After the disaster of June 1940, the former regime, already strongly contested during the previous years, lost all credibility and legitimacy. A veritable fever for change, but also for reprisals against those presumed guilty for the war and the defeat, took hold in a part of the country. Parliamentarians of the Third Republic, Freemasons, and Jews were denounced pell-mell. It is from this trauma that emerged the Vichy regime, the National Revolution, the laws of exclusion [against Freemasons and Jews], and Collaboration. [. . .]
The historian is spoiled for choice in citing the best minds of the time, expressing their disgust for the former regime and their hope in a radical change. It is from this that the “National Revolution” was born, more by spontaneous generation than deliberate intention. “My consolation,” wrote [the playwright] Paul Claudel in August 1940, “is to see the end of this vile parliamentary regime which, for many long years devoured France like a metastasized cancer. It’s finished for the Popular Front, the CGT, the marches with raised fists, the strikes, the manifestos signed pell-mell by the communists and Catholics, of the squalid tyranny of bistrots, Freemasons, metics, hall-monitors, and professors . . .”
Awareness of French decadence had long existed. It went back to the other great defeat, that of 1870 which had inspired Renan to write his damning Réforme intellectuelle et morale de la France. The hard-won victory of 1918 had, for a time, made people forget the reality of a slow erosion of French energies, until the crisis of the 1930s reawakened them. It was first of all evident in the collapse of fertility: 518,000 births in 1940, whereas there had still been 1,022,000 in 1876. In the face of 80 million Germans, France, which on the eve of the Revolution [of 1789] had been the most populous nation of Europe, had only 41 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million foreigners. This collapse in vitality was felt by the more lucid as a crisis of civilization, worse, an admission of decline. They sometimes looked with a sympathy mixed with anxiety towards Italian Fascism, or even towards German National Socialism. For many of them, the collapse of the Third Republic was the conclusion of an old deterioration which they had condemned. Even before the defeat, a mind as subtle as Jean Giraudoux, appointed Commissioner for Information by Daladier on the eve of the war, wrote without causing a scandal: “The country will only be provisionally saved by armed borders: It can only be definitively saved by the French race, and we are in full agreement with Hitler in proclaiming that a policy reaches its superior form only if it is racial, because that was also the thought of Colbert and Richelieu.”
For the more audacious minds, the defeat created a paradoxically thrilling situation, that of the tabula rasa. The old world was torn down. All was to be rebuilt, everything seemed possible. “The month of June 1940 has marked the history of our country with a crisis before which everyone today must man their post,” wrote Emmanuel Mounier of the magazine Esprit in November 1940. “All of the slogans spread today among the youth of France in a pledge of hope, [. . .] we have been going further and spreading them for years. [. . .] Amidst the dust raised by the collapse of a world, in the inextricable confusion of what is already being born and what is still dying, a few expressions of life emerge in which we recognize the dominant traits of our heritage: The struggle against individualism, the sense of responsibility, the sense of community, the restoration of the role of the leader, a renewed sense of the nation. [. . .] That all these expressions are still tied up here and there with contradictions, is that a reason to distance ourselves, we who had been among the first to proclaim them, from this living adventure which they will now inaugurate? Certainly not.”
It is difficult to see something other in this text, at this date, than an implicit rally to what would soon be called the National Revolution. Nothing in these lines prefigures a future dissidence, rather everything suggests a will to participate in a resurrection. There is also no trace of the bitterness of a vengeful right, to which Mounier was perfectly foreign. [. . .]
The General Discredit of the Old RegimeIn November 1940, [Henri] Frenay published a Manifesto where the appeal to a revanche was still compatible with approval of “all the great reforms” of the National Revolution. The text states that: “Jews will serve in our ranks if indeed they have fought in one of the wars,” a restriction which coincided with the provisions in the first Statute on Jews of October 3, 1940. The Manifesto concludes with these words: “May Marshal Pétain live long enough to witness the crowning achievement of our struggle.”
The influence of the National Revolution was felt as far as London among those close to General de Gaulle. On January 18, 1941, the leader of Free France sent a questionnaire to all the members of his Conseil de la défense de l’Empire on the political orientation of the movement. General Catroux, Admiral Muselier, General de Larminat, Governor-General Éboué, Physician-General Sicé, René Cassin, Navy Captain d’Argenlieu, and Colonel Leclerc were consulted.
