10th July 1940 - Pétain grabs power

Mar 2015
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peccavi,

"I watched this video and despite a huge cast of french historians it fails to examine the key events of 16thJune when Reynaud resigned and Petain was requested to take-over. I find this surprising because I have a book in front of me written by Benoist-Mechin, a member of the Vichy Government who seems to describe the events accurately - or a least one that tallies with the Minutes of the British War cabinet."

I watched the video again completely and as it is some years ago that I watched it, I see now again how good it was.
I see now that after the film there is a postcriptum that is best not watched as it seems to me a bit jingoist not to compare with the documentary.

If you look to the video from 4:56 the whole story is there about the misunderstanding of Churchill by Paul Baudouin.
I found it back in the wiki, but I read it elsewhere too, if I recall it well, in William Shirer's Collapse of the Third Republic...

From the wiki:

"What would prove to be the final meeting of the Anglo French Supreme War Council took place at the Préfecture in Tours on 13 June. When Spears arrived, the British delegation – Churchill, Lord Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Alexander Cadogan and General 'Pug' Ismay – were already there. The French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, was accompanied by Paul Baudoin, a member of the War Committee. Spears found the atmosphere quite different from that at Briare, where Churchill had expressed good will, sympathy and sorrow; now it was like a business meeting, with the British keenly appraising the situation from its own point of view. Reynaud declared that unless immediate help was assured by the USA, the French government would have to give up the struggle. He acknowledged that the two countries had agreed never to conclude a separate peace [69] – but France was physically incapable of carrying on. The news was received by the British with shock and horror; Spears' feelings were expressed by the exclamation marks which he scrawled in his notes. Spears noted Churchill's determination as he said, "We must fight, we will fight, and that is why we must ask our friends to fight on." Prime Minister Reynaud acknowledged that Britain would continue the war, affirming that France would also continue the struggle from North Africa, if necessary – but only if there were a chance of success. That success could come only if America were prepared to join the fray. The French leader called for British understanding, asking again for France to be released from her obligation not to conclude a separate peace now that she could do no more. Spears passed a note to Churchill proposing an adjournment – a suggestion that was taken up.[70]

After the meeting, de Gaulle told Spears that Paul Baudoin had been telling journalists that Churchill had said that "he would understand if France concluded a separate armistice" ... "que l'Angleterre comprendrait si la France faisait un armistice et une paix séparée". Spears realised there had been a linguistic misunderstanding. When Reynaud spoke (in French) about a separate armistice, Churchill had said, "Je comprends" (I understand) in the sense of 'I understand what you say', not in the sense of 'I agree'. Just as Churchill was about to take off for Britain, Spears obtained his assurance that he had never given consent to a separate armistice. But the damage had been done and, on 23 June, the words would be quoted by Admiral Darlan, who signalled all French warships saying that the British Prime Minister had declared that 'he understood' the necessity for France to bring the struggle to an end'.[73]

Shortly before lunch a telegram arrived from London agreeing that France could seek armistice terms provided that the French fleet was sailed forthwith for British harbours pending negotiations. Spears and the Ambassador felt this would be taken as an insult by the French Navy and an indication of distrust. Reynaud received the news with derision – if Britain wanted France to continue the war from North Africa, how could they ask her fleet to go to British harbours? He had spoken by telephone with Churchill and asked Spears to arrange a meeting with the British Prime Minister, at sea somewhere off Brittany. The meeting, however, never took place as he preferred to go in a French warship and this never materialised. As the day wore on, Spears became more aware of defeatism – but the hard-liners tended to be socialists. His British uniform struck a false note and people avoided him.[80]

On the afternoon of 16 June, Spears and the Ambassador met Reynaud to convey a message from London – it would be in the interest of both countries for the French fleet to be moved to British ports; it was assumed that every effort would be made to transfer the air force to North Africa or to Britain; Polish, Belgian and Czech troops in France should be sent to North Africa. While they were arguing with increasing acrimony about the fleet, a call came through from de Gaulle, who was in London. The British proposition was nothing less than a Declaration of Union – 'France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediate citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France.' Spears became 'transfixed with amazement'; Reynaud was exulted. When the news got out, hard-liners such as Georges Mandel were pleased and relieved. The proposal would be put before the French cabinet. Spears was optimistic that it would be accepted for how could it be that of the countries fighting Germany, France should be the only one to give up the struggle, when she possessed an Empire second only to our own and a fleet whole and entire, the strongest after ours in Europe'. Yet he joked that the only common denominator of an Anglo-French Parliament would be 'an abysmal ignorance of each other's language'! [81]

