80 Years of France-Amérique

The Battle of New York and the Birth of France-Amérique

The very first issue of France-Amérique was published on May 23, 1943. At the time, it was a deeply political newspaper. Against the backdrop of clashing opinions within New York City’s French community, the new weekly clearly stated its intentions: to raise awareness of the Free French cause among Americans, and to support the resistance effort organized by General de Gaulle.
© Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Small groups would gather every day on the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center, enthusiastically commenting on the latest harrowing news from occupied Europe. In the evenings, they would meet in Manhattan’s French bistros for a glass of Californian Merlot while listening to Maurice Chevalier records. On Sundays, they would come together for mass at St. Vincent de Paul on 23rd Street, regardless of whether they were Gaullists or anti-Gaullists, pro-Pétain, pro-Giraud, or attentistes in favor of a “wait-and-see” approach. New York’s French community had doubled in size by 1940, jumping from 25,000 to more than 50,000. It had grown so large that in the summer of 1942, former Paris-Soir journalist Jacques Surmagne, exiled in Brooklyn, published a long report with the provocative title: “Is New York City French?”

But there were several visions of France living in this multi-factional city, and General de Gaulle’s Free France was forced to fight tooth and nail to establish its influence. In doing so, la France libre hoped to finance its war effort and confirm its credibility among the Allies. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre, visiting the U.S. in late 1944, called “the Battle of New York.” For the Free French, the goal was to convince America to come to France’s aid, essentially persuading a city living in peace to go to war – and above all, to fight for the right side. It was in this context, on May 23, 1943, that France-Amérique published its first issue from the bustling offices of a Free French outpost in Midtown Manhattan.

“A Nest of Vipers in New York City”

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, just 5% of French people living in the United States answered their country’s call to arms. Most of them were – and remained – spectators to the conflict. In 1940, these so-called “original” immigrants received news of the fall of France with disbelief and confusion. This reaction was compounded by the fact that they had no daily French-language newspaper to relay the painful events of the Phony War, nor to share the hope of de Gaulle’s June 18 appeal calling on France to continue the fight. Amérique (1933-1942), a literary, artistic weekly and a forebear of France-Amérique, was the only one reporting on France, albeit with a clear attentiste stance.

The majority of the French community was deeply Catholic. They had never accepted secular laws in France and saw the defeat as divine punishment – and Philippe Pétain as the path to redemption. Just like their fellow citizens in Europe, they believed the Vichy regime should be supported out of a sense of loyalty. This vision was further enhanced by America, which maintained diplomatic relations with Pétain’s government until November 1942. Adding fuel to the fire, tens of thousands of French refugees reached New York in 1940, and they also had differing opinions. They were artists, writers, publishers, musicians, actors, directors, politicians, journalists, academics, and researchers, along with titans of industry, bankers, and chefs. All were fleeing Nazi troops or the rising tide of collaboration. Most of them rejected Pétain’s Révolution nationale, although without necessarily supporting de Gaulle.

Hitler in Paris, June 1940. © Heinrich Hoffmann/Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Free France historian Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac describes the situation as “a nest of vipers in New York City.” The “old” immigrants clashed with the new arrivals, “privileged by birth, fortune, and spirit,” with each trying to impose their vision of France. At the musette balls, cocktail parties, and galas that made up the community’s social calendar, they came together only to find themselves fighting even more. On the banks of the Hudson River, they waged an ideological war over news from Europe. In a way, this extended the Phony War far beyond 1940. Should supplies be sent to occupied France? Should the community support an alliance with the British, who had recently bombed the French fleet at Mers El Kebir in Algeria? Should they attend Easter Mass if the Vichy ambassador is sitting in the front row? Such questions and many others were daily challenges for these exiles.

In de Gaulle’s mind, if he could unite the elite of French immigration around Free France, they could then sway public opinion in America. After all, the movement needed U.S. support to establish its political power, present itself as a credible ally, and earn a seat at the victors’ table. But the United States, along with its president, remained particularly hostile to the man behind the June 18 appeal, accusing him of royalist or even autocratic leanings. When American censorship laws banned newspapers from France, the only news came from pro-Vichy publications, especially since the regime had nationalized the Havas press agency. What’s more, Vichy’s embassy in Washington D.C. subsidized Voici la France (1940-1942), a weekly newspaper published in New York that overtly supported Pétain.

To make their voices heard in this propaganda war, New York City’s anti-Vichy French community were left with no other choice; they had to create their own media outlet. In total, three weekly publications were subsequently launched: La Voix de France (1941-1943), Pour la Victoire (1942-1946), and France-Amérique.

