In September 1919, Esteva was promoted to commander, and the next year, he attended the École Supérieure de la Marine. In 1922 and 1923, he commanded a cruiser in the Far East. Promoted to captain in 1924, he commanded a cruiser in the Mediterranean Squadron. In 1927, he was named deputy head of naval aviation. Promoted to rear admiral in 1929, Esteva held a succession of commands, including that of French naval forces in the Far East in 1935. Promoted to vice admiral in February 1935 and full admiral in May 1937, he was inspector general of the French navy. In September 1937, Esteva was appointed admiral south—that is, commander of French naval forces in the Mediterranean at Toulon.
With the beginning of World War II, Esteva worked closely with his British counterpart, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham. Under the threat of Italy's entry into the war, Esteva moved his headquarters to Bizerte in French North Africa in May 1940. Although initially eager to continue fighting Italian forces, he acquiesced, albeit reluctantly, in France's June 1940 armistice arrangements with Germany and Italy and supported the Vichy government. Appointed resident general of the North African French protectorate of Tunisia, a strategically critical area further complicated by the growing strength of Arab nationalism, the politically inexperienced Esteva initially tried to maintain neutrality in the face of both Allied and Axis demands.
Despite his personal detestation of German and Italian meddling in North Africa, Esteva reluctantly permitted the limited Axis passage of military supplies through Tunisia to General Erwin Rommel's forces. In early November 1942, however, following the Anglo-American landings (Operation torch) in North Africa, he followed Vichy orders and permitted the landing of German and Italian troops, equipment, and aircraft at Tunis and Bizerte, canceling orders by his colleague Admiral Louis Derrien that French troops should welcome the Americans but forcibly oppose any Axis landing. This vacillation also permitted German forces to capture those vessels of the French Mediterranean fleet in Bizerte harbor.
When Allied forces neared Tunis in May 1943, the Germans flew Esteva back to France, where he was placed on the list of inactive officers. After the liberation of Paris in June 1944, he became the first French military commander arrested for collaboration, for his failure to resist the Germans in 1942. In September 1944, he was dishonorably dismissed from the navy and his pension rights were revoked, and six months later, the High Court of Justice sentenced him to "military degradation" and life imprisonment. Esteva remained in prison until August 1950 but was released for health reasons. He died at Reims on 11 January 1951.
Priscilla Roberts and Spencer C. Tucker
Auphan, Paul, and Jacques Mordal. The French Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1959.; Belot, Raymond de. The Struggle for the Mediterranean, 1939–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.; Coutau-Bégarie, Hervé, and Claude Huan. Darlan. Paris: Fayard, 1989.; London, Georges. L'Amiral Esteva et le Général Dentz devant la Haute Cour de Justice. Lyons, France: R. Bonnefon, 1945.; Paxton, Robert O. Parades and Politics at Vichy: The French Officer Corps under Marshal Pétain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.