The Vichy origins of modern France. How the Vichy Government superseded traditionalism and promoted modernity.

The Vichy origins of modern France.
How the Vichy Government superseded traditionalism and promoted modernity.

The popular view of Vichy is in part the outcome of the post-war purge trials, which, to say the least did not produce a dispassionate assessment. It is time to look at the period again in some detail. It should be remembered that Pétain’s government enjoyed national support at the start, even from those not politically sympathetic to it; that the character of that government, which was based on a temporary, short term measure, and not meant as something sustainable, changed with the course of the War.

After the earthquake of the French defeat by Nazi Germany, an Armistice was signed on 22nd June 1940, a temporary measure intended to be the prelude to a comprehensive peace between the warring parties. Since Britain had left the field of battle, repatriated her troops in disarray, and refused to lend France the support of her air force during the final battles, it looked as if Britain would have to make a settlement also, allowing an all-round peace to be signed. This did not happen and a situation meant to be temporary had to be sustained willy-nilly over time.
The Armistice provided that France would be divided into an occupied zone—the North including Paris and the Channel and Atlantic coasts—cut off from an unoccupied zone in the rest of the country. (In addition, Alsace and Lorraine were annexed and the region around Lille and Arras considered part of the Belgian occupation zone.) France would keep a government. This Government settled in the non-occupied spa town of Vichy. The laws promulgated at Vichy applied to the two zones, occupied as well as non-occupied.
Life continued as before, in the sense that people continued to live from their employment. The economy functioned, albeit distorted by many factors, such as the payment of occupation costs, German requisitions and orders, the absence of one and a half million men in POW camps and the lack of the raw materials that used to come from the colonies (petrol, oil, rubber, foodstuffs). The Government functioned too, by Decree, without Parliament and without parties, appointing a succession of different men as Ministers—ministerial turnover turned out to be worse under Vichy than under the notoriously unstable previous regime.
The Vichy Government set about reform immediately, of its own initiative.

Vichy was many things. This article will focus on two of its reforming strands, the traditionalist and the technocratic.
One source of knowledge about Vichy comes from the press of the period and one famous magazine, L’Illustration, is a rich example of the Establishment press of the time.
Founded in 1843, L’Illustration pioneered the use of engraving and lithographs and later of photography. It is now classed a national treasure by the State, and has been partly republished as an Encyclopaedia since 1984; a complete reprinting in 45 volumes is planned by the great-grandson of the 1930s owners. Before the Second World War it was based in Bobigny, near Paris, where the magazine had its own printing plant, which was then the biggest in Europe; it produced around 300 000 copies per issue and had subscribers in over 130 countries. In mid-1940 it relocated briefly in the provinces before settling back again in Bobigny, with the same Editors, the proprietors René and Louis Baschet. During the war the magazine continued its coverage of international news, the arts, politics and the economy and its occasional special issues on specific topics. It was an expensive magazine, intended for a well-off readership, judging from the snobbery apparent in the few chatty articles; it cost seven Francs, when newspapers cost less than one Franc.
It gave voice to very divergent views under the Occupation.

Let us take agriculture as an example. In keeping with Marshall Pétain’s traditionalism, the covers of the magazine showed a painting of a peasant sharpening a scythe in a cornfield (July 1941 special issue), a photo of a woman helping to heave wheat onto a cart at harvest time, a photo of women reaping corn using sickles; inside, photographs and drawings showed men ploughing with horses or oxen (for example, 28.9.40). Articles advocated the family farm as the basis of society and a return to the land as the solution to France’s decadence. If everyone tilled his plot, there would be no social unrest, and no food shortages! These articles however always ask: how can this be achieved? After all it was no use ignoring the inexorable trend toward urban living. Writers suggested measures to encourage a return to the land, such as increasing agricultural wages, providing old age pensions and improving housing and living conditions. The Government should bring entertainment to the countryside: theatre, cinema, circuses and libraries (2.8.41). What is striking about these articles is the lack of conviction in their tone, as if the writers knew this return to the land was only a dream. Folk music and dancing, as well as artisan craftwork (cow-bell makers 19.7.41) feature hesitantly in a few issues, as something distant and foreign.

Then the text of special issue on Agriculture of July 1941 opens a completely different window: Articles about fertilizers, mechanisation and productivity compete for space with a dozen adverts for tractors and farm machinery, a far cry from oxen, sickles and scythes. At the time, these machines could not be used, because there was no petrol to run them; the alternative fuels were not sufficient. But the magazine, and the farmers, were looking forward to better times.