The French Press Joins the Resistance in Manhattan

In 1941, La Voix de France declared that it would “use the pen to stop the sword.” To do so, the paper drew on famous exiled authors including François Mauriac, Jules Romains, and André Maurois, along with leading artists such as Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall. But this new weekly became bogged down in apolitical squabbling and failed to unite the French community. Nevertheless, this initial iteration of exiled French thought did establish a dialogue between the French refugees who had fled to the New World and the American people gearing up to free the Old Continent. This first wartime newspaper also inspired other professional journalists to step up and join the Resistance in the New York press sector. Today, France-Amérique is their only remaining direct descendant.

“They were warriors, whose […] arsenal had been well stocked by experience,” writes historian Colin Nettelbeck of these journalists, some of the finest of their day. Many of them had already made names for themselves in Europe covering the Popular Front and the rise of fascism. They believed that all self-respecting journalism was inherently political. Several of these hard-hitting reporters, who had spent time in London before arriving in New York, stepped through the doors of Ellis Island with a sense of urgency, driven by a calling to sustain a free French press in England and America alike.

Journalist Geneviève Tabouis, who founded the anti-Vichy weekly Pour la Victoire in 1942. © John Rawlings/Vogue

One of these figures was Geneviève Tabouis. Nicknamed “Cassandre,” she enjoyed a tremendous international reputation, having predicted Hitler’s expansionist ambitions as far back as 1932. She bothered the Führer so much that he even personally lambasted her in a speech broadcast on the radio a few years later. Despite her failing health, she fled to America to continue the fight. Encouraged by the Free France delegate in New York, the fifty-something journalist had a madcap project in mind: to launch a newspaper in support of the Resistance in Manhattan. Negotiations had ground to a halt until December 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into the war. The time for talk was over. America was finally interested in liberating France and an anti-Vichy newspaper became an indispensable tool. Enter Pour la Victoire.

In January 1942, with the eternal flame of the Arc de Triomphe on the front page, the newspaper’s first issue proudly displayed messages of encouragement from Eleanor Roosevelt and New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia. De Gaulle himself wrote to the paper, “delighted that a French voice is being heard in the United States.” Henri de Kérillis, Pour la Victoire’s main editorial writer, was also one of the most famous journalists of his generation. A staunch opponent of Nazism since 1938, he lent the weekly publication considerable weight in the eyes of the American public. Prestigious collaborators, such as Philippe Barrès, Georges Bernanos, André Breton, and Julien Green gave the paper even further credibility.

By 1943, Pour la Victoire had a weekly print run of more than 30,000 copies delivered as far afield as Latin America. It offered readers a sneak peek of the first pages of Saint-Exupéry’s Flight to Arras, along with tips about which New York drugstores sold the ingredients needed to prepare the much-missed Alsatian choucroute garnie. Its wealth of articles had a wide appeal and tried to move beyond the clashes and factions of the time, instead establishing France’s political, linguistic, and cultural continuity.

De Gaulle vs. Giraud

The Allied invasion of French North Africa in November 1942 changed the game. New York’s French community was torn between growing support for de Gaulle and gratitude towards the United States, on which the liberation of Europe now seemed to depend entirely. What’s more, America still refused to accept de Gaulle’s political authority. Instead of siding with the Free France leader, Roosevelt and Eisenhower instated General Henri Giraud in Algiers, and pushed the two generals to find common ground and unite the French forces. But Fighting France (Free France’s new name after July 1942) refused to forgive Giraud for joining the rebellion so late and for initially submitting to Pétain’s authority. The Fighting French continued to see de Gaulle as the only one capable of upholding national sovereignty. Reflecting the community it represented, the French press in New York quickly split into those in favor of Giraud and those who supported de Gaulle.

The battleship Richelieu arrives in New York for repairs at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, February 1943. © Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Pour la Victoire decided to adopt the American stance: Every week, the word “union” was repeatedly printed on the front page. In successive opinion pieces, its directors begged the two generals to get along. On November 19, 1942, the newspaper published “An Open Letter to Frenchmen Everywhere” by Saint-Exupéry, reprinted ten days later by The New York Times. “Men of France, let us be reconciled in order to serve,” begged the writer. The Battle of New York reached its peak in February 1943, when the pro-Giraud battleship Richelieu berthed in Brooklyn for an urgent rearmament and 350 of its sailors deserted to join the Fighting French Navy. Pour la Victoire’s editorial team and the U.S. authorities alike were dismayed, and quickly set about disparaging de Gaulle’s supporters’ dangerous political ambitions in a pro-Giraud America. Henri de Kérillis cast aspersions on de Gaulle’s commitment to reinstating democracy after the liberation of France, and publicly rejected his authority. From then on, deprived of funding from London, Pour la Victoire was financed by Giraud’s delegation in the United States.

