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French Democracy Underground

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

The spirit of democracy in France today has been put on the defensive, but neither dictatorship within nor oppression from without has succeeded in stifling it. Democracy has been forced underground, but at the same time it is finding new ways to express itself. It is waiting for a favorable turn in European events which will allow it once more the freedom to function. Obviously its future depends upon the length of the war and upon the amount of co-operation it receives from abroad. Left to itself, French democracy can never hope to succeed in establishing a Fourth Republic—a new democratic state—unless the German occupation should be brought to an end before a totalitarian state has been firmly established in France.


To understand present conditions’ in France one must review what happened on the fateful day in the summer of 1940 when the National Assembly was convened for the fourth time in sixty-five years. The decision which was arrived at then was destined to affect the future of France in the gravest possible manner.

“No system of government can hope to survive a defeat like this unless it subjects itself to the most sweeping reforms.” These were the words in which Leon Blum summed up the political crisis in France after the disaster of June, 1940. He expressed the general feeling. Beyond question, something was rotten in the state of France. To discover what it was would have required the most searching examination and the most impartial investigations, which could have been accomplished only through sincere and statesmanlike public debate.

Nothing of the sort was done. The National Assembly convened at Vichy on July 10, 1940, when the whole of France was in a state of siege, and was obliged to carry on its deliberations within the threatening shadow of German might. In reality there was no deliberation worthy of the name, for the senators and deputies, in the confusion of those tragic days, were deprived of all contact with public opinion, including the press; moreover, they were subjected to the threats and blackmail of a group of unscrupulous politicians who were willing and eager to make capital of their country’s mortal danger—men who looked upon the fall of France as a heaven-sent opportunity to further their own selfish aims. The members of the Assembly, unable in these circumstances to arrive at an independent decision, were easily reduced from a state of timidity to one of compliance. It was Pierre Laval and his accomplices who set the stage and pulled the strings, with the result that before the National Assembly adjourned it had granted full powers to Petain by a vote of 569 to 80, with seventeen members not voting.

The Assembly did not realize as a body that what it had done was to commit suicide. Pierre Laval, using the above-quoted words of Leon Blum as an argument for winning over undecided voters, successfully posed as the champion of the civil authority against the military power. He set in motion a false rumor to the effect that General Weygand and his staff were planning a coup d’etat and urged the adoption of the “Petain solution” as the lesser of two evils. He solemnly promised in the name of the Marechal that the two Chambers of Parliament would continue to function, although with “diminished activity.” In order to overcome the suspicious opposition of those deputies who were veterans of the former war, he agreed to modify the formula of constitutional revision which had already been put before the Assembly and he promised to submit the proposals for the new constitution to national consideration.

Thus was the Assembly cajoled into voting full powers for Marechal Petain, although from the beginning there were many members of all political persuasions who were opposed to doing so. Even Pierre-Etienne Flandin changed over to the other side only when he became persuaded that the danger of a military coup d’etat was real, Out of the 936 members of the two chambers, more than two hundred were absent, not counting the Communists, who had been excluded since the time of the Soviet-German pact. And more than that, most of the 569 who did support Laval were voting, not for the overthrow of the regime, but for constitutional revision. Actually the question of abolishing the republic or of doing away with the principles of democracy was never raised. The will and intention of the Assembly was, I repeat, to reform existing institutions and not to create a totalitarian state and it was counting upon the loyalty of the Marechal to pave the way for this long-needed reform. The reason that France was defeated so quickly and so completely was that her diplomats had been unable either to organize the peace or prevent the war, and that the General Staff of her army had been incapable either of preparing for war or of conducting it when it came. It is true enough that the French Parliament was at fault in having allowed the diplomats and the General Staff to escape from under its control. However, this was no time for fixing the blame on Parliament, thereby exonerating those who were really guilty. It was rather the time to cure existing evils in existing institutions, such as the weakness of the presidential powers, the instability of the ministry, and the slowness of parliamentary procedure. Instead, Laval and his accomplices succeeded in making the issue one of who was to blame; and in pinning the blame upon Parliament, rather than where it belonged, they discredited the institutions of democracy and made France a vassal of Nazi-ism and Fascism.

