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The Nazis attacked and occupied France, but only 10% of the population supported the French resistance. How could freedom fighters trying to liberate their own country be so wildly unpopular?

The Nazis attacked and occupied France, but only 10% of the population supported the French resistance. How could freedom fighters trying to liberate their own country be so wildly unpopular?

The Nazis attacked and occupied France, but only 10% of the population supported the French resistance. How could freedom fighters trying to liberate their own country be so wildly unpopular?

Preface: To resist, or not to resist, that is the question

You’re a French waiter at a nice outdoor café near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Every day, the Parisian elite gather at your café to drink overpriced coffee, exchange gossip, shoo away inquisitive pigeons, and complain about the government. No, this is not Emily in Paris, but 1940s France.
The Germans have broken through the Maginot Line.

The poor French boys who defended the Dunkirk beachhead so valiantly are now in captivity, abandoned by the fleeing British. De Gaulle? Who’s that? Half of France is now under German control, the other half administrated by the new French government at the spa resort of Vichy. The older cafegoers nod approvingly when they hear that Petain heads the Vichy government. The First World War hero will protect French interests and restore stability to the nation, you hear them say.

The German officers sit apart from the Parisians. Nobody is comfortable with their presence, you least of all. You consider yourself a patriot, and would have served in the army if not for a long-term foot injury. Their boisterousness gets on your nerves, and you only grow in anger as they call you over and try to place their orders in broken French. You have several options. You could join the French Resistance and listen in on their conversations.

It feels like the morally right thing to do, but you have no idea how long the occupation will be and you don’t want to stress of always looking over your shoulder in fear of being caught by the Gestapo. Joining countryside guerrilla bands sounds romantic and dashing, but the thought of living hand to month, hunted constantly by the police and the paramilitary orders, has little appeal to an urbanite like you. On a smaller scale, you could carry out civil disobedience and refuse to serve German officers.

You would be certainly sacked for doing so. How would you then feed your old mother and fund the school expenses of your younger brother? A new job would be hard to find, especially considering the hundreds of demobilised veterans applying for every single job opening. You could, of course, do nothing.

You will rage against the Germans with all one’s heart, but smile outwardly as you take their orders. You feel guilty as you take their generous tips, but food prices are rising, and you need every franc you can get. Over time, you might even befriend the regular German patrons to your café. Are you collaborating? Yes, you are, but the cynic inside you replies: what else can one do?

The Percentage

There has been some justifiable comments over the validity and source of the 10% quoted by the OP. My best guess would be that it comes from Robert O. Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944, published in 1972, which argues a majority of the French population supported the Vichy government after its establishment in 1940. But Paxton’s argument is much more nuanced than just a number (and to my knowledge, Paxton never explicitly stated a percentage of 10% – happy to be corrected here).

Firstly, sources. The construction of public opinion remains difficult for historians – public polling is very much a modern phenomenon. As several other comments note, neither Germany nor Vichy France conducted polls on the level of the Mass Observation Project over in Britain.

Nor can public opinion be determined through the reading of free press or public debate due to its suppression in Vichy France. For post-war historians, public opinion in occupied France remained an unsolvable mystery, and many chose to uncritically accept the Gaullist myth of widespread French resistance.

Henri Michel, one of the foremost scholars in the 1950s and 1960s, could claim that “the French… had been, in their great majority, heroes, patriots, and victims.” Others, such as Robert Aron, relied on the post-war trials and testimonies from former Vichy officials to construct a ‘Sword and Shield’ theory that sympathized with the Vichy position. ‘Sword and Shield’ supporters argued that while De Gaulle served as France’s sword overseas, Petain’s government served as the shield that protected the French from German depravities.

In their construction of the ‘Sword and Shield’ theory, French scholars rejected the use of German documents, considering them tainted by Nazi ideology and propaganda. Paxton, an American, was one of the first academics to consult German intelligence reports and treat them as actual historical sources (of course, as all historians should, he also viewed these sources critically – the problem with previous scholars was that even the mere consultation of German sources was dismissed).

These intelligence reports recorded opinions from intercepted mail, statements from informers and overheard conversations. Paxton also had access to some reports from Vichy prefects (prefects were state representatives in French administrative regions). In these documents, the prefects reported extensively on public perception and opinion of the Vichy government. Paxton recognised that there was a significant problem with the use of official reports.

Officials had the tendency to report what their superiors wanted to hear, and often confused silence with support. Despite this, intelligence and official reports were much more reliable than the Vichy or German press, and, unlike many memoirs and diaries, had the added benefit that they were not retouched post-war. From these, Paxton was able to draw an estimate of popular support for Vichy. His conclusion was this:

A crude graph of French public opinion from 1940 to 1944 would show nearly universal acceptance of Marshal Pétain in June 1940 and nearly universal acceptance of General de Gaulle in August 1944, with the two lines, one declining and the other rising, intersecting some time after the total occupation of the hitherto “free zone” of Vichy in November 1942.

As seen, this was a broad estimate rather than any concrete number. Paxton was also at pains to point out favourable opinion had a wide spectrum. On one hand, one could support Vichy through a positive belief in the infallibility of Petain or a negative fear of revolution. On the other hand, those who complained about the regime but did nothing positive against it were also collaborating from a standpoint of functionality, for

they provided the broad public climate of acceptance that lent legitimacy to a more active participation.

For Paxton, his estimate was not one concerning popular support from a political standpoint, but popular support from a functional standpoint.

French scholars were horrified by Paxton’s conclusions – not only had he overturned the established historiography, he was also a ‘junior American historian’ treading on the toes of esteemed colleagues. But by the 1990s, Paxton’s conception of widespread functional support for Vichy had become the new orthodoxy.

