Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year..
Subscribe for Full Access
December 2023 Issue [Reviews]

The Discreet Eminence

On the enduring legacy of Marshal Pétain

Mannequins resembling Adolf Hitler and Marshal Pétain hang in a Paris storefront, May 1945 © AFP/Getty Images


The Discreet Eminence

On the enduring legacy of Marshal Pétain

Discussed in this essay:

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain, by Julian Jackson. Belknap Press. 480 pages. $35.

In early September, France’s highest court overturned an appellate decision that had acquitted the far-right politician Éric Zemmour of “disputing crimes against humanity.” The ruling means that Zemmour will once again have to stand trial for his claims that the Vichy government, and in particular its head of state Marshal Philippe Pétain, saved the lives of French Jews during the Second World War. The ruling is perhaps the most significant recent development in a bitter, ongoing quarrel in French society. As Samuel Lejoyeux, president of the Union of French Jewish Students, told Le Monde, “The revindication of Pétain is a classic theme of the far right, and one that has returned to the forefront of public debate.”

Seventy-­two years after his death at the age of ninety-­five, Pétain remains a divisive symbol. To conservatives, he stands for the traditional values of order and patriotism. To progressives, he personifies collaboration with the German authorities. Did his cooperation with the Germans shield the French public from further suffering, or was it a betrayal? To this question one might add a few others. Why is this debate, once seemingly settled—­think of Jacques Chirac’s claim, in 1995, that “the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state”—now being relitigated? How and why have views of Pétain shifted over the decades, and what does this tell us about contemporary French society? Fortunately, Julian Jackson, author of the best biography of General Charles de Gaulle available, and the ablest En­glish-­language historian of contemporary France, has recently published a book that cuts to the core of this subject. France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain shows Jackson at his best—­precise in detail, vivid in imagery, alert to irony, firm in judgment—­and carefully disentangles the questions surrounding the Vichy regime that continue to vex French society.

“The trial that is about to open is one of the greatest in history,” said the presiding judge Pierre Mongibeaux as he began the proceedings against Pétain in a packed and sweltering courtroom on July 23, 1945. Pétain stood accused of treason, having governed France during the Nazi occupation.

A colonel slated for retirement when World War I began, Pétain had passed the test of combat command so effectively that he ended the war as commander in chief of the French armies. At the summit of his glory, on July 14, 1919, he rode a white horse in a victory parade down the Champs-­­Élysées. But between the wars Pétain was a discreet eminence. As vice president of the Supreme War Council from 1920 to 1931, he was the commander in chief. In 1929 he was elected to the Académie Française, and in 1934 he served briefly as minister of war, but although he published some military analyses during the Thirties, he revealed little about his political inclinations. By the time that World War II began, Pétain was France’s most prestigious soldier.

During the disastrous campaign of May 1940, the prime minister Paul Reynaud brought Pétain into his government in an effort to stiffen morale. He had misjudged his man. Pétain, always cautious and pessimistic, soon concluded that further fighting was self-­destructive, and urged an end to it. On June 16, with the German armies rapidly advancing, Reynaud abandoned his effort to continue the fight, perhaps even as a last resort from a temporary capital in French North Africa, and resigned. The president, Albert Lebrun, replaced him the next day with Pétain, who immediately asked Hitler for an armistice. Hitler (whose eye was on Britain) granted relatively moderate terms that were accepted with relief by the French government, putting an end to the project of moving to North Africa and continuing the war. Pétain declared that he would never leave French soil.

The armistice, which went into effect on June 25, 1940, limited the German occupation to about three fifths of France, in the north and west, creating an unoccupied zone in which a French government could function with some degree of autonomy. This arrangement was Hitler’s idea and in no way a French achievement, however much Pétain might take credit for it and however much he might profit from the relief with which the French public greeted the end of the fighting. As Hitler explained the deal, on June 18, to a reluctant Mussolini (who, having leapt late and rather ineffectually into the war on June 10, wanted time to take more French territory), a self-­administered France would save Germany a great deal of expense and effort. This calculation displayed Hitler’s rational side, often obscured by the familiar image of the fanatical Teppichfresser (carpet chewer). It permitted him to occupy France with a relatively small force, numbering only 35,000 at one point and growing to 95,000 when the resistance became active. These were paid for by the French themselves in onerous costs set by the armistice agreement. Later, when the Germans were bogged down in the immense Russian campaign, the relative cheapness with which Hitler controlled France and extracted its wealth was a significant asset for the German war effort.

Once the armistice had gone into effect, Pierre Laval, an ambitious politician who had become Pétain’s point man, helped to organize a change of regime. Paris was going to remain under German occupation, so parliament met in Vichy on July 9. Vichy was a spa town in central France whose principal merits were its abundant hotels and communications facilities and its distance from turbulent cities. On July 10, the parliamentarians voted to give Pétain full powers to create a new constitution to replace that of the discredited Third Republic.