After the National Assembly had disbanded, its members were quick to realize that they had been duped. The Vichy government, now freed from parliamentary control, at once set out systematically to destroy the republican regime from top to bottom. Instead of being permitted “diminished activity,” the Chamber and the Senate were regarded by Vichy as being dead and buried. Next came the turn of the assemblies of the departments and the communes—first the genera] councils and then the municipal councils, which had no responsibility for the origins and conduct of the war, even in theory. All of these were “liquidated.” The Vichy government itself appointed the mayors and the other administrative officers of the cities, the most striking illustration of this highhanded conduct being the removal of Edouard Herriot, Mayor of Lyons. It was officially forbidden to refer to France as a republic, and the use of the very word “republic” was declared illegal, even seditious. Under the pretext of the “National Revolution,” in direct opposition to the manifest will of the people, Marechal Petain set out to model his régime upon those of Italy and Germany. In actual result, it proved to be more like those of Rumania and Spain,

Parliament, correctly interpreting the will of the French people, had sought to bring about a progressive reorganization of the republic. The political profiteers, however, did not hesitate to fly in the face of public opinion; aided by the conditions arising from the German occupation, they set to work with all their strength to establish a totalitarian state. During the first year following the Armistice, however, they encountered considerable opposition, the most effective of which came from members of the “defunct” Parliament.


Let us turn for a moment to an examination of the views of those eighty deputies and senators who had had the courage to vote at Vichy against the motion which for all practical purposes established the dictatorship in granting full powers to Petain. A secret document which is being circulated sub rosa in France expresses the point of view of a certain number of them. Here is a brief analysis of it:

In the first place, these members of the opposition point out that of all the constitutions which have been in force in France since the Revolution of 1789 only one lasted for as much as twenty years: this was the Constitution of 1875, which lasted for sixty-five years. Under this Constitution France was able

To rise again from her defeat of 1870-71;

To establish public freedoms, notably those of assembly, of the press, of association;

To give to the communes the right of self-administration and of electing their mayors;

To extend education to all levels;

To better the condition of agricultural and industrial workers;

To found an immense colonial empire, the second largest in the world;

To wage for four years and finally to win a war which had been declared on her without justification, the successful outcome of which restored to her her lost provinces.

The authors of this document state that they had for a long time been conscious of the need for constitutional reform. In order to “put an end to ministerial instability,” they advocate the adoption of a law, inspired by the British example, under which a ministry could be overthrown only through an explicit vote of “no confidence” by the popularly elected Chamber of Deputies; this would imply the eventual dissolution of the Chamber itself and the election of a new one by popular vote. To speed up legislative work, they suggest that a time limit be set upon discussion by the Chambers of every proposal made by the Cabinet and approved in its technical aspects by the Council of State; they also suggest that in the case of disagreement between the Senate and the Chamber that the two should be brought together in joint session. Their plan for guaranteeing public liberties and the rights of the individual citizen is inspired by the American system and would entail the establishment of a Supreme Court, which would have the authority to annul such acts of the central government or of the Chambers as would infringe on these liberties or rights.

Having set forth their views upon the question of constitutional revision, these men then proceed to point out their reasons for voting against the motion granting full powers to Petain. The military chieftains, they say, were really the ones responsible for the defeat of France. “The Chambers granted to the High Command all the appropriations it asked for—often their authorizations exceeded its demands; in all, several hundred billion francs were allocated to it after the rise of Hitler. What did the High Command do with these billions? Parliament’s power to control the disbursement of this money was more apparent than real. That power ought to have been strengthened; but instead it was resigned to a military dictatorship and so was lost.”

The document goes on to point out that the General Staff was incapable of making good use of the intelligence service in the conduct of military operations. Parliament never interfered in the prerogatives of the High Command. The latter “displayed an incompetence which makes it the most responsible party.” Notwithstanding all this, the National Assembly was urged to put the seal of its approval upon the General Staff by maintaining the defeated generals in power. This meant the complete destruction of the Parliament and hence of the nation’s liberties: “We opposed it. Confident of final justice, we are sure also of the verdict of history. Indifferent to threats and proof against corruption, we had rather suffer under a dictatorship set up by force than be dishonored by having authorized one ourselves.” They go on to affirm that they will not rest until they have broken the chains which the German tanks have brought them. In conclusion, they invoke the memory of the five deputies who fought against the Empire and also the memory of the peoples’ representatives who overthrew that other Marechal, MacMahon, under the Third Republic.

The interest of this hasty and not very original document lies in its symptomatic character. It reflects the opinion of numerous other deputies and senators who were not among the eighty dissenters, but who, as soon as they were free to speak, voiced their regret at having voted the way they did. The proof that the great majority of the Parliament was clearly opposed to the Vichy government and to Franco-German collaboration is furnished by the numerous instances in which Vichy has found it necessary to remove from municipal office senators and deputies who were known to be hostile or “doubtful.”

