Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)
This book, with its deceptively catchy title, is intended to be the first of a trilogy devoted to one of the darkest periods in French history. After the humiliating defeat of the French army in 1940, the French government retreated to the so-called free zone and set up house in the town of Vichy, a favorite spa resort for the elderly, better known until then for the quality of its thermal sources. From the relative safety of that provincial retreat it openly collaborated with the German authorities.
It is difficult for a foreigner to understand the depth of the trauma that Vichy caused for the average Frenchman. His country was defeated and occupied. Hundreds of thousands of people had fled the capital in a panic, seeking refuge in the South of France. The Germans were parading through Paris, marching up and down the Champs Élysées. After the war, much was made of the efforts of the heroes of the Resistance, the underground movement which fought against enormous odds and did manage to salvage some of the honor of their country. There were attempts to “cleanse” the administration of its most blatant collaborators. Marshall Pétain, who led France at the time, was court-martialed and condemned to death, his sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. A handful of high-ranking officials were executed; others spent a few months in jail. Soon the Vichy “episode” was turned into a regrettable event involving some far-right extremists who did not represent France.
Strangely enough it is to someone who comes from the far right that we owe this provocative book. Patrick Buisson has come a long way since the days when he worked for the weekly Minute, mouthpiece of the far right, and has moved towards the center. He is one of President Sarkozy’s trusted advisers. And yet his thesis will greatly please his former allies. To put it in a nutshell, France was defeated because it had lost its will to fight: a whole generation had been wiped out by the First World War, three hundred thousand soldiers had been turned into helpless cripples, and pacifist movements had gained ground. In short, the average Frenchman was not keen to fight and would do anything to avoid donning a military uniform. Militants of the far right movements did not want the war either, but for another reason. They were disgusted with the regime and believed in the triumph of the racially pure Germans. After the defeat, according to Buisson, the whole country fell under the spell of the handsome blond conquerors who presented such a cruel contrast to the defeated French. To prove his point he cites the following extract from the Literary Journal, a book by noted writer and critic Paul Leautaud: “Today there are a great number of German soldiers in the metro. Always tall youngsters, slim, supple, with a healthy face, true health. On the platform [is] a French soldier, probably discharged from the army, a stupid expression on his face, completely drunk.”
He goes on to quote a number of contemporary writers – from Mauriac to Genet and Montherlant – who comment on the way that French women (and quite a few men) let themselves be seduced by German soldiers willingly. Besides, says Buisson (who does not pull his punches), the Germans had money to burn: the sale of luxury goods in Paris – from perfume to silk scarves and ties – more than doubled. The newcomers were welcome guests in theatres and trendy cafes. According to Buisson the first skirmish between young French students and the invaders was not for the honor of France but to protest the fact that the students’ favorite brothel catered only to Germans and had become off limits to French civilians.
Thus the stage is set and we move south to Vichy where aging Marshall Pétain, the hero of World War I, was called back from retirement to lead the country. His motto was “Work, Family, Homeland.” He led the fight against alcohol, syphilis, and pornography. But what did the new ruler of France really do? According to Buisson, he spent his time hopping from bed to bed, never mind the fact that he was already eighty-four years old. The man who was seen as the symbol of another France, a staunch keeper of moral values, was an old lecher, and the erstwhile sleepy town became a den of iniquity. Buisson describes at length what went on backstage. He has read hundreds of books and journals and delights in picking out all the sleaze and nastiness of the time. It is almost as if he is saying, it was not the Right; it was France. He lists gleefully the number of emblematic figures of the Left who were part of the Vichy episode and does not spare the Church, which also proved itself a willing partner.
Altogether this is an unsettling read. By focusing on the narrow ruling elite, Patrick Buisson would like us to believe that the whole of the country indulged in a four-year-long orgy. There is nothing here of the suffering of millions, of the hardships of food shortage, of the families of the French prisoners of war in Germany. And not one word about the fate of the Jews.
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. “Ce soir dans le métro, de nombreux soldats allemands. Toujours de grands garçons, minces, souples, le visage sain, la vraie bonne santé. Sur le quai, un soldat français démobilisé sans doute, le visage stupide, complètement ivre.” Paul Leautaud, Journal Littéraire, Paris: Mercure de France, 1995, 136. Translated by the reviewer. Quoted on page 87.
. “Travail, Famille, Patrie.”
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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.