Despite much talk of moving to a more suitable capital, perhaps to an enclave at Versailles that could be carved out of the occupied zone, Pétain’s government remained in Vichy until the end of the war. Pétain and his ministers established an authoritarian dictatorship deemed more in keeping with France’s urgent needs and with the emergence, in other European countries during the Twenties and Thirties, of leaders with unlimited powers. Pétain’s motto was “Family, Work, Fatherland,” supplanting the Republic’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” He sent members of parliament home. A veritable cult of personality formed around him. His government issued a flood of decrees that made France more authoritarian, paternalist, patriotic, and Catholic than it had been at any time since 1789. The National Revolution was rooted in reaction to the Popular Front of 1936, with its Jewish prime minister Léon Blum and his reforms: a forty-­hour work week, vacations with pay, and salary raises that factory owners regarded as an infringement of their legal rights. Pétain’s social legislation veered sharply in the other direction: he suppressed unions and prohibited strikes.

Vichy France’s legitimacy rested upon the assumption that Germany had won the war and French democracy had lost it. German victory turned out to be temporary, however. In August 1944, as the Allies reached the gates of Paris, the retreating Germans took Pétain and Laval back with them. Before departing, Pétain drafted a final message of self-­justification to the French people, explaining that everything he had done, whether of his own accord or because he had been forced, was meant “to protect you from the worst. . . For if I could no longer be your sword, I have wanted to be your shield.” Lacking access to the airwaves, he threw copies of his statement out the car window during the drive to Germany. Jackson explains that this claim would become a “key element in his future defense.” Yet it was deeply misleading. It implied a tacit complicity between the Free French movement of General Charles de Gaulle and the Vichy government, although Vichy had condemned de Gaulle to death in absentia, and the claim ignored Vichy’s eager pursuit of its own autonomous agenda of a reactionary transformation of France.

Pétain’s sword-and-shield metaphor, the sword being the Free French movement and the shield being Pétain’s Vichy regime, each serving the country in its own way, entered into the French political mainstream. It was taken up by the journalist Robert Aron in his widely read Histoire de Vichy 1940–1944. Aron believed that Pétain was “right for the short term. . .and de Gaulle was right for the long term,” and his book argued that Vichy’s good intentions outweighed its faults. (Aron himself had been shielded from Vichy’s measures of discrimination against Jews by a friendly Vichy official.) His book became the standard account, for it satisfied a deep thirst for national reconciliation following the bitter divisions of the war.

Those divisions reached their most acute point at the moment of liberation, beginning in 1944. Vengeful passions swept the country. An estimated nine thousand French people suspected of collaboration with the German occupiers died by vigilante justice during those transitional months. De Gaulle’s incoming provisional government struggled to channel the turmoil into orderly judicial processes. It appointed a High Court of Justice to judge Pétain and prominent Vichy officials, as well as Courts of Justice for lesser officials and purge commissions for the professions. Trials had already begun in liberated French North Africa, and the first Vichy minister to be tried, Pierre Pucheu, who had been minister of the interior in 1941 and 1942, was executed in Algiers on March 20, 1944. The auguries were not favorable for a Pétain acquittal.

Propaganda posters from France, 1941–43. Courtesy the Propaganda Poster Collection, 1914–96, of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington

Nevertheless, Pétain chose to return voluntarily to France in April 1945, shortly before the German surrender that ended the war in Europe. Perhaps, shut up in his German castle, he was ill-­informed of the political climate in France. Perhaps he believed that his enduring charisma would save him, even as de Gaulle’s provisional government swept his National Revolution aside. (In August 1944, Pétain had made an effort to transmit his powers to de Gaulle, perhaps believing that he could retire quietly to his vacation home in Provence. De Gaulle declined to receive the marshal’s emissary.)

In such a climate, Pétain could hardly hope for a serene hearing. The trial of Pierre Laval would be marred by shouts from the jury at the accused. On the morning set for Laval’s execution, in October 1945, he swallowed cyanide. His stomach was pumped, and he was propped up before a firing squad. In Pétain’s trial, however, apart from a chaotic opening day, the proceedings were relatively proper. Between July 23 and August 15, eighteen witnesses testified for the prosecution, and forty-­one for the defense. The prosecution charged Pétain with treason, a crime punishable by death, for having collaborated with the German enemy during wartime. The defense established an enduring historical legend according to which Pétain had sacrificed himself by remaining at his post and playing a heroic “double game,” outwardly complying with German demands while secretly aiding the Allies and shielding the French people from a purely hypothetical “Polandization.” According to this account, all initiatives came from the Germans, while Pétain only parried and delayed as best he could. This narrative persists today in broad sectors of French public opinion, even though historical research has revealed no aid to the Allies, active collaboration with the Germans, and a radically reactionary effort to remake France.