While the cabinet meeting was taking place, Spears and the Ambassador heard that Churchill, Clement Attlee, Sir Archibald Sinclair, the three Chiefs of Staff and others would arrive off Brittany in a warship the next day at noon for talks with the French. However, the French cabinet rejected the offer of union; Reynaud would be resigning. One minister had commented that the proposal would make France into a British Dominion. Spears, on the other hand, felt the rejection 'was like stabbing a friend bent over you in grief and affection'. Churchill and his delegation were already in the train at Waterloo station, when news of the rejection came through. He returned to Downing Street 'with a heavy heart'.[82]


peccavi, on the French fora I heard a lot of critique about Jacques Benoist-Méchin...

Kind regards, Paul.
 

deaf tuner

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Oct 2013
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Thanks for clarifying.
Living in France, i must say this is not something I hear very often, although I am sure there are many ignorant jingoistic imbeciles who would think so.

Yet you would never read this in a history book, the problem being that too many people aren't aware of the details of the French defeat.
The public debate on the 1939-1945 period has been polluted by ideological bias for decades, and its serious and thorough study, including the debunking of old myths and residue of Vichy propaganda, didn't become mainstream until fairly recently.

For decades the French did not have a cealr idea of what happened and lived with false impressions: the French army surrendered without a fight, the British betrayed them and fled, etc...

In the past 10/15 years, there have been a huge amount of books published by a new generation of French historians who studied the period in a much more thorough way than the previous generation. Unfortunately, most haven't been translated in English, so anglophones sometimes think the French still haven't been able to look at their own history objectively yet, which is untrue.
Agree.

I'll add that, as a lot of French writings weren't translated into English, there aren't that much translated into French either. There's (IMO) some (a lot?) of misconceptions on both sides of the Channel based on simple lack of information.

And let's face it: none of us is that keen to look at certain aspects of his past, unless it's forced. I'd say none of the European nation really did it, except the Germans. Germans did it because they had to. All other of us weren't in their position, so none of us went that road too far.
 
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Mar 2015
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To Paul Ryckier

It a good documentary but I criticise the omissions concerning that most crucial day the 16th June. The Wiki addition that you cite, is a very reasonable summary IMO.

the documentary does a good job, as you say, of describing the way Baudoin used Churchill's innocent and unfortunate use of the French word "compris". In English "understood" is absolutely neutral and in fact is often followed by the word BUT .... Churchill was unaware that using compris he had in fact understood --- and agreed --- completely the opposite of what he intended. Eleven years later de Gaulle famously used the ambiguity of this French word quite deliberately and effectively when he address the huge Algerie Francais colon crowd on 4 June 1958 in Algiers - "Je vous ai compris", he said (it that majestic way he had). They went wild with enthusiasm thinking he had agreed. He had not of course and proceeded to dump them.

The hare-brain idea of an Anglo-French Union had cropped up on 15th June, enthusiastically backed by Corbin (French ambassador), de Gaulle, Plevin and Monet. With these heavy weights behind the idea its probably excusable that the British War Cabinet meeting at 3.00pm on 16th June and having seen their earlier telegrams rejected by Renaud should grasp this straw without thinking it through - hastily scribbled in just 300 words and given to de Gaulle to fly with it to France, which he did arriving at 9.30pm just in time to hear of Renaud's resignation.

In retrospect it seems amazing that Renaud should be so ecstatic. It went down like a lead balloon at the meeting which took place at 5.00pm where the Cabinet interpreted it as a British grab for the French Empire.

However to say that Petain "grabbed" power seems too strong. Clearly there was a majority in French Government and (I suggest) the Assembly (and high command of Army, Airforce and Navy) for finding out German terms for a Cease-Fire. When Renaud refused to carry this out, the Marshall was given the job.

Its hard to understand Renaud's thought process - according to his Memoires, he claimed that he expected the German terms would be so harsh that he would be re-instated as the Leader to carry on the War.

