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Passed down to posterity as the winner of Verdun during the First World War, Philippe petain became, after the defeat of 1940, the head of the "French state" of Vichy, at the head of which he tried to promote a "national revolution" while letting his government pursue a policy of collaboration with Nazi Germany . His fate, which is associated with the heyday as well as the darkest episodes in the history of the 20th century, explains that, nearly fifty years after his passing, his actions continue to be the subject of much controversy.
Pétain, winner of Verdun
Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain was born on April 24, 1856 in Pas de Calais. Coming from a rural and Catholic background, he chose the profession of arms early on. Saint-Cyrien, rather discreet about his political opinions (at a time when the army was plunged into the turmoil of the Dreyfus affair), he nevertheless distinguished himself by his tactical views that went against official doctrine. With the swing and the force of bayonets, Pétain opposes the power of artillery and equipment: "Fire kills".
The war of 1914, finds him colonel and he who thought of the retirement is propelled to the head of an infantry brigade. It was the start of a meteoric career, which saw him command an army (the 2nd) in June 1915. Pétain, charismatic and tenacious, perfectly understood the challenges of modern industrial warfare. His attention to matters of logistics and morale of the troops, will play a large part in the failure of the German offensive on Verdun (1916). Having become chief of the general staff after Nivelle's rout at the Chemins Des Dames (1917), he distinguished himself as a popular and prudent leader.
Pétain's political career
Having become Marshal of France at the end of 1918, he partly presided over the evolution of the French army following the victory. A supporter of firepower, he promoted infantry support tanks. His political career began in earnest when he was appointed Minister of War in 1934. Due to ministerial instability at the time, his tenure was short-lived, but earned him a solid reputation as a statesman.
In the eyes of the extreme right in particular, Pétain appears to be a strong leader ready to do battle with Germany. Promoter of the mechanization of the army in the face of official defensive doctrine, he then agreed with his former collaborator: Charles de Gaulle.
Appointed Ambassador to Spain in March 1939, Pétain built up a solid political network. Anticipating a possible French defeat against Hitler, he presented himself in appeal against the personnel of the Third Republic whom he considered responsible for the weakness of the country.
Called to the government in turmoil on May 17, 1940, Pétain became President of the Council a month later. Convinced that continuing the struggle is impossible, a supporter of a radical overhaul of French society and politics, he announced in his appeal of June 17, 1940 that the armistice negotiations with the Germans had begun. This call causes the resistance of many French units to collapse, allowing the Germans to take hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
The National Revolution
In the summer of 1940, Pétain and his entourage (first and foremost Pierre Laval) set up the French state. While France is two-thirds occupied by the Germans, the Marshal's government commits the country to the path of collaboration while pursuing a reactionary policy, which could be compared to that of Franco or Salazar. Vested with full powers by Parliament (under irregular conditions) since July 10, Marshal Pétain puts forward ideas of order and a return to Christian morality.
Marshal Pétain, especially preoccupied by his desire to put into practice the program of the National Revolution and that of obtaining the release of prisoners of war, allowed himself to be convinced to meet Hitler in Montoire on October 24, 1940. This "Revolution" Nationale ”will be accompanied by vigorous repression against any political opposition. Acquired by anti-Semitic ideas, Pétain gradually excluded the Jews from national life before handing them over to the occupier. Officially neutral, the French state nonetheless leans towards the German side, using the anglophobia aroused by the Mers-El-Kébir and Dakar affairs.
Deeply conservative, imbued with the backward-looking image of a peasant and patriarchal France, Pétain gathered around him, in the Vichy government, men from various horizons (from classic parliamentarians, like Laval, to pacifist trade unionists, like René Belin , via technocrats, such as Yves Bouthillier or Paul Baudouin), taking advantage of the very broad powers conferred on him to implement the National Revolution.
His immense prestige, his great age, the skillful handling of a guilty rhetoric (explaining the defeat by the past victory of "the spirit of pleasure over the spirit of sacrifice") are put, thanks to a consummate art of propaganda , at the service of a cult of personality which, despite some then marginal disputes, such as that of General de Gaulle, ensured the victor of Verdun great popularity during the early days of the regime.
The twilight of Marshal Pétain
When the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, Vichy troops opposed it, on the order of the Marshal. Hitler, who does not trust the loyalty of the French state, decides to invade the free zone, depriving Pétain of his last trump card against Berlin: the armistice army. From late 1942 to June 1944, the Marshal's influence receded against that of Pierre Laval, who won the support of the Germans. The French state then experienced a real "fascization", Pétain, until then very popular, gradually lost the confidence of many French people.
The liberation will lead to the rapid and violent liquidation of the French state as Pétain is driven against his will to Germany by the Nazis. Settled in Sigmaringen he will experience the collapse of the Reich as an isolated and bitter spectator.
His trial, which will only last three weeks, will see him assert himself in his defense as a supporter of the resistance. This strategy did not pay off and he was sentenced to death on August 15, 1945, for high treason and intelligence with the enemy. General de Gaulle, perhaps remembering that Pétain was his mentor, commuted this sentence to life imprisonment. Locked in Ile d'Yeu, the former French head of state saw his health and mental faculties decline. He died in Port-Joinville on July 23, 1951.
- Pétain by Marc Ferro, biography. Fayard, 1987.
- The World War 1914-1918, by Philippe Pétain. Privat, 2014.
- La France de Vichy, 1940-1944, by Robert O. Paxton. Points Histoire, 1999.