Inside Story

Case closed?

A distinguished historian of France scrutinises the trial of Vichy leader Marshal Pétain and its aftermath

Anne Freadman Books 23 August 2023 1864 words

The French debating their history? Pétain on trial in August 1945. Photo12/Alamy

Philippe Pétain was born into a farming family in northern France in April 1856, the only son of Omer-Venant Pétain and Clotilde Legrand. Despite his humble origins, he managed to gain admission to the elite Saint-Cyr military training school in his mid-teens. A colonel by the beginning of the first world war, he rose to the rank of general at the relatively late age of fifty-eight, leading the French army to an unpredictable victory at Verdun.

That triumph, and Pétain’s subsequent success in controlling a mutiny among his troops, gained him considerable prominence. He was named Marshal, a rarely awarded honorific title rather than a formal military title, in 1918. Commander-in-chief of the French army in the interwar years, he twice served briefly as war minister before being appointed ambassador to General Franco’s Spain. He was recalled to Paris in 1940 to take up the position of defence minister but quickly found himself leading the wartime government.

It was this government that would notoriously suspend the French constitution, dissolve parliament and grant him plenipotentiary powers as head of state. In this capacity, Pétain signed an armistice with the Nazi invaders and initiated a policy of collaboration. Three-fifths of France was occupied from 1940 until 1942, then the whole territory. For his role, Pétain was tried in 1945 for treason.

Why was this eighty-four-year-old military figure, effectively a political novice, appointed to the top job? Historian Julian Jackson considers this question early in his new book, France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain. An authority on mid-twentieth-century France, Jackson’s best-known books include France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944 (2001), The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (2003) and A Certain Idea of France: A Life of Charles de Gaulle (2018).

The urgent need for a new prime minister arose from the rout of the French army by the Germans and the growing political pressure for a settlement with the invading forces. Paul Reynaud, France’s president at the time, “lacked the authority” to resist the push for an armistice, writes Jackson, and when it came to naming a new prime minister the choice was between two generals anxious to settle with the Germans.

Of the two, Maxime Weygand, now the army’s commander-in-chief, was a monarchist and therefore unacceptable to Reynaud. Pétain, meanwhile, “had never been associated with disloyalty to Republican governments.” Pétain was also “revered,” writes Jackson, prudent in his associates, and considered a humane commander.

Harbouring political ambitions, Pétain had “kept in touch with events in Paris” while in Spain; and it was the “impending catastrophe of defeat” by the German army that “gave him his opportunity.” Rumours of a Pétain government had spread during the final years of Reynaud’s presidency, and Pétain had been accused of participating in a plot to achieve this end.

Appointed to form a government on 16 June, Pétain was not granted full powers until 10 July, when parliament reconvened in the central French town of Vichy. “The very next day,” writes Jackson, “Pétain issued a series of ‘constitutional acts’ which effectively made him a dictator and put Parliament into abeyance.”

Tellingly, Pétain had topped an opinion poll in 1935 “to discover who would make the most popular dictator for France.” But he had not been the figurehead of a single faction during the 1930s and 1940s. The left had some distrust of him, but generally went along with his image — the aura of military success, the handsome looks and noble bearing that “seduced crowds” — until the suspension of the constitution.

“Pétain’s tragedy,” says Jackson, “was to be an unremarkable person who had come to believe in his own myth.” Those who didn’t believe the myth were the most cynical of his supporters. His close aides considered that he was influenced by the last person he spoke to on an issue. Pierre Laval, the government’s most enthusiastic supporter of collaboration with Germany, thought Pétain deserved only to be a bust on a mantelshelf. His vanity and his public persona, in other words, led him to be eminently manipulable. But his position as the head of the regime inevitably made him responsible for its actions.

Kidnapped by the Nazis in August 1944, not long after the Allies began their push into France, Pétain was held in Germany ostensibly for his own protection. Jackson recounts the grimly amusing story of Germany’s pretence of a French “government in exile,” not to mention the absurdity of the behaviour of its members and of Pétain’s eventual “release.” In what his defenders presented as a “gesture of noble heroism,” he insisted on returning to postwar France to defend himself before the French population.

Pétain’s trial was held in 1945, very soon after Germany’s surrender. The war hadn’t yet ended, and Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government was barely a year old. Finding “legally robust procedures” for trials after the liberation was imperative but difficult, Jackson writes. Politicians accused of treason in the prewar Third Republic had been judged by the Senate sitting as a High Court, but “it was not even yet decided whether France would keep the same constitution, and most members of the Senate elected under it had voted Pétain full powers in 1940.” A new High Court was created to try the Vichy leaders.

