In the hot, early summer of 1940, within six weeks the German armies had overrun most of France. On 17 June the new head of the French government, Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun, asked for an armistice. By 25 June this had come into force. France was divided into two main zones, the one occupied by the Germans and centred on Paris, and the other, unoccupied, where nominally the French writ still ran freely, and which eventually centred on Vichy. On 10 July, meeting in the gaming casinos of the spa, the National Assembly entrusted the aged soldier with full powers to govern until he had drawn up a new constitution. The Third Republic was presumed dead, and only some eighty deputies mourned its passing.
Yet when Philippe Pétain, using the royal plural in a grandiloquent gesture and exercising prerogatives surpassing even those of Louis XIV, proclaimed on 11 July his supremacy as Head of the French State, nothing immediately changed. Many of the same personalities as before continued in public life, although others advocating more authoritarian policies were already waiting in the wings. What is remarkable is just how much of the old order was initially carried over into the new. Faces, priorities and attitudes changed only imperceptibly. Of no aspect of national life was this more true than in the religious domain.
In view of the prominent role to be played by both Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Protestants under the new regime, how strong in 1940 was Christian culture? Where was the Christian faith geographically concentrated? How intensely was religion practised? What charisma did Christian leaders possess? Which ecclesiastical structures regulated the Church? What was its mission? These are key questions in determining the influence that the Church was able to exert upon the Vichy regime and the Germans.
Where lay the bastions of Christianity in 1940? Detailed statistics are lacking but according to Boulard, a pioneer in the sociology of religion, studying religious 'density' slightly later, in the 1950s, 1 geographically the Catholics were most solidly implanted in Alsace-Lorraine, Franche-