A third strand on this topic of rural France came from Jacques de Lesdain, a pre-war contributor to L’Illustration who in 1940 had been imposed by the Occupier as Political Editor. He thought that France, contributing a rich agriculture, would play an equal and honourable role in a united Europe under German leadership. Lesdain favoured a modern agriculture rather than small self-sufficient family farms.

This third, pro-German, strand earned a ban for the magazine in 1945. The first strand, the nostalgic rural France, vanished from sight forever after the war. What remained was the trend towards modernised large-scale farming, which, while not part of the overt Vichy programme, is part of its legacy.

An authority on Vichy, the American Robert Paxton, wrote an influential book on the period, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order – 1940-1944 (1972, 2001). He is currently (2011) co-curating an exhibition in Paris on Writers and the Occupation. In his book he developed the argument that modern agriculture, and other aspects of modern France, were given an impetus at the time of Vichy. Put in a nutshell, inter-war Governments and more generally the Third Republic, hobbled by parliamentary procedures, had been unable to take decisions and modernise the country. Vichy, governing by Decree, and under the necessity of a war economy, was able to let the experts plan an economy for times of prosperity, as well as for times of want.

One problem the State needed to tackle was that, from the time of Napoleon, all children of land owning farmers inherited an equal amount of land on the death of their parent, and consequently plots had become ever smaller and scattered. Vichy’s law of 9th March 1941 made it easier to regroup scattered parcels of land into unified farms. A previous law of 27th November 1918 required that at least two-thirds of the villagers concerned agreed before lands could be transferred. Vichy’s law, according to Paxton,

“permitted consolidation by majority vote and gave the state a proposing role as well. This law was retained after the war with slight modifications, and the Commissariat du Plan [state planning after 1945] used it to promote a major program to regroup 500 000 hectares in 1947 alone.”

“In addition, [Vichy’s] legislation eased credit for rebuilding farmhouses, modified inheritance laws to make it easier to pass a farm on intact to one son who wanted to farm it, […] encouraged better education in agronomy, and encouraged tenants to make improvements by obliging the owner to reimburse the tenant for value added if the lease were ended (ending sixty years of agitation for this provision).”

Paxton concluded that
“In agriculture, as in industry, the evolution at Vichy was away from nostalgia toward modernization and toward power for the well-organised and efficient.”
Power went to the directors of pre-war groupings of the most capitalized and easily organised sectors of agriculture, the producers of sugar beet and wine. It is a leitmotiv in Paxton’s book that Vichy favoured the rich.

Milk production was not specialised: for example many farmers, even if they mainly grew cereals, had a cow and made their own butter. L’Illustration (31.1.42) carried adverts for dairy machinery, one with a picture of a smiling farmer’s wife in a spotless dairy, chatting with a well dressed friend and activating with one finger an electric butter making machine. The farmer’s wife was making butter for her family, not to sell. You could not be further from a concentrated, capitalised dairy industry. The main article on the subject of dairy in that issue agreed that each farmer should have at least one cow for all the mouths he had to feed, including pigs, but also pointed out the drawbacks of home production and the advantages of cooperatives. Other articles in the same issue described the workings of two such coops. To put the agriculture of the time into perspective,according to the information in the magazine, only 10% of farms had more than 10 cows and the total number of cows was 8 847 000 (in 1937). [For comparison, the number today is 3 794 000.]
A law of 27th July 1940 reorganised the milk industry, decreasing the production of cheese and increasing that of butter and requisitioning milk for schools and hospitals.

The regime of the experts

The Vichy law of 9th March 1941 (about the regrouping of plots etc) was promulgated by an engineer trained in agronomy, Pierre Caziot. He made his career in the Crédit foncier, the one mortgage bank of the time, and he was a civil servant as well as a farmer all his life; between the wars he had opposed Jacques Le Roy-Ladurie, another leading agronomist, who favoured self-administered agricultural corporations of leading producers and stressed productivity, whereas Caziot preferred labour intensive, socially stable, non-specialised production. During the war, because of scarcity, Caziot had to concern himself with productivity. “The family farm was safe, but it could also improve its yield.” (Paxton). Le Roy Ladurie succeeded Caziot as Minister at Vichy, a modern succeeding a traditionalist.