What should be done if the Vichy government were to move to North Africa to resume the armed struggle against Germany? Their answers can seem surprising today. In such a hypothesis, the leaders of Free France said that they would recognize the authority of the Marshal and his government. They would get over the Statute on Jews and the anti-republican measures. These also did not seem to trouble the future General Leclerc, a disciple of Charles Maurras, who defined his personal program thus: “Eliminate all the men responsible for the defeat by their prewar policy. Eliminate all political parties. Promise to conserve some of Marshal Pétain’s useful measures, in particular those which strengthen central authority and promote the family.”
The discrediting of the former parties and disgraced politicians was such that resistance movement would almost always remain hostile to them. This would be one of the causes of conflict with Jean Moulin who, despite the opinion of his movements, would return to the parties an unhoped-for legitimacy by imposing their presence with the National Council of the Resistance (CNR). In a message addressed to London in November 1943, the executive board of the MUR [United Movements of the Resistance] and of the Central Committee of the Resistance expressed their dismay: “The presence in Algiers of certain political personalities we had thought to be permanently removed from the political scene (Pierre Cot, Queuille, Mendès France, Vincent Auriol) has made a very unfortunate impression even among the militants of the Resistance.”
Delusions and Realities of the National RevolutionIn the second quarter of 1940, despite the chaotic situation which followed the defeat and despite the occupation of the northern zone, France entered for a certain time into a revolution. A cold, cautious revolution, without the guillotine, a revolution from above and limited from above, without vociferous mobs, but a revolution still. What other word can be used when such a sudden and complete reversal of values occurs, such a clean institutional break accompanied by a set of reforms which overturn the political scene? What other word could be adequate when there was such a large turnover in leadership positions? And when there was a (bloodless) purge of categories deemed most representative of the deceased system, Jews and Freemasons?
Certainly, many artisans of this revolution stemmed from the old regime. That had already been the case in the time of the first French Revolution. [. . .]
It is in his doctrinal message of October 11, 1940, prepared by [Gaston] Bergery, that Marshal Pétain used for the first time the word “revolution.” Everything suggests that he did not like the word. Yet, he repeated it four times to characterize the “new order” to be built. A firm, voluntarist text, arguing for an authoritarian State prevailing against private interests and for a vigorous modernization of the economy. A text in no way reactionary or clerical, which already expressed the hope in a Franco-German collaboration in the new Europe.
Later, Pétain would only rarely refer to the National Revolution, an expression coined in 1924 by Georges Valois, in the days of the Faisceau, as the title of one of his essays. The idea of revolution, even a national one, was quite foreign to the Marshal, a man of order above all. Laval, for his part, as an old republican, was irritated by it. He would hurry to bury it upon his return to power in April 1942. Neglected by the founders of the new regime, the National Revolution was nonetheless a very real aspiration in 1940, an aspiration followed by effects.
Recalling Maurras’ exclamation hailing the birth of the Pétainist State as a “divine surprise,” the historians of Vichy typically write at length on the influence that the old Action française is supposed to have had on the National Revolution. And no doubt this influence must be taken into account, even though the movement was already on the decline. [. . .] This influence must therefore be put in perspective relative to that of others, particularly of the left, too often ignored. Former communists were present at Vichy [. . .]. Socialists and trade-unionists were also numerous [. . .].
Many of the reforms of the time – pensions for seniors, the May 1 holiday, sports education in schools, health check-ups in schools, the first university cafeterias, medical colleges, demographic studies, the system of advances on receipts for films, would survive the Liberation or would be adapted to the needs of the cause, such as the comité social d’entreprise instituted by the Labor Charter of October 4, 1941. Its creation is prescribed for all companies of more than 100 employees to manage social works and rule on disagreements between employers and employees. [. . .]
