The Changing Image of Vichy in France

By Singer, Barnett | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Changing Image of Vichy in France


Singer, Barnett, Contemporary Review


IT'S still difficult to assess objectively the issue of Vichy versus Resistance in wartime France, and I myself am daunted by its mille feuille complexity. However, the necessity for distinguishing, and for making careful distinctions, has never been more necessary when addressing such a controversial subject; and thankfully, that has increasingly become the fashion in France. Even if the town of Vichy - once known mainly for its spa and mineral water - is still avoided by many, to the consternation of its residents and most who live in the general region.

So when President Sarkozy, exhorted by Brice Hortefeux, his Auvergnat Minister of Immigration, and by Vichy's mayor, decided to hold the first international political gathering there since Petain's era, the choice of venue for last November's meeting caused plenty of outrage. Especially as the Sarkozy government has engaged in round-ups or rafles of undocumented immigrants. The word 'rafles' is full of historical resonance concerning Jews of World War II, the most notorious being the July 1942 Rafle du Vel d'Hiv, during which Vichy police forces arrested 12,884 Jews - including 4,051 children, which was far more than the Gestapo had wanted. And the November 2008 conference convened government personnel from the EU to produce more commonality on immigration policies!

The protests about Vichy's past felt somewhat odd, given that there have been such meetings in once notorious places like Berlin or Moscow. One should also remember that it is predictable for human nature in times of war and duress either to 'collaborate' in varying degrees (the word is so iconic as to have become euphemistic), or in varying degrees, to 'resist' (ditto for the euphemism); or both! Once it was easy to look down one's self-righteous nose at all French 'collabos', placing them conveniently in one handy basket; but since 1990 or so, we in the Western world have ourselves become collaborators not with some extreme, terrifying barbarity like Nazism, but at the very least, apathetic in the face of truly disquieting trends. And apathy is obviously a form of collaboration.

But onto these French historiographical changes, necessarily summarized briefly here. Once upon a time everything was black and while when it came to the image of Vichy during World War II. Film buffs remember Captain Renault tossing a bottle of the famed water into the wastebasket, and going off with Bogie to join the Free French in Central Africa at the stirring conclusion of Casablanca. As late as the 1970s, this Manicheanism still held sway, best seen in a fine documentary film that was shown on British television and in North America, played in mainstream theaters, and which we all saw, Le Chagrin et la pitie ('The Sorrow and the Pity'). The two-sided dyptic of bad old Vichy and good Resistance largely continued into the '80s and even part of the '90s. Then came a huge sea change, and now the word 'paradox' must certainly be applied to the picture of Vichy, especially in France itself.

For one, it turns out that Vichy was a many-layered thing. As there were myriad levels of French resistance, so there were many varieties of Vichy behaviour, running (crudely put) from overt collaborationism with the Germans, to weathervane middlingness or a prudent biding of time for a 'conversion', to 'Vichy Resistance' from the get-go. (I made my own small contribution to this growing historiographical field with a biography of Maxime Weygand, published in 2008, including chapters on the general's extreme, courageous Vichy opposition to the Nazis, via supervision of spying aiding the British, preservation of a relatively free French North Africa to Americans and British present there at the time of TORCH, etc.)

Perhaps more people are starting to realize, too, that the first thing wrong with Vichy was what preceded it - aspects of the 1920s and '30s in France, and particularly, the country's precipitous fall to German invaders in 1940. …

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