A contributor to L’Illustration, Hervé Budes de Guébriant, in the Illustration special issue of July 1941 devoted to Agriculture, explained the role of the Agricultural Corporation, created by the Caziot law.
He said the basis of agriculture was the family, but farms should be grouped in cooperatives and mutual associations, such as had been recreated since 1884, after the destruction by the Revolution of 1789 of guilds and trade associations.
The Agricultural Corporation was there to help relations between farmers and their employees, recognising that their interests are not antagonistic but parallel; the economy must be directed, not by the State but by the Corporation. The role of the Corporation was to protect the farmers, organise their education and retirement and contribute to their leisure by reviving the folk tradition. Liberalism was finished. The Corporation would give peasants social advantages as good as those that existed in towns.

Hervé Budes de Guébriant (1880-1972) came from a Breton aristocratic family. Trained in agronomy, he was a social Catholic. Like Caziot, involved in finance, he founded a society of rural insurance which still exists and is now a large insurance company. In 1941 he was President of the Union of Agricultural Syndicates of two Départements of Brittany. On 22nd January 1941, he was named President of the National Organisation Commission of the Agriculture Corporation (Commission Nationale d’Organisation de la Corporation Agricole).
Incarcerated in November 1944, he was liberated in August 1945 and in 1952 received compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur later on in life. When he died, the regional press was unanimous in saluting his life’s work: he had created the foundations of modern agriculture in Brittany.
We should note that the version of Corporatism explained by him in L’Illustration was a version imposed by the necessity of the moment; the lack of manpower with hundreds of thousands of farmers in POW camps in Germany (36% of the million and a half French prisoners of war were farmers and farm workers, according to Paxton), the lack of petrol for machinery, lack of fertilisers, lack of colonial imported animal feed, all necessitated intensive labour to compensate. The partisans of Corporatism really favoured mechanised production in bigger units and price-fixing cartels. After the war, according to an academic specialised in the politics of agriculture, Isabel Boussard-Decaris, in her book, Vichy et la Corporation paysanne (1980) the influence of the Agriculture Corporation reforms continued.


The bourgeoisie was having a hard time liking the peasants.

L’Illustration had a sprinkling of chatty articles, not all written by women; indeed the co-owner and Editor René Baschet wrote about the art of carrying parcels elegantly, if you are a man, now that the war had made that unaccustomed manoeuvre unavoidable. One Parisienne marooned in the provinces by the war wrote (10.5.41) that, if one had to make do without servants, handling a frying pan or a broom did not stop one being a lady. Since she, presumably, supported Pétain and his régime, she was aware that she ought to think the peasants around her were heroes and the foundation of society, but her impression, expressed politely, was that they were uncommunicative, and kept their chickens to themselves.

Traditionalism à la Pétain, that is, the return to the soil, the family farm as the social and economic base of French society, is heard marginally in L’Illustration. There are thinkers however who articulated the case strongly, for example Lucien Romier, Gustave Thibon and Simone Weil, the great French philosopher of the period.
They were a minority within a minority, but I would like to mention them here because some of them were close to Pétain, and because of the contemporary resonance of their writing. Following the economic crisis of 1929 in the US, which had progressively affected Europe, eventually coming to France, some thinkers saw the relatively low level of industrialisation in France as a bulwark against economic and political disruption. As Paxton put it: according to these thinkers, such as Lucien Romier (an economic observer, close to Pétain),

“French balanced society, with its large elements of self-sufficient small farmers, was much more resilient than the overspecialized British, American, and German economies. Those more highly industrialized economies, with their heavy reliance upon credit, advertising, and mass consumption, fell victim to speculative excesses and wild fluctuations. […] “Progress” was a will-o’ the -wisp, more likely to make a society sick and vulnerable, just as enticing people into debt for new consumer products made an economy vulnerable.”

Gustave Thibon, a friend of Simone Weil and a frequent guest of Pétain at Vichy, drew upon Proudhon to support a return to pre-capitalist days. He admired-

“the Proudhon who wanted to replace state authority by free associations of independent artisans. The trouble was that replacing the state by self-regulating economic associations led not to the guilds of printers or carpenters of 1840 but to the Organisation Committees of giant corporations in 1940. Ironically, the very devotion of such traditionalists to the liberties of a simpler society left them defenceless against the craftier businessmen who quickly turned Vichy to privileged cartelization.” (Paxton)

The name of Proudhon appears also in connexion with Henri Moysset, another architect of the Vichy labour charter and other constitutional instruments, who had edited his collected works.
Thinkers like Thibon were a minority among the traditionalist minority.

