10th July 1940 - Pétain grabs power

Nov 2010
1,325
Bordeaux
It is often said that on 10th July 1940, Pétain was "given all powers of government" by the French National Assembly, implying that "Vichy" as a government was established through a kind of plebiscite.

In order to clarify this enduring misconception, here are a few facts.

- First a quick portrait of the man:
Pétain passed off as a Republican because, contrary to many officers in the first half of the 20th century, he never meddled in politics, which was a carefully managed strategy.
Yet, he was acquainted with Action Française, a far right political group, and while he cultivated his public image of a politically harmless officer, in private and for people in the know his aversion to parliamentary democracy and his personal ambition were no secret.

Concerning his responsibility in the unpreparedness of the French army in 1940, his ideological conservatism (which lead to a final breakup with De Gaulle who was his protégé during the inter-war period) isn't the only important element.
One example should give a insight into his lack of vision as a military manager/thinker:
in 1934 Pétain was Minister of War, one year after Hitler came to power.
During his term as minister he placed an order for ... 7 tanks, while at the same moment Hitler was ordering three Panzer Divisions.
It is also under his leadership that the military budget allocated by Parliament to equip the army was not used entirely, a situation that never happened before him and would never happen again afterwards.

Now, concerning his grabbing of power, a rather revealing detail regarding his true intentions and ambition should be kept in mind.
When on 16th June Reynaud resigned while advocating for a continuation of the fight, Pétain was logically recommended by Président Lebrun to take over, as he was pushing for an Armistice to be signed (something he had been doing since mid-May), because when a Président du Conseil resigned, it was tradition during the 3rd Republic for the Président to appoint someone holding views opposite to that of the resigning one.
Now the interesting detail is that when Lebrun uttered the name of Pétain, he did not say anything and simply picked a piece of paper with a list of names from his pocket. He had already selected the members of his government, a move that took the cabinet by surprise. Because the Assembly wasn't in session, his government was in office that very day without any confirmation vote by Parliament.

Now, here is a translation of the very short constitutional text on which the National Assembly was supposed to vote :

"The National Assembly gives all power to the government of the French Republic, under the authority and signature of Marshall Pétain, in order to promulgate in one or several Acts a new constitution of the French State. This constitution shall garantee the rights to work, of family and motherland.
It shall be ratified by the Nation (understand, both chambers of Parliament) and enforced by the Assemblies it will have created.
This constitutional Act, discussed and adopted by the National Assembly, shall be carried out as the State's law."

I have highlighted important parts of the text regarding the legality and legitimacy of what happened next, which is the end of the French Republic and Parliament.
 

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,403
Welsh Marches
Could the National Assembly have rejected this proposal, which would bring an end to any real democracy? Or were there factors that made it impractical or impossible for it to do so?
 
Nov 2010
1,325
Bordeaux
Could the National Assembly have rejected this proposal, which would bring an end to any real democracy? Or were there factors that made it impractical or impossible for it to do so?
Although the National Assembly wasn't in full session, due to the fact that Communist MPs had been outlawed and other MPs in favor of continuing the fight were en route to North Africa in a premptive move to transfer government there, 569 MPs voted in favour of the text, 80 voted against and 20 abstained (surprisingly including Présidents of both chambers of Parliament).

Immediately after the vote, Pétain asked for the 80 MPs who voted against to be arrested.
Some managed to flee, as they had been forewarned that that would likely happen as a result of their vote.
Some MPs had indeed understood what was at stake and that Pétain's plan was to kill the Republic and seize power for himself.

The problem is that, even though the text was approved, Pétain never did what he was mandated to do.
Both Parliamentary chambers were adjourned indefinitely and officially dissolved in 1942.
Hence the conclusion that Vichy is neither legal nor legitimate as a government.

I would also like to add that Pétain's call to cease fighting on 17th June was also irregular as it was made before any answer had been received from Hitler and any Armistice negociations had begun, which made negociations even easier for the Germans when negociations took place.
 
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Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,403
Welsh Marches
So in other words, the new constitution was never ratified (as it should have been according to this motion) and the Vichy regime was thus illegitimate?

I am still surprised that so many MPs voted in favour, how much of this was due to intimidation, and how much due to the thought that this was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances? It must have been plain that Pétain, on the basis of this motion, would take things in a sort of Action Française direction.
 
Nov 2010
1,325
Bordeaux
So in other words, the new constitution was never ratified (as it should have been according to this motion) and the Vichy regime was thus illegitimate?
Exactly.

I am still surprised that so many MPs voted in favour, how much of this was due to intimidation, and how much due to the thought that this was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances? It must have been plain that Pétain, on the basis of this motion, would take things in a sort of Action Française direction.
My guess is that it was a mix of both.
Intimidation, because many had understood who they were dealing with.
The best that could be achieved in the circumstances, because of the general despair, despondency, shock provoked by the defeat.
The state of mind of the French political elites was vividly protrayed by US ambassador William C Bullit in a telegram sent to Roosevelt on 1st July 1940 (copy attached).