The reputation of the Paris judiciary had been “severely compromised” during the war. The Bar had been purged of its Jewish members, and its remaining members recused themselves on the grounds that impartiality would be difficult for them. Further complicating the picture, both the judge presiding over the preliminary interrogation and the prosecutor in the trial had “murky” wartime pasts. The former was undistinguished in legal circles and probably out of his depth. The conduct of the trial did not maintain decorum.

And what was Pétain to be tried for? Eventually, he was indicted for signing the armistice, for the constitutional acts that made him a dictator, and for “abominable racial laws.” But no evidence was brought concerning this third matter, and Jackson devotes a whole chapter to “The Absent Jews.” France had to wait until 1995 for Jacques Chirac’s acknowledgement of French responsibility for the deaths of 75,000 Jews.

Pétain was eventually convicted of “collusion with the enemy” — treason, that is. Jackson recounts the trial in detail. He profiles the lawyers, jury members and witnesses, and draws on the court record and other contemporary documents to create a blow-by-blow account of the debates. More horrifying than amusing, the proceedings reveal the judicial chaos of post-liberation France.

But what of Jackson’s title, for which he thanks a friend? Did the court action against Pétain really put France on trial? This is the question that pervaded the trial and pervades the book.

From the moment of liberation, de Gaulle insisted that France was a nation of resisters that had been betrayed, in Jackson’s words, “only by a handful of traitors who needed to be punished.” To understand this belief, we need to remember that the Gaullist resistance was a nationalist movement, and ideologically conservative. We also need to remember that de Gaulle’s principal aim from 1944 on was to have France recognised as a participant in the war effort and accepted among the Allies at the negotiating table for decisions concerning postwar Europe.

Jackson is sympathetic with this account, deeming it “necessary.” But it was necessary only in the relatively short term; in the longer term, it has been a major cause of France’s difficulty in coming to terms with its history. It surely lends respectability to the national nostalgia for a “certain idea of France,” a nation — notably not a “state” — whose “greatness” would rest on its ideological and cultural homogeneity.

As Jackson remarks elsewhere, France’s wartime population consisted of resisters — a small number at the start, more towards the end — a great number of supporters of Pétain and Vichy, and many people on the fence, waiting to see how the cards would fall. Even if attitudes had been more homogeneous, France could not be tried, if only because a criminal trial necessarily focuses on the accused person and his or her intentions, as was reiterated several times during the proceedings.

At the same time, some prominent intellectuals acknowledged at the time that France as a whole shared some responsibility, that “each of us was complicit,” in the words of one. One of the defence lawyers argued that “if Pétain was guilty so were the French — so was France,” thus suggesting the grounds for an exoneration of the accused. But neither the armistice, nor the abuse of the constitution, nor France, nor even the “widely shared complicity” of the French in the actions of Vichy was on trial. Hence the prosecutor’s insistent focus on the person of Pétain.

The title promises more than the book can give. In what sense was this trial a “case” of putting France on trial? Granted, we may be dealing only with a metaphor, but the metaphor is not apt. When the French judge their own actions under Vichy, it is for collaboration in all areas of social and economic policy. But collaboration does not figure in the penal code.

Under an alternative construal, “case” might refer to a case study, and hence to the work of the book itself. Jackson suggests this in the introduction when he tells us that the trial affords an opportunity “to watch the French debating their history.” In this sense, Jackson’s research serves “as an example” to those “future historians” whom the prosecutor invokes as doing a different kind of work from the court’s: “We are not historians,” he insisted to his colleagues.

Importantly, case studies acknowledge the singularity of each case. This is also the task of historical research. It is in these terms that we can identify the achievement of Jackson’s book; it is an admirable narrative history whose accomplishment lies in its detailed scrutiny of the particularities of Pétain’s trial and the specific aftermath of its verdict.

The final part of France on Trial demonstrates the continuity from the anti-republican sentiment of the 1930s, through the Pétain cult of the war years, to the persistence of extreme-right politics in France in the present day. It is not paranoid to trace this continuity as far back as the Dreyfus affair — not only because of the persistence of anti-Semitism but also because the nefarious role of the army was central.

For Jackson, “the Pétain case is closed” because the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen has walked away from her father’s fidelity to Pétain. But her more radical niece has not; and this, together with far-right figure Éric Zemmour’s strident anti-Muslimism, leaves me more sceptical than optimistic. Pétain and Vichy governed France; they have been the names of a long strand in France’s “civil war.” If those names no longer attract a following, so much the better, but their echo persists. •

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain
By Julian Jackson | Allen Lane | $55 | 480 pages