The defeat of the traditionalists

Pétain, a traditionalist, enjoyed a lot of support nationally, to the extent that he was still cheered by crowds in Paris on 26th April 1944, but it was amorphous support, which remained on a personal level. He did not enjoy the support of a political party. No existing political party was ready in 1940 to step in and support Pétain. None was created, if it is ever possible to create a party out of nothing to support a providential man suddenly promoted, without ever having had a power base or a programme or an organised following of any sort. The political extreme right-wing guilds of the Thirties were marginal at their highest point, and further marginalised during the war. They had no sympathy for Vichy. Their leaders were kept at arm’s length both by Vichy and the Germans, at least until the last throes of the war in 1944. This absence of organised mass support meant that Pétain the traditionalist was in fact isolated.

Hence the wailing tones of Pétain’s speeches: no one is doing what I want! And the gnashing of teeth at L’Illustration: no one is following Pétain’s orders! There was no transmission belt for his ideas, unless you count the youth camp organisations, which were meant to spread the Marshall’s words but were disconnected to the rest of society and powerless. The amalgamated Veterans’ Association tried to exercise some influence but came up against the powers of the departmental préfets and was told to desist. The tone of Pétain’s speeches from the beginning was of guilt and atonement for the failings of France, the very opposite of positive modern dynamism.

Traditionalists, although a minority, were the public face of Vichy, especially at the beginning. Their influence waned and disappeared. French anti-modernism lost its influence as early as 1942 and was a thing of the past by 1945.
Paxton remarks that traditionalists were more severely purged at the Liberation than the experts whose actions had been more effective.

The modernisation of industry

Industry followed a similar path to agriculture, that is, a movement towards concentration: for example, the first Minister for Industrial Production, an ex-Trade Unionist concerned with full employment and worker participation, was soon replaced by men who came from the leadership of the steel and the automobile industry, whose concerns were “rationalisation, concentration and modernisation.”(Paxton)

As early as 16th august 1940, Vichy created “Organisation Committees” (there were 321 in all) to organise production and economic activity for each branch of industry and trade; this applied to both zones of France. The heads of powerful branches of industry got posts as Ministers of industrial production. Under the necessity of the war conditions, they went beyond the “corporatist” idea of individual branches governing themselves, and instead they moved towards a directed economy.

The French automobile industry was weak before the war, according to Jean-Louis Loubet (Citroen and Peugeot 1944-1951, in Histoire, Economie et Société, 1990), working from unpublished archives of these two firms. In 1939 its production was half that of Britain, and six times less than that of Germany. It had a relatively large number of makers and models. Some models were made in small numbers in short runs. Exports were limited.
There had been discussions pre-war about rationalising production. Citroen was already making its famous “Traction Avant” almost as its one model, with few variations, and in black only. “The war accentuated a move that was already happening.” (Loubet)

The Vichy Organisation Committee for Automobiles, presided over by a nephew of Louis Renault, drew up a “Ten year plan for national equipment” that allocated the manufacture of prescribed quantities of different types of vehicles to different makers, and grouped together some manufacturers, for example Peugeot with Hotchkiss, Saurer and Latil. J.P. Peugeot accepted this, thinking ahead that the directed economy could not be avoided post war. The head of Citroen on the other hand was not happy about State intervention. As J.P. Peugeot had expected, the post-war 5-year plan was a continuation of the 1942 plan, with some of the same amalgamation of manufacturers. Loubet pointed out that this post-war plan was able to be developed quickly thanks to the work done by the Organisation Committee of Vichy.

A fourth Minister of Industrial Production at Vichy, J. D. Bichelonne, saw that war-time planning was more than a temporary necessity; in September 1940 he was appointed head of the Office Central de Répartition des Produits Industriels, a body that determined how raw materials would be divided between the Comités d’Organisation. Later he collaborated with the German Albert Speer on organising the wartime economy. Here is Paxton’s account:

“These developments reached their height during 1943, when Laval’s minister of industrial production, Bichelonne, struck a happy partnership with Hitler’s new economic tsar, Albert Speer. Bichelonne was one of the few people at Vichy to perceive clearly that wartime planning was more than a temporary necessity. He looked forward, as an engineer and a bureaucrat, to the application of planned state direction to the post-war economy. Speer, his equal in youth, bookish brilliance, and political naiveté, reversed the policies of Goering and Sauckel in 1943 in order to increase French production at home, away from Allied bombing, instead of bringing French workers to Germany. One more tool for combing out the inefficient was created. […] The future was with bigness and the state.”

