Any head of state convicted of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad is entitled to feel overwhelmed by political disaster – and that’s precisely what happened to French elder statesman Marshal Philippe Petain after World War II. In 1940, as German troops stormed into France and abject defeat loomed, the old soldier emerged from the maelstrom of French politics to become the Third Republic’s last prime minister. Endowed with extraordinary powers by the National Assembly, he signed a peace treaty with Hitler.
This allowed the conquered nation to retain a semblance of self-government, with Marshal Petain’s administration retaining nominal authority over France. In fact, the Germans divided the country into two zones and occupied the larger northern zone, leaving 84-year-old Petain to govern the unoccupied southern zone and France’s overseas colonies from the spa town of Vichy.
The authoritarian Petain was genuinely concerned about the degenerate state (as he saw it) of La Belle France, for he announced a Revolution Nationale designed to regenerate the nation. Whatever his motivation, the result was a collaborationist regime that did everything the Germans asked of it, and more, including the rounding up of Jews and ‘undesirables’ for deportation and concerted efforts to destroy the increasingly active French Resistance.
Any notion of French autonomy was quickly exposed as a sham. German occupiers trampled on the Vichy government’s sensibilities whenever it suited them and their laws always took precedence. And in November 1942, after Allied forces landed in North Africa, Marshal Petain’s humiliation was complete. The Wehrmacht swiftly occupied the southern zone and – while the Vichy regime continued to enjoy nominal authority – any real power Petain once enjoyed was nullified. He became a sad political figurehead whose government would forever be disastrously tainted for collaborating so enthusiastically with Hitler and the Nazis.
Toll: Petain’s damaging political legacy was international perception that France had collaborated with the Germans rather than suffer the sort of harsh oppression experienced by most occupied countries. Subsequent claims that the Vichy government was an illegal administration run by traitors was an attempt to neutralize that view by blaming Petain and his cronies rather than the nation that voted him in. It didn’t work. When French support for the USA’s Second Gulf War in 2003 was lukewarm, hawkish American commentators were quick to call the French ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’.
You should know: General Charles de Gaulle, France’s first postwar president, commuted Plain’s death sentence to life imprisonment on the grounds of his advanced age and outstanding service to France in world war l. He was imprisoned on an island off the French coast, became completely senile and died in 1951, aged 95.