormous number daily, governing every aspect of life including production and use of commodities, down to the last grape pip (literally: ‘A law of August 20, 1940, ordered vine-growers to collect the pips from the marc [by-product of wine making]’ ‘for oil used in soap, paints and varnish.’ P. 300).
I might note here that Tissier stated wrongly that the Journal Officiel de la République Française was renamed Journal Officiel de l’Etat Français, because of the desire of Pétain and Laval to abolish the Republic; in fact the change of name only occurred after 1940; getting rid of the Republic as such was not a priority. As Tissier himself said, decisions in war time could not be taken in a republican manner, after leisurely parliamentary and party debate, but had to be taken quickly and without discussion, and, besides, Vichy’s great preoccupation was to make do with available resources, and I imagine that they used up the existing stationery before changing the name.
After a long introduction analysing the wrongs of the Armistice, Tissier set out the position of France as Occupation began: she had to pay an enormous levy to the occupying power, she lost her principal resources in minerals and phosphates with the joining of the northern and eastern regions to Belgium or to the Reich; she lost 1200 000 agricultural workers made prisoners; she could not bring her total resources into one unified whole after the creation of a rigid internal frontier. She had used up her grain surplus to feed the millions of 1940 refugees from the North-East.
Then there was the blockade set up by Britain which prevented imports on which the French economy and food supplies depended.
After setting out the difficulties facing the Pétain’s government, Tissier set out its five trump cards:
Pétain’s own prestige, which was considerable, and which Tissier himself felt.
‘A desire for a general clean up’, that is ‘the intense desire felt by France for a purge of all its administration and of the leaders at the head of affairs’.
The disappearance of all supervision, that is, of parliament and of a free press: ‘everything the government does is outside discussion’.
The fourth trump card was the ability to print money:
‘Money no longer costs the Government anything, and it can proceed to all the reforms previously held up for financial reasons. It can reduce taxes and increase expenditure. It can create old age pensions, multiply grants and reliefs, lend money, carry out endless public works.’
And finally, the last trump card was the absence of a programme:
‘Lenin, Mussolini, or Hitler, when they reached power, were no longer free. They were the slaves of their party and of their programme. Pétain, the Chief of the State, is entirely free. […] In June 1940 Pétain had no party and seemed not to belong to any party. He had no programme, no engagements to respect, no promises to keep. He could therefore make decisions solely in the interests of France, with no need to compromise with anyone whomsoever in any matter whatsoever. And that is a source of incalculable strength.’
Tissier stressed that the Armistice was thought, both by France and Germany, to hold only for a short time, until peace was signed: ‘The armistice had not been intended to govern a durable situation.’ The situation was meant to be temporary, until Britain agreed to peace. Tissier pointed out that the continuation of the British blockade made it impossible for France to ensure supplies for the population, and forced her to greater collaboration with the enemy than had been envisaged by the Armistice:
‘Administration implies daily contacts with the occupying authority and daily concessions on both sides. And the problem of supplies involves a still more active collaboration.’
Tissier noted that Pétain never mentioned the British blockade as one of the causes of French distress. ‘Direct attacks on the blockade are found only the mouths of the men who are deliberately playing the German game […] and the Paris traitors.’
Tissier made the important distinction here that was blurred after 1945, between Paris and Vichy collaborators.
Tissier explained that Pétain was not bound by a pre-existing party based programme, but that he still was not free to do what he wanted, because his collaborators made demands on him, and because he was not master of the circumstances: lack of food and resources, unemployment and inflation, then ‘To obtain the co-operation of the peasantry he must needs multiply concessions to agriculture; to win the co-operation of the great industrialists he must needs grant them excessive and unconscionable powers; to obtain a few necessary concessions from the Reich he was driven to plunge into a violent racial policy; to pacify public opinion he had to hunt about for traitors at any price.’
Tissier spent the last 200 of the 340 pages of the book describing Vichy actions in minute detail, under the following headings: the Strengthening of the State, the Renovation of the Population, Work and Unemployment, the Return to the Land, Planned Economy, Money and the Budget, Supplies and Prices. What is striking is how much Tissier took it for granted there was need for reform, and how seriously he took Vichy initiatives, and how, in his judgement of them, he took into consideration the narrow margin of manoeuvre that Vichy had.