The reign of the academic elite

Considering the intellectual power of some of the men in charge, Paxton described the technocratic, modernising period of Vichy, as “a regime of double firsts or brain trust”. Bichelonne was the best man ever to come out of the most prestigious Napoleonic school, the Ecole Polytechnique. Jean Berthelot also came out first of the same school. Other technical experts were also highly competent.

“The influx of experts and professionals brought impressive talents into the new regime. There was nothing marginal about the new expert ministers. They had been important men before 1940.” (Paxton)

Their influence became less after the return of Laval as prime minister in April 1942, when he tended to recruit ministers among personal acquaintances.
The post-war administration recognised the influence of men from the top schools in the Vichy regime and reformed the Grandes Ecoles to democratise, as they thought, the training of the elite.

Miscellaneous modernising reforms

The one reform everyone might know about in France today because it came up recently, when the Sarkozy government was trying to dismantle it, is the creation on 14th March 1941 of retirement pensions by repartition, or “pay as you go” pensions, whereby the contributions paid today by workers and employees pay the pensions of today’s retired people. The rationale of the scheme is a promise that the same will be done when today’s contributors are old. (This is in contrast to the individual saving a pot of money for his retirement, which Sarkozy’s Government wants to have instead of the universal solidarity of the “pay as you go” scheme.) It is not that the IIIrd Republic had not thought of Old Age Pensions: twenty-four proposals had been put to the Chamber of Deputies and Senate between 1936 and 1939, and all had failed.

The other reform is the creation of the integrated Paris transport system, with the initials still used today, and which can be seen today (2011) painted on the front of some London region buses: R.A.T.P. (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens); this is how Paxton described it:

“Railroad engineer and Communications Minister Jean Berthelot, who had been frustrated by entrenched bureaucrats in his efforts to rationalise the Paris municipal transportation agencies in the late 1930s, recalled in 1968 how satisfying it had been to create the unified Paris municipal transit system (the R.A.T.P.) in 1942 by the unfettered application of technical good sense.” (p138)

One could also mention the laws against alcoholism, some of which are still in effect today, to remove tax exemptions from home distillers (pre-1940 an all-powerful lobby), to forbid some types of strong alcohol, and to have age limits for alcohol consumption.

Paxton concluded on this topic by saying:

“Another measure of the intensity of those pre-war frustrations and resentments that emerged in 1940 in a geyser of change can be found in a comparative look at other occupation regimes. No other defeated state set out as ambitiously during World War II on fundamental changes.” (p139)

But other occupied countries did not have a State left. Paxton is not a Vichy apologist. On the contrary, he thinks the French made a big mistake in continuing to try to have a State when they were occupied, although it is hard to see how his book supports this conclusion. Paxton states baldly that the French made a mistake, a geopolitical mistake, but he does not say how France could have put itself on hold for an indeterminate period (there was no end in sight in 1940). This question goes beyond the scope of this article, but a few words might be in order here.
Germany had neither the desire nor the capability to take over the running of a country like France. An example will bear this out. A few years ago, in a small village in France, my mother’s neighbour came out of his house carrying a hunting rifle: “It’s your grand-father’s rifle”, he told my mother, “I got it when his house was looted at the end of the war.” But my mother’s family had not spent the war in fear of looting. The citizens still had the protection of the police. The French police naturally, the Germans did not provide public services. The pensions were not created because civil servants had nothing better to do, but because there was dire poverty, on top of rationing. Employment had to continue, and, because of scarcity, had to be centrally organised. This could perhaps have been left to the Germans for the sectors that interested them, but what about the rest? There was also the fact that hope and the desire to prepare for an independent future were never extinguished, even in those war years.
There was surprise in 2010 in France during the campaign on retirement pension, when the Vichy origins of the present socially equitable law were mentioned, or should I say, whispered shamefacedly. Vichy fairer to the less well off, more concerned with the fair treatment of all than a modern government! That didn’t fit the popular view.
As Paxton says, Vichy was not a “bloc”. This article attempted to fill out the picture of Vichy by outlining the strength of its modernising, technocratic aspect and the weakness of the dominant Pétain ideology. (Previous articles in this magazine and in Irish Foreign Affairs have described the Parliamentarians and the vote of the 10 July; the prisoners’ movement and Mitterrand’s place in Vichy; the Vichy show trial of 1942 at Riom; the right-wing thinker Maurice Bardèche and the Nuremberg trials; forthcoming articles will deal with collaborationism; the Church; poverty; specific writers; the French Empire.)


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