Although Pétain’s trial was conducted according to legal norms, it nonetheless had its anomalous features. The presiding judge had sworn an oath of obedience to the marshal as head of state in 1941, as had every magistrate in France except one. The prosecutor, André Mornet, had served Vichy on a commission set up to reexamine naturalizations granted since 1927; it revoked the citizenship of about fifteen thousand people, including thousands of Jews, many of whom were deported to their deaths. A further anomaly was the silence of the accused after a brief opening statement in which he repeated his shield claim. For lack of time, the prosecution relied upon individual documents extracted without context from the archives, rather than upon a systematic analysis of the entire archival series. The prosecution had to abandon, for lack of evidence, its charge that Pétain had plotted to overthrow the Republic since the Thirties, and focused on the armistice of 1940 rather than on the National Revolution that followed. The jury was composed not of random citizens but of members of the Resistance and of parliamentary deputies who had voted against Pétain’s assumption of power. Everyone knew the outcome in advance.

A major anomaly of the trial was the little time spent on the fate of Jews in Vichy France, which Jackson rectifies with a full chapter. In 1945, extermination camps were poorly understood. The camps from which French political prisoners were returning even as the trial took place, further heightening tensions, were concentration camps, not death camps. Of the seventy-­five thousand Jews deported from France to extermination camps between 1942 and 1944, around 5 percent returned in 1945. In that moment, “deportee” meant someone who had been arrested for resistance or conscripted to work in German factories, not a Jew. During the postwar trials of Vichy collaborators, some defendants, notably Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s first Commissioner for Jewish Questions, argued that since a smaller proportion of the Jews of France had been killed (25 percent) than in other occupied Western European countries, like the Netherlands (75 percent), Vichy must have helped shelter them. Zemmour’s claim that Vichy saved French Jews ignores the whole panoply of restrictions on Jews living in France (citizens no less than foreigners) that were enacted by Vichy in 1940 and 1941 that made them more vulnerable to the Nazi deportations that began in April 1942. Indeed, Vichy’s appointment of administrators to supervise Jewish property affected Jews of French nationality even more than it did recently arrived Jewish refugees.

Today, if one were to read the trial transcript as a guide to the Vichy experience, one would be seriously misled. The prosecution, required to charge Pétain with violating specific laws, turned to Article 75, which condemned collusion with the enemy. This fostered the perception that all initiatives came from Germany, and that Vichy only responded. Thus the trial tended to obscure the domestic origins of the National Revolution. Yet Jackson, through his rich commentary, has transformed the trial into a valid window on Vichy. He shows at each point how the defense’s arguments have been refuted by recent scholarship. Far from limiting himself to parrying German demands, Pétain and his government rashly grasped the opportunity to remake the nation along reactionary lines. France was the only Western European country that actively legislated under Nazi occupation.

Despite the eloquent defense of the young lawyer Jacques Isorni, who emerged as the trial’s star, the jury voted to sentence Pétain to death. It further recommended that, in view of his age and his service during World War I, his sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Pétain was exiled to a tiny island, the Île d’Yeu, off the French Atlantic coast, where he was visited by admirers but suffered increasing lapses of memory until his death in 1951, at the age of ninety-­five.

Yet Pétain’s death brought no end to the debates that swirled around his name. In 1951, his defenders set up the Association for the Defense of the Memory of Marshal Pétain (ADMP). The ADMP attempted to bring about a revision of Pétain’s sentence and the transferral of his body to the great World War I monument at Douaumont, on the Verdun battlefield, where he had commanded French forces in 1916 in the longest campaign of the war, and where he had hoped to be buried. And in 1973, a commando of conspirators seized Pétain’s coffin with the intention of taking it to Douaumont. The police caught the van containing Pétain’s coffin in a Paris parking garage and brought the stunt to an almost comical close.

The Pétain case never lost its charge in French political life. Pétain’s regime having been approved by the overwhelming majority of the French public at the beginning, his trial put France itself in the dock, as Jackson’s title suggests. For two decades after the trial, the French public seemed intent on repressing this bitter memory. There was never a French translation of the British scholar Geoffrey Warner’s 1968 biography of Pierre Laval, even though it remains one of the best-­documented. My own study of the professional officer corps during the Vichy regime, Parades and Politics at Vichy (1966), was not translated into French
until 2004.