When Pétain officially dissolved the Assembly, Jules Jeanneney, Président of the Senate, wrote to Pétain to tell him that he had crossed a line and that this was a grave attack on the institutions. Pétain simply ignored it and never replied. Jeanneney repeatedly wrote to Pétain to protest against many of his decisions, such as the incarceration of Georges Mandel or the Vel d'Hiv Rafle. All were ignored.
 

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May 2017
1,263
France
The military context was very important:in four weeks,three enormous defeats,North,Somme,East and the illusions of the Loire.The 9th july some political specialists of the army tried to explain that a french counter attack had succeeded on the Loire;in fact it was an enormous liar,the troops,reserves of infantry and colonial troops-the future president of Senegal Senghor was caught in La Charite sur Loire-were completely defeated.France could only expect a good reaction in the navy-full of traitors/Mers el Kebir-and in the colonies-excepted Dakar,Madagascar etc....The theoric "reduit breton" was an illusion;when the first décisions were taken,the "Feldgendarmerie" organized the circulation of the vehicles in Rennes.My oncle the general Pierre Dupuy tried to escape by Pornichet,waiting for a US boat….But the harbor was occupied by the "matrosen" of the Kriegsmarine.We had no real military capacities to do something serious in july 1940.People who said that it was possible to fight in the streets of Paris (Madrid,Leningrad,Varsovia ? ) are completely crazy.At the first "barricad" in the latin quarter Hitler would had passed a little a phone call to his nice friend Goerhing and everything would have disappeared,even the Eiffel tower.
 

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,403
Welsh Marches
Exactly.



My guess is that it was a mix of both.
Intimidation, because many had understood who they were dealing with.
The best that could be achieved in the circumstances, because of the general despair, despondency, shock provoked by the defeat.
The state of mind of the French political elites was vividly protrayed by US ambassador William C Bullit in a telegram sent to Roosevelt on 1st July 1940 (copy attached).

When Pétain officially dissolved the Assembly, Jules Jeanneney, Président of the Senate, wrote to Pétain to tell him that he had crossed a line and that this was a grave attack on the institutions. Pétain simply ignored it and never replied. Jeanneney repeatedly wrote to Pétain to protest against many of his decisions, such as the incarceration of Georges Mandel or the Vel d'Hiv Rafle. All were ignored.
Thank you very much, that makes everything very clear, as soon as Petain got his hands on the levers of power, he was exercising arbitrary rule without even having a legal basis for the initial gaining of power, since the parliamentary motion that was passed stated that any constitutional changes had to be ratified. It was the latter point that I hadn't known about.
 
Nov 2010
1,325
Bordeaux
The military context was very important:in four weeks,three enormous defeats,North,Somme,East and the illusions of the Loire.The 9th july some political specialists of the army tried to explain that a french counter attack had succeeded on the Loire;in fact it was an enormous liar,the troops,reserves of infantry and colonial troops-the future president of Senegal Senghor was caught in La Charite sur Loire-were completely defeated.France could only expect a good reaction in the navy-full of traitors/Mers el Kebir-and in the colonies-excepted Dakar,Madagascar etc....The theoric "reduit breton" was an illusion;when the first décisions were taken,the "Feldgendarmerie" organized the circulation of the vehicles in Rennes.My oncle the general Pierre Dupuy tried to escape by Pornichet,waiting for a US boat….But the harbor was occupied by the "matrosen" of the Kriegsmarine.We had no real military capacities to do something serious in july 1940.People who said that it was possible to fight in the streets of Paris (Madrid,Leningrad,Varsovia ? ) are completely crazy.At the first "barricad" in the latin quarter Hitler would had passed a little a phone call to his nice friend Goerhing and everything would have disappeared,even the Eiffel tower.
That is correct.
Yet, Pétain's call to cease fighting on 17th June was a blunder.
There was an attempt to make up for it the next day when they changed the wording, which led to an unfortunate result as the modified sentence was weird and its meaning unclear, saying that troops should "attempt to cease fighting".
How one is supposed to "attempt" to cease fighting is rather vague...
Having the remaining troops holding their ground when Pétain received Hitler's answer might have slightly changed the balance in the negociation.
 
Apr 2014
290
Liverpool, England
The state of mind of the French political elites was vividly protrayed by US ambassador William C Bullit in a telegram sent to Roosevelt on 1st July 1940 (copy attached).

Thank you for Bullitt's telegram, which is really illuminating. Some statements made to him need further investigation though.
 
Nov 2010
1,325
Bordeaux
Thank you for Bullitt's telegram, which is really illuminating. Some statements made to him need further investigation though.
Indeed. I asked the Archives of the State Department for some info, but they said most of the archives related to Europe 1939-1940 were destroyed in december 1941...