Denied the genuine national security in terms of protection from Germany that it had sought in the Paris Peace Conference following World War I, France played a Cassandra role in the 1920s and 1930s, warning of the German threat and finding little support in this from Great Britain and the United States, its World War I allies. When the German government defaulted on reparations, in 1923 French troops occupied the Ruhr. Although this action forced the German government to live up its treaty obligations and French troops then departed, the financial cost of the operation was high, and it brought condemnation of France from Britain and the United States. It also brought the Left to power in France in 1924.
The Ruhr occupation was the last such independent French action before World War II. Thereafter, France followed Britain's lead regarding Germany in return for a guarantee of Britain's support in the event of a German invasion. Successive British governments, however, refused to commit themselves to collective security arrangements regarding eastern Europe that might have prevented war. Meanwhile, German leader Adolf Hitler tore up the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pacts, the latter of which Germany had voluntarily signed. In 1936, Hitler sent German troops into the Rhineland. The French army was then regarded as the world's most powerful military force, and France might have acted unilaterally and halted this step, which could have meant the end of Hitler. When the British refused to support military intervention, though, French leaders took this as an excuse to do nothing.
In September 1938, France and Britain permitted Hitler to seize the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, a French military ally. In March 1939, Hitler secured the whole of Czechoslovakia, prompting Britain, in the worst possible circumstances, to extend a guarantee to Poland—Germany's next target and already a French ally—that Britain would defend it against attack. Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, the French government joined Great Britain in declaring war two days later.
The Popular Front that had come to power in France in 1936 had launched a major disarmament program, but on the eve of war France had begun to rearm. It made substantial outlays in arms expenditures and sharp increases in weapons, especially tanks, of which the French army had more than the German army. Time was vital if France (and Britain) were to catch up with German rearmament. The most glaring French military weaknesses, even by May 1940, were in modern aircraft and in antiaircraft guns.
Both London and Paris were confident of military victory, but both governments and their military establishments embarked on the war in leisurely fashion. While the French called up reservists and retrieved artillery from storage, the German army rolled over Poland. The French army carried out only a halfhearted offensive in the Rhineland. Had the offensive been on a larger scale and more forcefully prosecuted, it would have carried to the Rhine. Britain was even slower to mobilize and dispatch the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the Continent. France and Britain expected to blockade Germany and use their control of the seas to secure the means to match the Germans in terms of their military establishment, especially in numbers and quality of aircraft. The seven months of inactivity after the German conquest of Poland—known as the Sitzkrieg or Phony War—seemed to suggest that time was on the side of the Allies.
Meanwhile, there was sharp dissension on the French home front. From 1935 to 1939, the French Communist Party had been in the forefront of the antifascist crusade and urged rearmament. The German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of August 1939, however, converted the French Communists overnight into advocates of neutrality. The government of Premier Édouard Daladier then unwisely moved against the French Communist Party, outlawing it and interning many of its leaders, including those in the National Assemby. Communist agitation against the war continued, however, helping to produce doubt and defeatism, particularly among industrial workers conscripted into the army. This led to the myth that a fifth column had been responsible for the French military defeat in 1940. Dissatisfaction over the lack of aggressive military activity also led to a cabinet crisis and change of premier in March 1940; Paul Reynaud replaced Daladier. The new premier projected energy and optimism, but politics forced Reynaud to keep Daladier as minister of war, and the continuing rivalry between the two men handicapped the war effort.
The Phony War ended on 9 April 1940 when German forces invaded Denmark and Norway. The French joined the British in sending troops to Norway, but these troops could not halt the German conquest and were withdrawn on the opening of the Battle for France. Then, on 10 May 1940, German forces invaded the Low Countries and France. The French Maginot Line, built at great cost beginning in 1929, served its intended purpose of channeling the German invasion to the north through Belgium. However, several elements led to disaster: the failure of France and Britain to work out detailed plans with Belgium (which had declared its neutrality and was fearful that cooperation with the Allies would be the excuse for a German invasion), serious flaws in the Allied command structure, inept French senior military leadership, the inability of the Allies to understand the changed tempo of battlefield conditions that represented the German blitzkrieg, and the misuse of superior armor assets.
British and French military deficiencies, especially in the air, were soon all too evident. Too late, the French attempted major command changes. Only a month after the start of the campaign, on 10 June 1940, the French government abandoned Paris for Bordeaux. To spare the city destruction by the German Luftwaffe, the government declared Paris an open city; four days later German troops moved in. On 16 June at Bordeaux, Reynaud suggested that the government and its armed forces move to French territory in North Africa and continue the fight from there. His vice premier, 84-year-old Marshal Henri Phillipe Pétain, opposed this step, as did the new commander of the French army, 73-year-old General Maxime Weygand. Both men considered the war lost and sought to end fighting that they believed could only lead to additional lives lost for no gain. When a majority of the cabinet voted to ask the Germans for terms, Reynaud resigned on 16 June.