The fact that so many members of Parliament should have changed their opinions after the voting at Vichy is owing largely to the attitude of the Presidents of the two Chambers, Messrs. Edouard Herriot and Jules Jeanneney, who managed to maintain at Vichy the symbolic strength of the Secretariats of Parliament side by side with the Petain government. Another factor was the loyalty of the conservative leader, M. Louis Marin, Deputy from Nancy, who never ceased to fight against the spirit of capitulation, against the repudiation of alliances, against all forms of collaboration with Germany. Although many of the former leaders had been imprisoned or placed in protective custody, these three representative men were able to gather together a considerable number at “spontaneous” meetings in Vichy. These meetings took place several times at critical moments in the period following the armistice. Although those attending were men of widely differing origins, they acted together without any consideration of party affiliation. Finally, last August, they were expelled from Vichy and since then, but not until then, the zealots of Franco-German collaboration have been able to go unimpeded about their task.

It is not too much to say that the halfhearted way in which French collaboration was carried on until August was chiefly the result of the activities of these former members of parliament. Vichy is a cramped little city in which news travels fast, especially among politicians and government officials.

All such people were in constant communication with one another, living as they did in the same hotels and frequenting the same public places. The suppression of the free press gave a greater impetus and significance to what came to be known as the gazette parlee, and rumors came to receive a greatly exaggerated importance. When a banquet was about to be given in honor of M. Louis Marin’s seventieth birthday, the word went around that this party was actually to be a demonstration of de Gaullists and British sympathizers and about a hundred deputies and senators made it their business to attend. Considering the difficulties of transportation in France today and the impossibility of sending out any invitations by mail, this was not a bad showing.

A number of times during this period, direct pressure was successfully brought to bear on Marechal Petain and his-backers, both military and civil, to impede their collaboration with the Germans. The significant thing is that this pressure came from members of Parliament who were known for their sincerity, for their level-headedness, and for the dignity of their public and private lives. They were, moreover, of the so-called rightist group, which includes the traditionalists, the moderates, and the conservatives who had originally voted for the motion giving full powers to Marechal Petain. Thus the German and Italian claim that all opposition to Vichy came from “Marxist, Jewish, and Masonic” elements is a lie. The men described above were notoriously anti-Marxist; they were Protestants or Catholics who, like their leader, M. Louis Marin, were sincere patriots.

The fact is that these members of Parliament were voicing the sentiment of a public far larger than their immediate constituents. This was shown to be true in innumerable ways, and the Marechal and his entourage were obliged to take this influence into account in spite of its extra-legal character, in spite of the lack of constitutional authority to back it up. The collaborationists themselves, with their boasted powers of clairvoyancy in anticipating public opinion, nevertheless admitted openly that they were completely at odds with the rest of the country. There is absolutely no doubt that the non-conforming deputies and senators were the true representatives of public opinion in France. And all classes spoke through them, except a fraction of the industrial and commercial upper and middle classes who were directly interested in doing business with Hitler.

The opposition to Vichy was not by any means a monopoly of the rightists, although it was easier for them to bring influence to bear on the men in power because they had formerly had friendly connections with them. Some day the letters addressed by M. Edouard Herriot to Marechal Petain will be published. Twice a month M. Herriot went to Vichy to hold meetings of the Secretariat of the Chamber. Here he and M. Jeanneney, President of the Senate, found themselves in perfect agreement, and there is no doubt that the former Mayor of Lyons exercised great influence in restraining the official policy of the collaborationist group. P6tain was also the recipient of a series of letters from M. Paul Reynaud, the former premier, who had been imprisoned by the Vichy government on orders from Germany. Such onesided correspondence as this, undeniably effective though it was, cannot alone be given credit for having held back collaboration with Germany. However, combined with other forms of parliamentary opposition, it definitely helped in forcing Petain to respect the pledges given to England on two essential points: neutralization of the fleet and of the French colonial bases.

The press of Paris, under orders from Berlin, and the press of unoccupied France, under orders from Vichy, have many times denounced the indirect obstructionism of the former members of Parliament who, as if in defeat, had gone back to their districts. The men of Vichy attribute the lack of success of the regime to their ill will, to their systematic “sabotage,” and to their pernicious influence on their constituents. Petain’s message of last August contained an unwilling acknowledgement of the ineffectually of his own authoritarian regime when he cited the general discontent and the silent insubordination among all ranks of the administrative hierarchy. His veiled threats were aimed both at the former members of Parliament and at the mayors and municipal councillors, who were suspected of having “mental reservations.”