Geneviève Tabouis had agreed to reprint some of the articles from La Marseillaise, the London-based Fighting French newspaper, and was annoyed at their “divisive” hostility towards Roosevelt and America. Despite criticisms from local Gaullist authorities, she heavily corrected their articles and then flat-out refused to publish them, breaking the agreement signed in September 1942. Archives kept by the O.S.S. – the ancestor of the C.I.A. – reveal that the journalist was heavily pressured by the pro-de Gaulle lobby to sway her position in favor of the Fighting French leader. Geneviève Tabouis held her ground. She had chosen exile as the price for maintaining her journalistic freedom, and would no sooner follow orders from de Gaulle than from Vichy.

The Birth of France-Amérique

In the chaotic spring of 1943, Fighting France bought Amérique and started pouring money into their new publication. The wait-and-see Amérique became the staunchly Gaullist France-Amérique. A handful of former contributors from Pour la Victoire left the newspaper and joined this new weekly, which was funded and hosted by the Fighting French delegation in New York, with offices at 626 Fifth Avenue. The newspaper’s director, the renowned, deep-voiced, left-wing attorney Henry Torrès, who had then been exiled in the United States for three years, refused to support the highly conservative General Giraud.

Henry Torrès (right), the future director of France-Amérique, at the World Jewish Congress, New York, Jun1942. © World Jewish Congress

Just like at Pour la Victoire, France-Amérique’s editorial team was a blend of politicians and journalists, with Henry Torrès soon joined by political commentator Emile Buré. Stripped of his French nationality by the Vichy regime in 1940 for his aggressive outspokenness, Emile Buré fled to New York and started working tirelessly in support of de Gaulle. This position saw him widely criticized by the press in France. Certain newspapers claimed that he had “completely lost his mind and been interned in an insane asylum by the New York authorities,” before announcing his death in January 1941. But Emile Buré was alive and well, and determined to stick to his guns. “I am Gaullist,” he wrote in the first issue of France-Amérique, published on May 23, 1943. “Passionately Gaullist.” The newspaper’s slogan, “Fighting French for Democracy,” was featured in English above the title on the front page. Printed below it was a quote from de Gaulle – “A single battle for a single country” – and a copy of a telegram sent by the General from London: “I wish France-Amérique the best of luck. STOP. I am sure your newspaper will show our American friends the abilities and objectives of France. STOP. In doing so, it will reinforce the friendship between our two countries, which is indispensable to victory and rebuilding the world.”

France-Amérique published most exiled Gaullist intellectuals, along with those fighting within the French Resistance. Its pages featured playwright Henri Bernstein, described by the Vichy embassy in Washington D.C. as “one of [their] most fearsome opponents,” a young Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the poet Louis Aragon. The tone of the opinion pieces was deliberately reminiscent of the underground press in occupied France. Every week, the newspaper published the names of those executed by firing squad, taken from posters put up on French walls, and a tally of victories won by the Resistance, including severed telephone lines, attacks on freight trains, and the number of German soldiers killed.

Almost immediately, France-Amérique began its own war against Pour la Victoire, exchanging ad hominem attacks and gratuitous insults. The Gaullist newspaper’s director, Henry Torrès, wrote damning retorts to the “dishonorable pro-Giraud pieces” published by Geneviève Tabouis and Henri de Kérillis. Giraud was described as the “Nazi general” opposing the “leader of Fighting France [who] rightly refused to betray the responsibilities entrusted to him by our hostages and our martyrs.” When Pour la Victoire voiced concern that such uncompromising Gaullism might drag France into “civil war,” France-Amérique retorted that “there shall be no civil war in France; there shall be a patriotic cleansing.”

Fortunately, the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, the liberation of mainland France, and America’s recognition of de Gaulle’s interim government helped smooth tensions within the exiled French community. In May 1946, with peace fully restored, there was no longer any reason to have two French weekly newspapers in New York City. Pour la Victoire, tasked with defending an increasingly unpopular anti-Gaullist stance in the United States and beleaguered by infighting, decided to merge with France-Amérique. Our newspaper accepted a new mission, to provide the French community in the U.S. with “a permanent record of our fraternal ties and information about French life.” Briefly integrated into the French embassy’s cultural services, France-Amérique began to shift in appearance and content, and slowly developed its modern identity as a bridge between France and America.

The France-Amérique Saga

As part of our 80th anniversary, our historian-in-residence, Diane de Vignemont, will be taking us on a monthly deep-dive into France-Amérique’s archives, shining a light on the events that have defined the relationship between France and the United States. This series will act as a link between the past and the magazine you are reading today.

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.