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Philippe Petain and Fascism in France

by William P. Meyers

During World War II, after France was defeated by the German military, France had a fascist government. Part of France (mostly the north, including Paris) was directly governed from Germany. The rest of France was governed by an ally of Adolf Hitler, Philippe Petain (French: Pétain) from Vichy, and is often referred to as Vichy France.

Because the Cold War against Communism preoccupied the foreign policy of the United States of America after World War II, little attention has been given to Philippe Petain and Vichy France in the U.S. I think if you want to understand the phenomena of fascism as a whole, studying fascism in France adds a great deal to the picture.

In this essay I will give an overview of Petain and French Fascism. When more detailed essays are added to the site I will provide links from this page.

Fascism in France developed in parallel to its development in Italy, Germany, and Spain. It represented a modern form of conservative authoritarian politics. Conservatives were unhappy with the changes that had taken place in modern society. They liked things simple: one religion, one political party, one leader. Their enemies were anyone who believed in a democratic form of government, freedom of press, religion, and speech. In particular, however, they hated anyone who wanted to use the government to redistribute wealth, even if only by allowing for universal public education and freedom of economic opportunity. They were absolutely opposed to any form of socialism, including its authoritarian form, Communism.

Fascists typically fought to win control of government both through elections and through violence. In France there were a variety of fascist groupings struggling for power in the 1930's, using varying tactics. At the same time they exerted pressure on the elected government of France to ally with fascist Germany against Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. (Russia and its satellite states). After Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on Germany, there is considerable evidence that the Pope came close to negotiating a deal in which France would make peace with Germany and join in an invasion of Russia. In the end Hitler lost patience with the process and invaded France.

It was suspected by many in France that Philippe Petain and other pro-fascist officers in the French army had a great deal to do with the ease with which the German army breached France's defenses. At the very least Marshall Petain, while the fighting progressed, lobbied the French government to surrender. When the British evacuated Dunkirk rather that using it as a beachhead to continue the fight with Germany, the French government did surrender.

The government, stripped of its opposing elected members, made Petain the Chief of State with the powers of a dictator on July 11, 1940.

Any doubts about Philippe Petain and the Vichy regime being fascists must be cast aside when the actual policies of that government are examined. Elections were ended. Unions were dissolved. Industry was structured along the lines of the fascist corporate system. The Catholic Church became the official religious institution. Jews in particular were discriminated against. Socialists and communists were arrested and sometime executed without trial [A History of Modern France, Volume 2, by Alfred Cobban, page 304 and 311].

There were disagreements between Petain and Hitler, but these were based on nationalism. Petain did hope to have all of France brought under the government in Vichy eventually. But he cooperated closely with the Nazis until the allied invasion of Normandy, at which point he was removed to Germany.

When Charles De Gaulle's Free French established a new government Petain was sentenced to life imprisonment, but some of his fellow-Vichy France politicians were sentenced to death and executed. Petain finally died on July 23, 1951 at the age of 95.

More data:

Pius XI, the Rise of Petain, and Fascist Vichy France
Philippe Petain page at Wikipedia
Petain Documents Show Anti-Semitism [New York Times, October 3, 2010]

More articles on fascism:

New series on Pius XI:

Pius XI and the Rise of Benito Mussolini
Pius XI and the Rise of Adolph Hitler

Hitler's Catholicism
General Francisco Franco main page

Vatican Names Fascist Saints [October 30, 2007]
Catholic Church Helped with Dirty War in Argentina [September 18, 2007]
Mother Teresa, Hitler and Stalin [August 26, 2007]
Italy, Catholicism, and Fascism Today [June 3, 2007]
Mussolini's Corporate State
Francisco Franco, the Catholic Church and 2 Million Murders
Catholicism and Fascism