It is at this time that a real policy of national solidarity was developed to help those made homeless by the war and the disadvantaged. It relied upon Secours national, an organization founded in 1914 to help populations who had suffered from the war, reconstituted in October 1939 and placed under the authority of Marshal Pétain by a decree of October 4, 1940. It appealed for an abundant charity effort. This policy was launched by the Marshal’s appeal in favor of the Winter Relief on November 11, 1940. The appeal was spread in all schools so that pupils could participate in the collection and storing of clothes. Its organizer in the Paris region was the philanthropist Gabriel Cognacq, president of the Samaritaine [department store]. Secours national’s first appraisal, published in 1941 for the occupied zone alone, indicates that it distributed to war-homeless and refugees 65,000 pieces of furniture, 40,000 cookers, and more than a million pieces of kitchenware. It also served 40 million rations in 3,700 school cafeterias. During that same winter, community restaurants, the “Rescos,” prefiguring the “Restos du cœur,” fed 200,000 destitute Parisians.
Much later, in his Mémoires de Guerre, General de Gaulle himself would credit the Vichy regime for having wanted to “renovate the economy in order that it serve the community before providing profits for private interests [. . .]. If, in the financial and economic area, its technocrats acted with undeniable skill, in addition, the social doctrines of the “national revolution” – corporate organization, labor charter, promotion of the family – included ideas that were not without appeal.” [. . .]
The regime born of the disaster of 1940 and of the bankruptcy of the Third Republic was authoritarian, at once traditionalist and planiste. It was antiliberal and communitarian, but was certainly not “fascist.” It relied upon the Church, the great bodies of the State, and the prefects, which it declined to replace by those “totalitarian” institutions which are for example the single party and the single youth group. It granted on the contrary a more important role for clerical influences and for Catholic action groups in the education of the youth and in the School, normally the sole preserve of any fascist regime. The press itself, in the free zone, despite the exceptional circumstances of the war, retained a relatively pluralist character. Nonetheless the “values” put forward by the “night of August 4” of July 10, 1940 were a radical break with parliamentary democracy and Anglo-Saxon liberalism. Training leaders for example became one of the recurring themes of the National Revolution, along with devotion to the country and self-sacrifice. The ideas inspiring the time were drawn from the common foundations of the ideas of the “third way,” on which fascism did not have a monopoly [. . .].
If the Vichy regime was not fascist, a number of “national revolutionaries” of the year 1940 dreaming of a sort of French fascism gravitated around it and were often opposed to it. But that is not the same thing.
Notes:1. Venner here repeatedly uses the expression ancien régime, normally used for the pre-1789 monarchy. – GD
2. Quoted by Gérald Antoine, Paul Claudel (Robert Laffont, 1988), 320. Despite his anti-Nazism and his later rallying to Gaullism, Paul Claudel seems to prefigure the words that Alfred Rosenberg, the National Socialist theorist, would state in Paris, at the Palais Bourbon, on November 28, 1940: “Whatever opinion the French may have on the great defeat of 1940, they will admit one day, if they are honest, that the German army defeated the French army but at the same time Germany liberated the French people from its parasites which it had not been able to free itself from by its own means.” (Quoted by Alfred Fabre-Luce, Anthologie de la nouvelle Europe [Paris: Plon, 1942], 257-58.)
3. Jean Giraudoux, Pleins pouvoirs (Gallimard, 1939).
4. An iconoclastic publication not sympathetic to fascism and later banned by Vichy. – GD
5. Venner is referring to the mainstream interpretation of the National Revolution as motivated by the revenge a bitter, reactionary Right long-suffering under the Third Republic. – GD
6. Later a prominent member of the Resistance. – GD
7. This Manifesto, rediscovered by Daniel Cordier in the National Archives and published in Le Monde of November 7, 1989, sparked a big kerfuffle [. . .].
8. Quoted by Daniel Cordier.
9. Quoted by Henri Noguères, Histoire de la Résistance (Robert Laffont), volume III, 144.
10. A short-lived French fascist party directly inspired by Italian Fascism. – GD
11. National Relief. – GD
12. Contemporary French soup kitchens. – GD
13. Charles de Gaulle, Mémoires de Guerre (Plon, 1989, single-volume edition), 690-691.
14. That is, undertaking state-led modernization plans. – GD
15. A key moment of the 1789 French Revolution, during which the self-proclaimed Constituent Assembly abolished the old feudal privileges. – GD
16. The day the Third Republic’s National Assembly overwhelmingly voted to give the pleins pouvoirs to Marshal Pétain – in effect making him an emergency dictator in the Roman tradition – and, though there is controversy on this, empowering him with constituent powers to shape a new regime. – GD