The Strengthening of the State
Tissier thought that the State imperatively needed strengthening. Pre-war, government authority was weak and dispersed. What France needed was a system on the model of America or Great Britain, with ‘a small number of great parties representing the essential shades of public opinion.’
In the circumstances however Vichy instituted an authoritarian regime; Tissier thought this was not necessarily a bad thing, since ‘it allows of swifter action on the part of the Government and the administration.’ His criticism was that it wasn’t done properly, the personnel lacked authority and competence, in fact ministers changed as often as under the previous regime and real power could not be exercised in a divided country where the most burning problems, food and unemployment, were not tractable anyway.
The Renovation of the Population
This was crucial according to Tissier, and here he was thinking pre and post war, since France did not have enough population to produce more than it consumed; on the contrary it had to import and would eventually lose its independence in the world because of this. Vichy encouraged bigger families by giving generous family allowances, but went wrong, according to Tissier, in not paying attention to the quality of the children produced and not embracing eugenics, sterilisation and selective abortion.
This is what Tissier thought and was able to write in 1942:
‘There remains the more delicate question of selection with regard to babies. Here again it would be foolish to put one’s head in blinkers. France should not have children at any cost and of any and every kind. She must turn to eugenics and—it is no use to shrink from the words—to the practice of properly controlled sterilization.
This amounts to saying that marriage must be permitted only between individuals who are completely healthy and capable of producing healthy children; those who do not satisfy this condition should only be allowed to contract a marriage after sterilization.’
Sterilization should also be carried out on individuals susceptible of passing on incurable disease or infirmity ‘especially on the occasion of medical inspections for recruits, and the periodical medical inspections that ought to be made compulsory.’
None of these drastic measures were ever envisaged by Vichy.
Tissier thought that post-war France would need to import foreign workers, but must do so without losing its homogeneity: the foreigners necessary for the national economy must be incorporated within the national community. This is to be done by assimilation:
‘In the first place, all foreigners, whether Jews or not, must be deprived of everything that links them to their original nationality. This means that they must be prohibited from using their own language, at least in public, from buying publications in a foreign language, from grouping themselves into autonomous communities with their own schoolmasters and priests. They must as far as possible be scattered throughout the territory.’
We must oblige foreigners to learn French, and ‘press them to marry French men or French women’.
‘It is legitimate that certain Frenchmen regarded as insufficiently assimilated should be deprived of certain rights.’
Regarding Jews, Tissier said:
‘The Jewish problem exists, even in France. It is an undeniable fact, and no realistic policy can be blind to it.’ He described Jews as an international group without ties to the land, with ‘an absolute unity of language, of traditions, of intellectual and moral education.’ Tissier made the same distinction that Vichy made, between assimilated French Jews and recent immigrants. For Tissier, ‘the Jewish problem cannot be disassociated from the problem of foreigners. Jews […] who are unassimilated must be subjected to the same measures of restriction as French subjects of recently acquired nationality who are unassimilated.’ That is, some occupations must be denied them.
Tissier went much further than Vichy in his attitude to Jews; according to him, they ‘must be deprived of everything that links them to their original nationality’, by which he means they must be cut off from a separate language, education, religion and from the possibility of associating with other Jews, in other words they must become indistinguishable from non Jewish French people.
Tissier’s London publisher (Harrap), the Times Literary Supplement and de Gaulle must have found nothing objectionable in these views.
Work and Pensions
Tissier criticised Vichy for not abolishing the reforms made by the 1936 Popular Front. These reforms reduced hours of work (the 40 hour week), and introduced paid holidays and collective bargaining for workers. Tissier also criticised the introduction of old age pensions, which ‘excluded ‘old workers’ from the labour market’. All these measures ‘limited the amount of work that could be done’.
Tissier was strongly against the creation of pensions, especially because the system of distribution was used instead of capitalisation: all the money saved was being used immediately.
National insurance was made compulsory for all wage or salary earners. A law on maternity welfare is also worth noting, and Tissier quoted it without comment:
‘Law No. 3763 of September 2, 1941, on maternity welfare, provided, in the first place, that every woman was entitled to be received in a hospital for one month before the birth of a child and for one month after, without disclosing her identity; and, in the second place, that the interruption in her work could not be a ground for breaking her contract. Infringement of these provisions entails heavy penalties of imprisonment and fines.’