Ironically, Reynaud had brought Pétain, hero of the World War I Battle of Verdun, into the government on 18 May to stiffen French resolve following initial Allied setbacks in the campaign for France. On 16 June, Pétain became premier and immediately opened negotiations with Germany to end the fighting. The Germans delayed to improve conditions, but the French government signed an armistice with Germany on 22 June and with Italy on 24 June. Fighting ceased on the battlefields of France on 25 June. The campaign had lasted but six weeks. Never before in its military history had France been as broken militarily and psychologically.
The armistice of 25 June 1940 divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones. A pass was necessary for French citizens who desired to move between the two. German forces occupied three-fifths of the country, including northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. France had to pay "administrative costs" to the Germans at the absurdly high sum of 20 million reichsmarks a day, calculated at a greatly inflated rate of exchange of 20 francs per reichsmark. This amounted to some 60 percent of French national income. Save for a few units to maintain order, all French military formations were disarmed and demobilized. Ships of the French navy were to assemble in designated ports and be demobilized. The armistice also called for all German prisoners of war to be immediately released, whereas Germany would retain until the end of the war the 1.5 million French prisoners it had captured. France was also forced to surrender German refugees on French territory.
A new French government was then established at Vichy in central France under Pétain to administer the remaining two-fifths of metropolitan France, which included the Mediterranean coast. Vichy France was left with control of its colonies, although Japan sent in troops and established de facto authority over French Indochina during 1940 and 1941. France then played a schizophrenic role until the end of the war. Most French, convinced that for the indefinite future Germany would rule Europe and disgusted with the infighting and weak leadership that had characterized the Third Republic, rallied to the Vichy regime and its calls for a conservative revolution. Meanwhile, young Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, the only figure of some consequence to escape abroad following the defeat, sought to rally the French to the then-dim hope of eventual victory. He called on French people in Britain or those who could reach there, as well as the French Empire, to join him in continuing the fight. De Gaulle's Free French, soon recognized by the British government, slowly grew in numbers and support as the war wore on and as Germany failed to defeat Britain and suffered rebuff in its invasion of the Soviet Union. The Resistance was an amalgamation of several diverse groups that finally coalesced in May 1943 as the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR, National Resistance Council), headed by Jean Moulin. Its military arm was the Forces Fran=aises de l'Interieur (FFI, French Forces of the Interior).
Although some French men and women were active in the Resistance, most of the population simply tried to endure the German occupation. Many actively collaborated with the German occupiers for financial gain, and a few fervently supported the Nazi policies opposing Communism and persecuting the Jews. The Vichy government organized a force known as the Milice to combat growing numbers of FFI.
British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill's government recognized de Gaulle's government as the legitimate representative of France, but Churchill also created strong Anglophobia in France by his decision to move to secure the French fleet, most notably at Mers-el-Kébir, where fighting occurred with considerable loss of French life. This affair still rankles the French today, as the French government had promised that it would not let the Germans seize the fleet and ultimately scuttled its main fleet to honor that pledge, even after the events of Mers-el-Kébir.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt strongly distrusted de Gaulle, and the United States maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy until the Allied invasion of North Africa—Operation torch—in November 1942. French resistance to the Allied landings and devious dealings by Vichy representatives ended Allied attempts to negotiate with Pétain's government.
De Gaulle's Free French Forces greatly expanded after the Allied invasion of North Africa. Rearmed and reequipped by the United States, a French Expeditionary Corps of five divisions was sent to Italy in late 1943, and it made a major contribution to the Allied military efforts there. What became the French First Army landed in southern France in August 1944 as part of Operation dragoon. Its 10 divisions fought through France into Germany and Austria. Meanwhile, Allied forces had come ashore in Normandy, and the French Resistance played a key role in isolating the beachheads and preventing German resupply. Everywhere, French men and women assisted the Allied armies. Paris was liberated on 25 August, the 2nd French Armored Division leading the Allied units into the city to join with those fighting the Germans and saving the city's honor.
De Gaulle soon established his government in Paris, and French troops continued with the liberation of French territory. Following the war, nearly 40,000 French citizens were imprisoned for collaboration, including Marshal Pétain and his vice premier, Pierre Laval. Both men were sentenced to death, although de Gaulle commuted Pétain's sentence to life imprisonment in recognition of his World War I service. At least 10,000 people were executed for collaborating with the Nazis. Collaboration was and still is a highly sensitive topic in postwar France.
The high hopes and idealism of the Resistance were soon dashed. Although an overwhelming 96 percent of Frenchmen voting in an October 1945 referendum rejected the constitutional structure of the Third Republic, sharp political divisions ensured that the Fourth Republic that followed it was virtually a carbon copy of the Third. Not until 1958, when the Fourth Republic was overthrown and de Gaulle returned to power, would France have a constitution that ensured a strong executive. Despite de Gaulle's wartime promises of a new relationship with the colonies, the government in Paris pursued a short-sighted policy of trying to hold on to its major colonies, believing that only with its empire could France still be counted as a great power. Such grandiose and outdated notions led to disastrous wars in Indochina and later in Algeria, ultimately toppling the Fourth Republic.
Dana Lombardy, T. P. Schweider, and Spencer C. Tucker
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