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Introduced by Dr Steve Wharton on 19 July 1999
How does a former ally become a subject of vilification? And how does that transformation undergo change when the wheel comes full circle?
France and Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 after Hitler invaded Poland. Several months later, in May 1940, the German army suddenly extended its invasion westwards, and finally into France. British and some French troops escaped to England from Dunkirk, leaving the way clear for the Germans. The French government was riven with differences of opinion about whether to fight or surrender. The military men, like Marshal Pétain and General Weygand, brought into the government for their expertise, thought that while capitulation was dishonourable, a negotiated armistice could be seen
as a peace treaty, a way of stopping the war. With this in mind, on 17 June, Pétain was appointed to head the government, and in a broadcast that evening he declared "I make a gift of myself to my country, to alleviate her suffering". On 18 June another broadcast was made, from London. The young General de Gau1le, who had slipped away by plane from Bordeaux, had a different message. "Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not go out".
Pétain signed the armistice on 22 June, dividing France into an occupied zone and a `free' zone (Vichy France). The National Assembly gave full powers to him and his government in Vichy, in effect ending the Third Republic by promulgating a new Constitution of the French State (not Republic), and replacing the revolutionary Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité by Travail, Famille, Patrie. The term Révolution nationale which they used has little to do with democratic revolutions. 1t implies the setting up of a new order: a paternalistic régime with no elected representatives.
After his meeting with Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, Pétain declared that France must follow a policy of `collaboration' with Germany. One early example of collaboration between Vichy and the Germans was the propaganda machine which now went into full swing to vilify the British and promote the new regime. A joint company was set up to make newsreels. Excerpts from Max Ophuls' film Le chagrin et la pitié (1969) and Claude Chabrol's L'oeil de Vichy (1992) demonstrate how clips showing, for example, the aftermath of the British sinking of the French fleet at Oran, or bomb damage to family homes and ancient monuments, were compulsory viewing at cinemas. The implication was that this was a cowardly targeting of innocent civilians where there was no danger of retaliation.
Posters were the other weapon used in the propaganda war. They were anti-revolutionary and anti-republican, and the new god was Pétain, who figures on many of them. In the slogan Travai1, Famille, Patrie, the structure of the family is very important: motherhood and childbearing are glorified, and the father is the overarching authoritarian figure - personified by Pétain. A wonderful woodcut poster with Pétain as the central figure is full of imagery of home, family and work. Later there was a change of emphasis. Two events swelled the numbers joining the Resistance: the introduction of the S.T.O. forcing men to work in Germany, and the occupation of the southern zone. After this the posters began to focus on order and stability being undermined by the Resistance.
The Vichy episode must be seen as the culmination of the attempts of the Far Right to destabilise the Third Republic from its inception. The Dreyfus Affair was its first great battle: the anti-Dreyfusards were mostly anti-republican or even royalist, Catholic, anti-Semitic, and included the military, of course, as well as many right-wing intellectuals. It never gave up after the rehabilitation of Dreyfus and resurfaced in the form of the fascist leagues of the 1930s (often led by the same people) which were responsible for the anti-government riots of 1934. Later, under Vichy, members of the Catholic hierarchy, the officer ranks of the army, and again the same intellectuals, were notable among the collaborators.