Democratic opposition to the Nazification of France takes many different forms which are difficult to describe. Although the prisons and the concentration camps are overflowing, the people continue to express their defiance in a variety of ways. For example, there is a permanent “poll,” somewhat analagous to the Gallup Institute in the United States, but conducted by private correspondence—in spite of postal censorship. Although the people who operate it naturally do not submit their letters for governmental inspection—letters which reveal the bitter feelings of a people crushed under a dictatorship—the Vichy government is well aware of their existence. Democratic protest is revealed also in leaflets surreptitiously slipped under doors and in markings on walls—the letter V and the Lorraine Cross and certain uncomplimentary remarks about traitors.

The interminable “purging” undergone by the educational system affects not merely the secondary schools but the professional schools, the College of France, and the Sorbonne; for the Vichy government, in its attempt to conform to the ideology of Hitler, has declared war upon the French intellect. The professors as well as the students are hounded, spied upon, humiliated. The slightest inclination toward free thought among both children and adults is suppressed by means of the severest penalties and in defiance of the most elementary rights of the human spirit. The tendentious revision of school manuals, the upsetting of the curriculums, the frequent ceremonies patterned on those of the Fascists and the Nazis, rigorous suppression of all reasonable discussion— these are the means employed for putting the youth of the nation “in step.” However, the tremendous difficulties encountered by the collaborationists in performing this coercive task give proof of the tenacity with which all generations hold on to their democratic principles.

Conditions in the literary and journalistic world are just as distressing. The great French writers have chosen to be silent rather than to yield. A relatively small number of well known authors have become corrupted by the German authorities or their accomplices in the “free zone,” but instances of voluntary conformity are relatively rare. Most literary journals have ceased to appear, simply because they no longer have anything to publish. The journals controlled by Vichy, invariably made up of the same material from the same sources, have lost all interest and influence. Their stereotyped diatribes against democracy are repeated over and over again; nobody is permitted to reply to them, but this makes little difference since very few people read them.

The working class has been completely unaffected by the so-called “National Revolution” or by German propaganda. The working men’s unions, like the other institutions founded under the Third Republic, have been obliged to give in to force; but their spirit has remained unchanged. The very few union leaders who have accepted collaboration with the Nazis have all been expelled by their organizations, and the effort to recruit workers for Germany has yielded but negligible results in spite of the great material advantages offered. The directors of the General Federation of Labor and of the Federation of Christian Workers have for the first time come to an agreement, and without difficulty, for the purpose of proclaiming their common belief in the rights of the unions and the democracy of labor.

The Church itself has fallen under the suspicions of the dictatorship because of its refusal to accept the “New Order” with good grace, a refusal which is hardly surprising when it is recalled that one of the main objects of the “New Order” is to overthrow Christianity in Europe. The police of Vichy have placed the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and all members of the clergy who are inimical to racism and other forms of totalitarianism in the category of “those who have not understood” and who are therefore to be persecuted. The actions of these arrogant masters of France, these soldiers who were defeated and these sailors who did not fight, have obliged the Catholics to resort to clandestine means in publishing the Encyclical of Pope Pius XI against racism. Likewise, an eloquent and courageous condemnation of anti-Semitism by Pastor Marc Boegner, President of the Consistory of the Reformed Church, circulates in ‘ “confidential” leaflets.


The Vichy government is definitely preparing for a future struggle against the forces of democracy, for an anticipated civil war. It has at its disposal a professional army of a hundred thousand men, a greatly augmented police force, a national guard, and the regular constabulary; it can count also upon the Legion des Combattants, which has already been transformed into a kind of “single party” modeled on those of Italy and Germany, of Rumania and Spain. The Legion is a quasi-military organization whose members are forbidden to think and reason, but must only march and obey. Gradually the genuine veterans who are inclined to “think badly” are being eliminated from it and its ranks are being filled by civilians who are willing to pledge fealty to the “National Revolution.” Men are being lured into it by jobs, by sinecures, by privileges and practical rewards of all sorts in the administration and in the police force. The Legion serves also as the nucleus for various auxiliary organizations. Although it now consists of the most disparate elements, its officers still belong to or have a friendly feeling towards l’Action Francaise, the monarchist group. It has an affiliate, known as Amis de la Legion, and also a youth organization, both made up according to totalitarian methods. The intention of the Legion leaders is to create a framework into which will be fitted still other organizations of young people which were formed before and during the war. Half a dozen of these organizations exist, three of which are sponsored by the new regime. In spirit they do not differ from the Legion itself; they are trained to sing in chorus, to pass in review, and to repeat slogans without understanding them.

