Vichy France on Trial

Julian Jackson first made a name for himself in 2018 with a biography of General de Gaulle, which is currently being adapted for cinema by director Antonin Baudry, a former cultural counselor at the French embassy in the United States. The British historian, who specializes in 1930s and 1940s France, is now turning his attention to the trial of Marshal Pétain. His book, translated into French this month, is in the same vein as American historian Robert Paxton’s work on the Vichy regime – another sensitive subject. This begs the question: Is it easier for foreign researchers to delve into the darkest hours of French history?
Marshal Pétain, the symbol of the Vichy regime and collaboration with Nazi Germany, during his trial in Paris, July 30, 1945. © Bettmann/Getty Images

France-Amérique: Your book, which is mainly focused on the trial of Pétain, is called France on Trial in English. Why this title? Do you think Pétain represents France?

Julian Jackson: I knew that I was taking a risk with this title. But I wanted to make it clear that Pétain was a symbol and that his trial was of historical importance, comparable to the trial of Louis XVI or even Joan of Arc. My title is not a provocation, or even anti-French. It conveys a reality.

What is most striking about Pétain’s trial, which started in Paris in July 1945, is the silence of the accused. He barely spoke a word. In fact, it was hard to know if he was even listening…

You’re right; we don’t know what Pétain was thinking. Nor did we during the Vichy regime. What were his deepest motivations? Did he want to save France? Perhaps protect a little of its independence and dignity from the Germans? Or did he instead want to take advantage of the situation to change French society, undoing the legacy of the 1789 Revolution he hated so much? We are unable to answer these questions for him. He didn’t even answer them himself. It is important to understand that, unlike de Gaulle, he was not an intellectual. Pétain was in fact a repository for, or a symbol of, certain far-right ideas of the 1930s. The Vichy regime was this far-right ideology projected onto a highly symbolic figure who never expressed himself.

The Vichy regime was recognized by the U.S. government until November 1942, when the Germans invaded Southern France. Should we hold Franklin D. Roosevelt responsible for this misjudged courtesy?

Virtually every government at the time, with the exception of Great Britain, recognized the legality the Vichy regime. It has often been said that Roosevelt recognized Vichy out of dislike for de Gaulle. However, this is not the crux of the matter; the Vichy regime appeared to be legal, if not legitimate. What’s more, Roosevelt hoped that the Vichy regime would eventually turn against the Germans and help the Americans, but this is not at all what happened. When American troops landed in North Africa in November 1942, Pétain ordered the French army to fight back. Several hundred American and French soldiers were killed during the landings in Morocco and Algeria. Similarly, Pétain ordered the closure of Tunisia to British and American troops. Roosevelt had made a miscalculation, but this was difficult to predict in 1940. It should be noted that, throughout the history of French-American relations, this episode in 1942 is the only military confrontation to have occurred between the two countries.

Did the American press report on Pétain’s trial?

Americans were obsessed with the trial, trying to understand why Roosevelt supported Pétain while U.S. public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of de Gaulle. The New York Times devoted several pages to the story every day. The New Yorker sent Janet Flanner and France-Amérique dispatched its correspondent Samuel Georges “Géo” London.

Pétain was sentenced to death on August 15, 1945, but de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life imprisonment two days later. © AFP/Getty Images

Pétain’s trial, as you portray it, seems quite out of sync in light of contemporary knowledge. There was almost no mention of the extermination of the Jews, nor of the Vichy ideology itself.

The government and magistrates of the time were very careful to respect the French Penal Code to the letter. The law provided for the concept of treason and sharing intelligence with the enemy, which led to Pétain being sentenced to death on August 15, 1945. [De Gaulle commuted his sentence to life imprisonment two days later.] The code didn’t mention Jews, nor did it mention crimes against humanity. This legal concept came later, at the Nuremberg trials, and was applied in France during the trial of Maurice Papon. This former prefect was found guilty in 1998 of contributing to the deportation of French Jews. I would add that magistrates in August 1945 had little information on the workings of the Vichy regime, and knew virtually nothing about the extermination of the Jews.

The main argument put forward by the Marshal and his supporters was that France had been protected by Vichy; de Gaulle, in London, was the sword, and Pétain was the shield.

The image of the sword and shield was invented at the end of the war by a far-right intellectual named Henri Massis. He had written a speech for Pétain using this theory as the cornerstone of his defense. The speech was never delivered. The supposed division of labor between de Gaulle and Pétain was a last-minute creation to save the honor of Vichy and the lives of its leaders. It is true that many French people believed that this was the situation during the war, but it was never actually the case.

At the end of your book, you say that Pétain’s trial is over. Is this really true?

Yes, particularly since Jacques Chirac’s speech in 1995. Speaking on the site of the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris [where thousands of Jews were arrested, detained, and deported by the French authorities in July 1942], the president acknowledged the responsibility of the French state for the acts committed by Vichy. The cult of the Marshal and nostalgia for Vichy, which were still very much alive in the 1960s, have now disappeared. This does not mean that pro-Pétain ideas have vanished. There is still a reactionary, nationalist, xenophobic patriotism on the far right. But this extreme fringe no longer uses him as an ideal or a symbol, which is why Pétain’s trial is over.

France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain by Julian Jackson, Harvard University Press, 2023.

Interview published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.