Throughout the book Tissier entered into the way of thinking of Vichy, nowhere is this clearer than in the chapter of the Return to the Land, a policy which he discussed on its merits. He devoted several chapters to agriculture, where he agreed that Vichy had the right policies for the improvement of farm production: both by ‘the regrouping of farms’ and by mechanisation. The regrouping of farms led to fields lying in a single block, easier to work than the previous situation of farm property in small separated lots. (This regrouping was eventually one of the lasting legacies of Vichy).
To make sure the land was not split up again on the death of the owner, Vichy altered inheritance law to permit one heir to inherit the whole, the State helping him to compensate the other heirs.
The State controlled all aspects of industry; this system was installed, Tissier said, ‘by men most of whom were only yesterday convinced theorists holding to economic liberalism’. The paradox was explained by the pressure of distress and famine, and France being at the time a closed economy, due to the blockade and inflation related to levies.
As with each aspect of economic life Tissier began by describing the situation: In this case, railways damaged by war and hampered by lack of materials and coal, road transport by lack of petrol, maritime transport by the blockade. He then detailed government measures to improve the situation. In the case of the railways he congratulated the state company SNCF for getting back to almost 1939 level of freight activity. Tissier mentioned the Paris Transport Board, a single State supported organization, which still exists today under the same name, RATP, (and, in 2016, runs some London buses as well).
Money and the Budget
The State received much less in tax (2 million prisoners not paying any tax, relief given in many cases, some taxes lowered) yet had a massive public works programme and increased social expenditure and subsidies. It did this through printing money; its currency was no longer related to gold reserves.
Any foreign trade was conducted through barter, and differences paid in gold or foreign currency. Internally, the franc must be kept to a stable value, that of September 1939, and therefore the State must do everything to keep this stability, such as fixing prices, and making an enormous number of regulations such as forcing people to pay by cheque over a certain sum etc.
The banking system was reorganised, the system of stocks and shares altered. Shares appreciating in value were subjected to a heavy tax.
Supplies and prices
A vast number of regulations and prohibitions attempted to govern the sale and consumption of various foods, at home and in restaurants; e.g., in restaurants as a first course ‘only snails may be served hot’.
The maximum utilisation of products hitherto neglected was ordered, e.g. the grape pips mentioned above, but no eating of rhubarb leaves, which are poisonous (radio announcement 14 June 1941) etc etc.
There was price regulation and control, rationing etc as well as rent control: increases in rent were forbidden, unless the landlord had made improvements for the direct benefit to the tenant. Decrees also reduced rent for housing left vacant through tenants being prisoners or war, or refugees not allowed to return to a prohibited zone.
Tissier’s conclusion is both positive and damning. He says:
“We have given a plain and objective analysis of the legislative work of Marshal Pétain and his Government.
Can we form a final judgment on this work without the perspective of time? It contains excellent things that will deserve to be retained, particularly with regard to the protection of the family. In other points it answers to ideas excellent in themselves and only faulty in the application. Where political considerations did not have to be brought into play it cannot be doubted that desirable reforms have been effected or attempted.
And furthermore, it must be said that France felt an undeniable need for a renewal. The institutions existing in June 1940 were no longer adapted to actual conditions; and indeed they had nothing truly democratic about them but their outward appearance, the mere shell. It was absolutely essential therefore to begin again from zero and build completely anew.’
However, the whole enterprise according to Tissier was a complete failure.
Tissier ended his book with a condemnation of Vichy.
Was it because of its attitude to Jews? Jews don’t get a mention in the concluding words of the book.
Was it because Vichy was not taking part in the struggle against fascism and for democracy? There is no mention of fascism or democracy.
No, the fault was that collaboration with Germany did not bring enough positive results.
Tissier wrote like Robert Paxton, the current authority on Vichy; both writers described in great detail how the actions of Vichy were undeniably useful in many ways, not just in coping with war circumstances, but in creating elements of modern France. Both conclude their books with a condemnation of Vichy which does not follow from what they have written in the preceding hundreds of pages. In the case of Paxton, only his conclusion is taken notice of in France, presumably because of the way the media reviewed his book. At the end of the war a political decision was made to pretend the real Vichy never happened. A dark blanket was spread over the period, which is now referred to as ‘the black years’ [les années noires]. This mystery, this refusal to look at what actually happened, has created a permanent weakness. Since the factual description is ignored, there is no defence against distorted versions. France is not in charge of its own history.