There remains significant debate over the extent and timeline of popular support, as seen in the works of J.F. Sweets, Philippe Burrin, J.P. Azema and Richard Vinen, and historians now tend to see collaboration and resistance as a spectrum rather than a divide. Still, Paxton’s work remains a starting point for any new research on Vichy France. [For those of you interested in the memory and historiography of Vichy France, Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome is an amazing read into, well, the politics of academia.]

The Many Roads to Collaboration

There are many positive motivations for collaboration. Even after the Vichy regime had lost much of its legitimacy, Marshal Petain was still seen as a father figure for France. His refusal to shed unnecessary French blood in the First World War endeared him to the French nation, and even those who did not like the Vichy government respected Petain for his moral integrity.

Many lost faith in the Vichy regime, but an equal amount retained faith in Petain as the head of Vichy. It is also important to remember right-wing, conservative sentiment was still popular in France. After all, nearly half of the population had voted against the left-wing Popular Front in May 1936. From a legal and constitutional standpoint, the Vichy government was considered the legitimate successor to the Third Republic, a point accepted by the French population and acknowledged by De Gaulle himself.

But more significantly, approval of the new regime was predominantly negative in nature. French shock and disgust concerning the manner of their defeat led to general public lethargy. Both German intelligence agents and French prefects noted that the majority of the population had sunk into discouragement and fatigue. Physical needs took precedence over political motivation, especially as Germany stepped up its exploitation of French resources.

When French caloric intake became the lowest in western Europe, it is not hard to imagine that citizens cared more for their bellies than moral resistance. As shown in the preface, to resist or not to resist was a hard choice for every French citizen living in occupied or Vichy France. Collaboration does not only mean active cooperation.

The day-to-day functioning of the occupied society and state is invariably tied with assistance given to the occupier. Farmers, civil servants, policemen and waiters all face the choice of conforming to a system which benefits those who collaborate or to resist and face the danger of being excluded from the system.

The choice to collaborate or resist is not only a moral and political decision, but also one that directly affects your livelihood, your family and your personal safety.

In many cases, resistance occurred due to personal needs instead of political motivation. Lynne Taylor’s Between Resistance and the Collaboration records significant strikes in 1940 and 1941 by French industrial workers and miners which were harshly suppressed by the Germans.

However, the strikes were not over a refusal to assist the German war effort, but over long working hours and low pay. Around 150 food riots also occurred in the 1940-1942 period, but all were aimed at poor governance instead of the legitimacy of the Vichy regime. Material shortages took precedence over political ideology.

To actively resist was to take the hard path. It meant the abandonment of normal life and a descent into lawlessness, into long periods of hiding and running. Those who did so abandoned families and friends who became targets of reprisals. Nor would the French Resistance be seen in a particularly good light by their compatriots.

As Julian Jackson notes, “it became harder to feel sympathy for young men fleeing STO [compulsory work service in German industrial plants] once they had started stealing crops.” Even at its very height, official record calculated active Resistance participation to be only about 2% of the adult French population.

For many, a synthesis of the above factors influenced their decision to keep their heads down and simply pretend they were dealing with a legitimate French government. It is easy for us with hindsight to say: “Yes, of course I would’ve actively resisted the Nazis and the collaborators!” But for those who lived in occupied and Vichy France, their choices were determined by their actions, not their words. I think Paxton’s conclusion in Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order is rather fitting:

Some of France’s best skill and talent went into a formidable effort to keep the French state afloat under increasingly questionable circumstances. Who would keep order, they asked, if the state lost authority? By saving the state, however, they were losing the nation. Those who cling to the social order above all may do so by self-interest or merely by inertia. In either case, they know more clearly what they are against than what they are for.

So blinded, they perform jobs that may be admirable in themselves but are tinctured with evil by the overall effects of the system. Even Frenchmen of the best intentions, faced with the harsh alternative of doing one’s job, whose risks were moral and abstract, or practicing civil disobedience, whose risks were material and immediate, went on doing the job.

The same may be said of the German occupiers. Many of them were “good Germans,” men of cultivation, confident that their country’s success outweighed a few moral blemishes, dutifully fulfilling some minor blameless function in a regime whose cumulative effect was brutish.

Readers will prefer, like the writer, to recognize themselves in neither of these types. It is tempting to identify with Resistance and to say, “That is what I would have done.” Alas, we are far more likely to act, in parallel situations, like the Vichy majority. Indeed, it may be the German occupiers rather than the Vichy majority whom Americans, as residents of the most powerful state on earth, should scrutinize most unblinkingly.

1. Written by u/hellcatfighter.
2. Aron, Robert. The Vichy Regime, 1940-44. Beacon Press, 1958.
3. Fishman, Sarah, ed. France at War: Vichy and the Historians. Berg Publishers, 2000.
4. Burrin, Philippe. France under the Germans: Collaboration and compromise. New Press, 1996.
5. Jackson, Julian. France: The dark years, 1940-1944. Oxford University Press, 2001.
6. Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France: old guard and new order 1940-1944. Columbia University Press, 1972.
7. Rousso, Henry. The Vichy syndrome: History and memory in France since 1944. Harvard University Press, 1991.
8. Sweets, John. Choices in Vichy France: The French Under Nazi Occupation. Oxford University Press, 1986.
9. Taylor, Lynne. Between Resistance and Collabration: Popular Protest in Northern France 1940-45. Springer, 1999.
10. Temkin, Moshik. “Avec un certain malaise’: The Paxtonian Trauma in France, 1973—74.” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 2 (2003): 291-306.
11. Vinen, Richard. The Unfree French: Life under the Occupation. Yale University Press, 2006.
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