France’s defeat by Germany in June 1940 brought the collapse of the Third Republic and heralded the start of the authoritarian Vichy regime. its head, Phillipe Pétain, was a WWI general renowned as the victor of Verdun. France was initially divided into two zones: a northern zone occupied by the Germans, whose base was Paris; and the southern so-called “free” zone, whose administrative centre was Vichy. In November 1942, the German occupation extended to the whole country.
Vichy promoted reactionary values via its “National Revolution”, a programme for regeneration which characterised the regime until spring 1942. Its thrust was encapsulated in the maxim “Work, Family, Homeland”, which replaced the republican slogan “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”. The regime enjoyed a certain degree of popularity in its early stages, although the failure of many of its policies coupled with the dismal reality of everyday life left many French feeling that the National Revolution was an abstract experiment.
From 1942, Vichy became increasingly repressive, reaching its most brutal and disreputable phase in 1944 as the liberation approached. Throughout, Vichy displayed a readiness to persecute its enemies, to rid the country of “undesirables” such as Jews and communists, demonstrating that ultimately the regime was one of exclusion.
Pétain met with Adolf Hitler in October 1940, declaring afterwards to the French that “today I embark on the pathway of collaboration”. Thereafter Vichy willingly collaborated with Germany, viewing a german victory as the means to halt the tide of communism.
Most notorious, from 1942 the regime became a willing participant in the Final Solution, playing an active role in the round-up of Jews for deportation. It complied with Germany’s demand that France supply workers for Germany, and, when voluntary departures proved insufficient, instituted a forced labour programme in early 1943 which served further to disconnect public opinion from Vichy.
From June 1940, Charles de Gaulle challenged Vichy’s claim to legitimacy, asserting from London and Algiers (where the Allies landed in November 1942) that the Free French represented the continuity of French government. Diplomatic relations between Britain and France ended following the British attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940, a few days prior to the formalisation of Vichy.
But the regime was recognised by Russia until her entry into the war in 1941; and the USA maintained diplomats in Vichy until November 1942, also accrediting a diplomat to the Free French from July 1942. In September 1944, Vichy became a government-in-exile in Sigmaringen, across the border in Germany.
After D-Day, de Gaulle’s wartime French Committee of National Liberation evolved into the Provisional Government of the French Republic. This was recognised by Allies in October 1944 as France’s legitimate government.