But in the Seventies, as Henry Rousso points out in The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944, the subject surged back into French public consciousness. An immediate impetus was the student uprising of May 1968, which showed that young French people no longer accepted their parents’ values, as well as the French president Georges Pompidou’s controversial pardon in 1971 of Paul Touvier. Touvier, a member of Vichy’s supplementary police force, the Milice, had murdered Jews in 1944 and was implicated in the murder of the elderly Victor Basch, president of the French League for the Rights of Man, and his wife. Over the longer term, scholars who examined Vichy through archival evidence rather than from participants’ memoirs dismantled Pétain’s shield claim, as well as the Gaullist myth of a universally resisting France. Among these was my own Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972). Reviewed negatively by the Revue française de science politique, which claimed that I was poorly informed about the realities of French life under the German occupation, and positively in much of the press, it aroused heated debate. Most influential was Marcel Ophuls’s documentary, based on individual recollections of the Vichy experience, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), which was barred from French television for a decade but shown in a few Paris cinemas in 1971.

In May 1976, the popular French television series Les Dossiers de l’Écran devoted an episode to the Pétain case. According to the show’s format, each subject was debated by a panel, in this case three on either side of the issue, plus three historians who had studied the matter. I was one of the historians, while Jacques Isorni was one of the three Pétain supporters. The filming got off to a troubled start, as the studio technicians went out on strike, having somehow concluded that the program’s intent was to whitewash Pétain. When we finally began, Admiral Gabriel Auphan, who had been Vichy’s naval minister in 1942 and later became the head of the ADMP, waved a hand at me and said, “Monsieur Paxton, one of the two of us is a liar.” I was hastening to agree with him when a more senior French historian, Henri Michel, cut me off, saying, “No one is lying, there are just differences of opinion.” At issue was the claim, vigorously supported by Auphan, that, when American forces landed in North Africa in November 1942, Pétain had wired a message to Admiral François Darlan, the former Vichy chief minister, approving a request to switch to the Allied side.

Darlan, who was still in command of Vichy military forces, was at the time coordinating a defense against the American landing. After two days, he agreed to a cease-fire. But the Americans wanted the active assistance of French forces in North Africa. Only after nine more days, once Hitler had sent troops into the formerly unoccupied zone, and under extreme pressure from the Americans, did Darlan agree that French troops in North Africa should help to defend Tunisia against rapidly arriving German reinforcements. Auphan claimed that Pétain’s approval message pertained to Darlan’s switch to the Allied side. But now we have the full text of Darlan’s telegram to which Pétain agreed. He was, in fact, approving Darlan’s effort to stay neutral. Admiral Auphan, whose naval communications system sent the message, surely knew this, but he persisted in the falsehood in several postwar books about his experiences at Vichy. Jackson gets this complicated detail of the “secret telegrams” right.

Defending the memory of Marshal Pétain became a major project of the French extreme right as it emerged from its post-Vichy eclipse in the Seventies. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former head of the far-right National Front, was an outspoken admirer of Pétain. His youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, who succeeded him in 2011 as head of what is now called the National Rally, finally came around, after some hesitation, to distancing herself from Vichy, though she claimed that France had had nothing to do with the deportation of Jews. Her niece Marion Maréchal, who served from 2012 to 2017 as the youngest member in the National Assembly since the French Revolution, withdrew for a time from politics and then returned to action in 2022 in support of the failed presidential candidacy of the Pétain sympathizer Éric Zemmour.

As for Pétain’s legacy in contemporary France, Jackson skillfully traces the way that Zemmour’s remarks about Pétain and the Jews, remarks that he defended repeatedly, including in a 2019 televised discussion with Bernard-­Henri Lévy, were deployed toward a political end. “It became even clearer than before that this was more than just a provocation,” Jackson writes of Zemmour. “It was a key part of his strategy to build a new union of the right by overcoming the historic chasm which the memory of Vichy had created.”

In the end, Zemmour received only 7 percent of the vote, and Jackson writes that while the extreme right appears to be flourishing in France, “its future does not lie in invoking the memory of Pétain. The Pétain case is closed.” President Emmanuel Macron seems to agree—this spring, he chastised his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, for remarking that Le Pen’s party, the National Rally, were the “heirs of Pétain,” insisting that the fight against the far right should not be waged on moral grounds but rather on “substance,” and by identifying “inconsistencies” in its policies.

Maybe so, but as Le Monde noted in an editorial response, however successful Marine Le Pen’s efforts to legitimize her party have been, there were indeed Pétain sympathizers involved in its creation. And even if Le Pen has largely taken pains not to acknowledge this link, she still propounds an ideology of nationalism and xenophobia. Reading Jackson’s book, it is hard not to agree with the editorial’s closing sentiment: “While moral arguments may not be enough against the [National Rally], they are still highly relevant.”

 is a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and the author of many books, including The Anatomy of Fascism.

More from

| View All Issues |

May 2017

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now