On June 10, as the BATTLE OF FRANCE was coming to its climax with the Germans closing in on Paris, the French government fled to Tours, declaring Paris an open city. France's prime minister, PAUL REYNAUD, wanted to continue to resist the Germans, perhaps from exile in French North Africa, but most of his cabinet, guided by HENRI-PHILIPPE PéTAIN, favored an armistice. On June 14 the cabinet left Tours for Bordeaux. In a last-ditch effort to keep France from capitulating, British prime minister WINSTON CHURCHILL proposed a full political union of France and Britain, the better to fight Germany. The cabinet, however, now wholly under the influence of Pétain, spurned the proposal, and Reynaud resigned. Pétain was appointed premier and immediately sought surrender terms from Germany. The result was the armistice of June 22, 1940, signed near Compiègne, in the very railway car in which the Germans had signed the armistice ending World War I.
The June 22 armistice allowed France a show of semisovereignty, but divided the country into an unoccupied southern zone (with a capital at Vichy—and therefore known as Vichy France) and an occupied northern and western coastal zone. France itself was to bear the monetary costs of occupation. Its army was restricted to 100,000 men, and its navy was disarmed and restricted to its home ports.
About 30 French leaders, including ÉDOUARD DALADIER, fled to North Africa to set up a government in exile there. Pétain outflanked them, however, ordering their arrest on arrival in Morocco. However, Brigadier General CHARLES DE GAULLE, undersecretary of war in the now defunct Reynaud cabinet, had previously flown to London. He was determined to rally “Free French” resistance, with himself as leader. He broadcast his first radio appeal from London on June 18, 1940, calling on French patriots to continue the fight. It was—at least at first—to no avail. The majority of the French people, wishing to avoid the horrors of a second world war, pledged their allegiance to Pétain and Vichy.
On July 9–10, the French parliament convened at Vichy. PIERRE LAVAL, Pétain's ambitious vice premier, was certain that Germany had already won the war and would inevitably come to control all of Europe. Hoping to claim for France a viable place in this new order, he persuaded parliament to vote itself and the Third Republic out of existence and to authorize Pétain to write a new constitution (which was never completed). France was reformed into a kind of decentralized, corporate state in which government was centered in the traditional provinces. However, it soon became apparent that Pétain and his closest adherents were relatively moderate. Those who were genuinely dedicated fascists broke with Pétain and cooperated with German authorities in undermining the Vichy regime in an effort to make France a kind of German satellite or even ally.
To retain his authority, Pétain dismissed Laval in December 1940 and confined him briefly to house arrest. Laval and Pétain subsequently met with ADOLF HITLER at Montoire on October 24, 1940, and thereafter presented a publicly united front advocating Franco-German “collaboration.”
The actual fact was that Hitler felt no need for collaboration with France. He merely allowed the Vichy government to exist as a temporary measure to make occupation easier; by using French authorities to police the country, fewer Germans were required for the job. Under Pétain, Laval was succeeded by Pierre-Étienne Flandin, who was soon succeeded by Admiral FRANçOIS DARLAN. Darlan revived efforts to achieve outright collaboration with the Germans, but Hitler continued to keep Darlan and other collaborationists at arm's length as he exploited France for labor and raw materials.
Yielding to German pressure, Pétain restored Laval to power in April 1942. Laval remained vice premier until the Vichy government collapsed in 1944. Laval found himself caving in to increasingly onerous German demands, especially for forced labor. He also set about suppressing the French resistance. By the fall of 1942, it was apparent that Vichy had no real authority and was a German puppet regime. The last vestige of autonomy was ended by the Anglo-American landings in North Africa and the commencement of the NORTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGN. Although Vichy forces in French-held Morocco and Algeria did briefly resist the American landings, they capitulated when DWIGHT DAVID EISENHOWER negotiated an armistice with Darlan. This prompted Hitler on November 11 to send troops from occupied France into Vichy France to seize the entire country. Even in wholly occupied France, the Vichy government continued to function but only as an administrative shell.
Jackson, Julian. France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003; Ousby, Ian. Occupation. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000; Paxton, Robert O. Vichy France. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.