Sympathy for the Devil
In the days leading up to his joint commemoration of World War 1 with Theresa May, French President Macron publicly announced his interest in honouring France’s chief Vichy collaborator Marshal Philippe Pétain for his role in France’s WW1 war effort.
A storm of public protest forced him to abandon the idea, but the subsequent dispute over the impropriety of this move turned-up some interesting and disturbing sympathies.
Scotland Editor of the Spectator Alex Massie, treated us to this question in the pages of a journal gaining reputation for far-right apologia:
“Can the Petain of 1940 be distinguished from the Petain of 1943, 1944 and 1945?”
And a little later, discussing the establishment of Pétain’s authoritarian Vichy state, which operated in partnership with the Nazi occupation of Northern France:
“…could a French patriot serve Vichy as an honourable man?”
“The answer, as the question was asked in 1940, seems to me to be Yes. At that moment, in that place, this could plausibly appear the least terrible of all the dreadful possibilities available.”
The answer to both these question is an unambiguous No.
By 1940, Petain had already been involved in far-right politics for for at least 15 years.
He became besotted with the vicious dictatorship of Don Migeul Primo de Rivera in Spain in 1925, after a barbaric episode of French and Spanish colonialism in Morocco introduced the pair. The Marshal approved of the ceremony de Rivera enjoyed as they travelled and were feted together. But more than that he admired the military autocrat’s authoritarian style and his violent suppression of the left.
Petain had always been a trenchant reactionary, as so much of the leading ranks of the French army were. He was raised in a series of conservative and elitist institutions, which taught him a militant hatred of the left, particularly after the brief experiment in direct working class rule – the Paris Commune – in 1871. He shared the anti-Republican and antisemitic suspicions of the officer class.
But these general ideas flourished in the 1920’s, as Petain mixed easily in France’s growing extreme right scene. This included membership of the proto-fascist Redressement Francais group of intellectuals, who speculated about the need for military strongmen to restrict democracy and deal with the left and trade unionism.
It also meant association with the various paramilitary organisations, some staffed by disgruntled former soldiers and others by rich playboys with bomb making equipment.
As the left grew, Petain became more pronounced in his far right leanings. He attended events by one of the largest groups, the ‘Croix de Feu’. He read ‘L’Action Francais‘ newspaper, infamous for its obscene antisemitic tirades. During the 1936 elections, as France elected the leftwing Popular Front government, Petain openly endorsed the far right. He praised Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and said they were happier societies than troubled France.
The idea of the Petain of 1940 (and in fact, as Massie’s article goes, of 1941 and 1942) as qualitatively different from the Pétain of 43, 44 or 45 is simply implausible. Indeed, all the horrors of those years stemmed directly from his earlier trajectory.
In 1940 he introduced stridently antisemitic laws curtailing the activities of Jewish people in France. For many years after the war, Pétain’s admirers had claimed he had curbed antisemitism after it became a political reality after defeat to Nazi Germany, and with overtly fascist and Nazi sympathising forces representing a significant part of the new Vichy state. We now know this isn’t true.
In October 1940, Pétain was handed a draft of the antisemitic decrees. Under the influence not of Nazi Germany, nor wayward Vichy allies, but of his own hideous racism, Pétain extended the decrees to include French Jews. This document, which surfaced in 2010, has the exemptions for the French Jewish population scribbled out in Petain’s own handwriting.
It was from these early actions that the transportation of some 77,000 Jews to Nazi camps, most of them to their deaths, followed.
Immediately upon its establishment, the Vichy regime endorsed Pétain’s disgust for democracy, which he blamed for France’s defeat in war (rather than blame Nazi Germany, which he showed grudging respect). The institutions of the Third Republic were dismantled, as were its democratic rights.
In place of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité‘ Vichy supplanted the grotesque ‘Travail, famille, patrie‘ (work, family, fatherland). The ‘National Revolution’ of coming years, which would seek to radicalise the French people into a fascistic culture, echoed Pétain’s own dismissal of the “false idea of the natural equality of men”.
The ‘Milice’ a fascist militia set up to combat the French resistance and which terrorised the country was the latest mutation of the violent fanatics Pétain associated himself with in the 1930s.
Massie’s argument relies for all its (very limited) power on the idea that Pétain was taking the tough choice, rather than the easy way out of refusing to endorse the Nazi occupation and resist. It is a miserable conception that only requires repeating to prove it’s essential cynicism.
Forgotten in the pantheon of ‘difficult choices for grown-up realists’ are those rightly remembered as the heroes of the French resistance, who fought under difficult circumstances, often to the untimely and terrifying end of their lives.
Why make such a fuss over bad history? Because of its dangerous context.
The original incident only adds to the comic-repulsive profile of ‘little Manu’, the man so desperate for a wiff of maréchal authority he barks at teenagers to address him by his proper title.
His antics are far from amusing here though. Macron is attempting to generate a new French nationalism, replete with a crack down on trade unions and the left, a new mood of respect for national institutions including, of course, the Presidency, and a new scheme of national service for teenagers.
And his idea of rehabilitating the Vichy chief is part of the programme: “It’s legitimate that we pay homage to the marshals who led the army to victory,” he said of Pétain, “He was a great soldier – this is a reality.”
This is a reach across a chasm of French society, to that portion, largely supporters of the Le Penn school of modern fascism sympathy, who feel that wartime collaboration was on the right side in the eternal fight against the left, and that the hero Pétain has been unjustly maligned.
And it’s not just France. Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidential election success in Brazil was won through a tidal wave of hatred and threats of violence. Big business in Brazil and around the world backed his campaign, in words wads of cash. A class element with pretensions to ‘centrism’ and political stability bought into his campaign against the poverty reducing measures of the workers party, and Bolsonaro’s promises to open up the country to accelerated money-making.
The new era of establishment footsy-playing with the far right comes as a fright to those of us who thought that certain things were universally understood: fascism is an unmitigated evil, appeasement, collaboration and complacency in the face of that evil is unforgivable, and it is the moral and practical duty of all to resist it.
In the face of the new far right, and a growing mood of historical revisionism and apologetic in parts of the mainstream media, we have to resist in word and deed. We owe it to the heroic generation of the French, and Europe-wide resistance, who will always be in fashion for us.