Vichy France (French: now called Régime de Vichy or Vichy; called itself at the time État Français, or French State) was the French state of 1940-1944 which was a puppet government under Nazi influence, as opposed to the Free French Forces, based first in London and later in Algiers. It was established after the country had surrendered to Germany in 1940 (see also: World War II). It takes its name from the government's capital in Vichy, south-east of Paris near Clermont-Ferrand.
France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. After the eight month Phony War, the Germans launched their offensive in the west on May 10, 1940, and were quickly successful, occupying Paris in mid-June 1940. The French leaders considered retreating to French territories in North Africa but the vice-premier, Henri Philippe Pétain, and the commander-in-chief, General Maxime Weygand insisted that the government should both remain in France and seek an armistice with Germany.
Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned over the decision and President Albert Lebrun appointed the 84-year-old Pétain to replace him on June 16. Pétain began negotiations and on June 22 signed the surrender agreement with Germany. The key section of the agreement divided France into two zones - occupied and unoccupied. Germany would control northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining two-fifths of the country would be administered by the French government with the capital at Vichy under Pétain. Further, all Jews in France would be handed over to Germany. The French Army was reduced to 100,000 men and the French prisoners of war would remain in captivity. The French had to pay the occupation costs of the German troops, and prevent any French people leaving the country. The United Kingdom and the Vichy France government then broke off diplomatic relations on July 5.
The Third Republic was voted out of existence by the French National Assembly on July 10. The Vichy regime was established the following day, with Pétain as head of state. Petain was given the power to rewrite a new Constitution but this was never done. He instead put forth three Constitutional Acts that suspended the Constitution of the Third Republic of 1875. These Acts suspended Parliament, transferred all powers to himself. Petain designated Pierre Laval as Vice-President and his designated successor on July 12. Petain remained in this position until August 20, 1944. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood), the French national motto, was replaced by Travail, Famille, Patrie (Labour, Family and Country). Petain's vice-premiers were Pierre Laval and François Darlan. Paul Reynaud was arrested in September 1940 by Vichy government, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1941.
Joseph Darnand was head of the Vichy Milice, the wartime police. He had an SS rank and took a oath of loyalty to Hitler. The Milice was responsible for the suppression of the French Resistance and the Maquis as well as promulgating German race laws.
To counter the Vichy regime General Charles de Gaulle created France Libre (Free France), after his famous radio speech of June 18, 1940. Initially Winston Churchill was ambivalent about de Gaulle and he dropped links with Vichy only when it became clear they would not fight. Even so the Free France headquarters in London was riven with internal divisions and jealousies.
The United Kingdom viewed the Vichy government with suspicion after severing diplomatic relations. In the armistice terms with Germany, the Vichy regime had been allowed to keep control of the French Navy, the Marine Nationale and it was pledged that it would never fall into the hands of Germany. However, this was not enough for the Churchill government. French ships in British ports were seized by the Royal Navy. The French squadron at Alexandria under Admiral Godfroy was effectively interned after an agreement was reached with Admiral Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet.
However, there were still French naval ships under French control. A large squadron was in port at Mers El Kébir harbour near Oran. Vice Admiral Sommerville with Force H under his command was instructed to deal with the situation in July 1940. Various terms were offered to the French squadron, but all were rejected. Consequently, Force H opened fire on the French ships. Over 1,000 French sailors died when an old French battleship blew up in the attack. The incident provoked a great deal of resentment and hatred within the Marine Nationale towards the UK. Further action was taken against French naval forces at Dakar in Senegal. These attacks were beaten off and the British forces had to retreat.
The next flashpoint between Britain and Vichy came in June 1941. A revolt in Iraq had just been put down by British forces. Luftwaffe aircraft intervened in the fighting in small numbers, and they staged through the French colony of Syria. That put Syria on the radar as a threat to British interests in the Middle East. Consequently the Australian Army and allied forces invaded Syria and Lebanon, capturing Damascus on June 17.
One other major operation against Vichy French territory took place using British forces. It was feared that Japanese forces might use Madagascar as a base, and thus cripple British trade and communications in the Indian Ocean. As a result, Madagascar was invaded by British and South African forces in 1942. It fell relatively quickly, but the operation is often viewed as an unnecessary diversion of British naval resources away from more vital theatres of operation.
US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt continued to cultivate Vichy and promoted General Henri Giraud in place of de Gaulle (as part of a larger political strategy). Even after the invasion of North Africa in 'Operation Torch', Admiral François Darlan, who had arrived in Algiers a few days before 'Torch', became the French leader in North Africa rather than de Gaulle. After Darlan signed an armistice with the Allies in North Africa, Germany violated the 1940 armistice and invaded Vichy France on November 10, 1942. Darlan was assassinated on December 24, 1942 and replace by Giraud, but he commanded very little loyalty. It took until 1944 for Roosevelt to agree to recognize de Gaulle as the leader of the French.
Following the Allied invasions of France, Pétain and his ministers fled to Germany and established a government in exile at Sigmaringen.
In 1945, many members of the Vichy government were arrested and some, including Laval and Darnand, were executed. Pétain was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Others fled or went into hiding, as late as 1993 René Bousquet was murdered and in 1994 Paul Touvier was convicted of crimes against humanity. The Vichy regime deported over 70,000 Jews to Germany and sent 650,000 workers to Germany to help the German war effort.
- Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (London, 1972)