This future army of the “New Order” was preceded by a sort of advance guard which has already begun to engage in criminal acts of “protective” violence against the proponents of democracy. It consists of two illegal terrorist groups which go under the names of the “Cagoulards” and the “Doriotistes.” These are as yet ill defined and are quite different in origin and in personnel, and they have opposing views on foreign policy. Up to the present, however, they have agreed as to the ways and means of fighting democracy, their common enemy, on the home front. In them you find many people of the same stripe: admirers of Fascism and of Hitlerism, apologists for the Rumanian Iron Guard, former volunteers in the Spanish War on the side of Franco, as well as many emulators of Quisling, Moseley, and Degrelle. Among them are a fair assortment of fanatics, comparable in mentality with the assassinators of Rathenau, Erzberger, President Doumer, the King of Yugoslavia, and Louis Barthou. There are also, especially with Doriot, a considerable number of men with purely mercenary motives.

The Cagoulards are former monarchists, seceders from l’Action Francaise, and retired soldiers; they were known for their terrorist activities even before the war and were responsible for placing the bombs at the Place de l’Etoile, for the assassination of the Roselli brothers (liberal Italian publicists who had taken refuge in France), and for divers other murders and assaults. In anticipation of the civil war to come, this organization has established numerous depots for storing the arms which it has smuggled in. The chauvinism of its founders and guiding angels has kept it, since the Armistice, from collaborating with Germany, although one of its members, Deloncle, went over to Hitler. The Cagoulards in November, 1940, attempted an assault on Pierre Laval and have planned still other assaults. They claim friendship for Petain, although they are opposed to collaboration with Germany, and hold themselves ready to intervene in the civil war which they believe to be inevitable.

The Doriot group, which consists of former Communists, of seceders from the Third Internationale, and of gangsters from the region of Marseilles, began its terrorist activities after the Armistice. It has taken the initiative in the looting of stores belonging to Jews and in the bombings which have taken place in Marseilles, Vichy, and Nice. The assassination of Marx Dormoy, former Minister of the Interior, was probably its work, although there is also reason for believing that some member of the Cagoulards was responsible. It is publicly associated with the Axis, preaches unlimited co-operation with Berlin (which distinguishes it from the Ca-goule), and has enlisted volunteers for the “Anti-Bolshevist Legion”—a corporate part of the German army. The Doriotistes also claim friendship with Petain, whose death they await with impatience in the hope that their chief, Doriot, will be put in his place by Hitler. Their papers openly advocate “direct action,” pogroms, and civil war.

On the other side of the picture, one finds some evidence of a disposition to fight violence with violence. The most recent assault on Pierre Laval and Marcel Deat, the responsibility for which it is still difficult to fix, is not to be looked upon as an isolated instance. There are very many Frenchmen who take no pains whatever to hide their intention of bringing about summary justice in just such a manner as this. It is the presence of the German troops and the certainty of the terrible reprisals which would follow for innocent people that stand in the way of many other such acts.

There are at present in France a great number of undercover groups, some of which are supporters of de Gaulle; others of which are merely inspired by hatred of Germany or by sympathy with England, others of which have revived Socialist sections and Communist cells on a small scale. These are unconnected with one another but all of them are inspired by the will to resist totalitarianism. The Masonic Lodges have been suppressed by decree and no longer exist, but the Masons themselves survive. Their meeting rooms have been occupied by the Legion, their property has been confiscated and sold at auction, but the spirit of free thought still prevails among them. La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme has been dissolved, as have all leftist parties and all republican organizations; but the individual members have not changed their opinions and they still refuse to be assimilated into the new regime. In Germany the Nazi party was able to absorb a great number of former political adversaries, especially of the younger generation, in the name of national sentiment. In France the imitators of Nazi-ism will not be able to obtain such gratifying results, since their policy entails submission to the victor instead of resistance to him, and this is opposed to the national sentiment.

What will be the reaction of the French people, whose democracy is temporarily trampled under foot, when a favorable turn in the war shall force the German conquerors to evacuate Western Europe? It is certain that a constitutional regime freely accepted by the majority, under an authority exercised by legal methods, is the only thing which can satisfy without useless violence the fundamental desire for social justice and “the thirst for liberty innate in mankind.” On the other hand, any system of arbitrary authoritarianism will inevitably bring on civil war with all its horrors and excesses. The country of the Philosophers and the Encyclopedists, of the Jacobins and the Montagnards, the country with a tradition which goes back to the emancipated Communes of the Middle Ages and the insurgent Commune of Paris—that country has not said its last word. The hour will strike, one day or another, when France will return—by means of a civil war, if need be—to democratic government.


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