PS I did know that Benoit-Mechin is regarded as a traitor by some French people and lucky to escape the guillotine.

Another question - who is Isabel of Bavaria (according to B-M, Renaud's mistress Mme de Porte slipped a note into the meeting reminding him not to repeat Isabel's mistake)
 
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Nov 2010
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Agree.

I'll add that, as a lot of French writings weren't translated into English, there aren't that much translated into French either. There's (IMO) some (a lot?) of misconceptions on both sides of the Channel based on simple lack of information.

And let's face it: none of us is that keen to look at certain aspects of his past, unless it's forced. I'd say none of the European nation really did it, except the Germans. Germans did it because they had to. All other of us weren't in their position, so none of us went that road too far.
Well, there are far more English works translated into French that the other way round.

For a long time the defeat of 1940 was such a stain of shame in the French psyche, that people prefered not to talk about, sustained by both a lack of knowledge and will to look into the details on the period and the sometimes jingoistic portrayal of the French in the British/American popular culture ("the French are such cowards, but we are so extraordinary and perfect") that the French were also fed through cinema, cartoons etc.

In the same way, British and American popular culture have shaped public knowledge and understanding through, for example, films glorifying the allied battles of the war and the victory of 1945, more often than not brushing aside inconvenient truths or the complexity of history.
One good example might be the fairly recent "Dunkirk" film, which ignores almost entirely the role played by French troops defending the perimeter to the end, when they were the ones who actually made the whole thing possible.

The books presenting a more nuanced representation of May-June 1940 only appeared in the last 10/15 years in France. Before that, few people really knew about what really happened and school books only mentioned the 1940 defeat in a few lines, basically saying "The French army collapsed in just 6 weeks and surrendered, then Pétain was appointed head of state." Until then, the only representation we had of our soldiers came from British/American representations, so a rather negative one.

On a personal note, I must say that have no problem with looking at hard facts about my own country and its history.
I am only interested in knowledge and understanding the intricacies of historical truth.
Emotional, jingoistic posturing is irrelevant to me and represents the worst kind of pollution to the study of History.
 
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Nov 2010
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However to say that Petain "grabbed" power seems too strong. Clearly there was a majority in French Government and (I suggest) the Assembly (and higher high command of Army, Airforce and Navy) for finding out German terms for a Cease-Fire. When Renaud refused to carry this out, the Marshall was given the job.
If you read the OP, you will see that "Pétain grabbing power" is not an overstatement.

And you are confusing two different things here. The Cease-fire and Armistice terms and the Constitutional vote that was highjacked by Pétain later on.

The vote of the Assembly took place AFTER the terms of the Armistice had been agreed on and signed.
And the fact that most people in the Pétain government and in High Command were all agreeing on the new situation is not a surprise, considering they were all in favour of killing secular parliamentary democracy in France, and that Pétain had selected them precisely for that reason.
 
Dec 2011
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If you read the OP, you will see that "Pétain grabbing power" is not an overstatement.

And you are confusing two different things here. The Cease-fire and Armistice terms and the Constitutional vote that was highjacked by Pétain later on.

The vote of the Assembly took place AFTER the terms of the Armistice had been agreed on and signed.
And the fact that most people in the Pétain government and in High Command were all agreeing on the new situation is not a surprise, considering they were all in favour of killing secular parliamentary democracy in France, and that Pétain had selected them precisely for that reason.
Thank you Frog, for answering to Peccavi. I just wanted to say to Peccavi, as the Germans say: "da bin ich überfragt" (I don't know it for the moment?) and add: ask perhaps Frog33inUK.
I am since 2008 on French fora, and learned a lot about the French WWII history during that time, but as a Belgian I know perhaps more about the Belgian political WWII history: Léopold III and the Pierlot government, to call but something. Some parallels with France but also huge differences. But that is another story.

Kind regards, Paul.
 
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deaf tuner

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Oct 2013
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On a personal note, I must say that have no problem with looking at hard facts about my own country and its history.
I am only interested in knowledge and understanding the intricacies of historical truth.
Emotional, jingoistic posturing is irrelevant to me and represents the worst kind of pollution to the study of History.
I know (You've demonstrated it in more than one post).

I was referring in generally, and it's true for all, not just French.

It takes time till a more objective image enters into the collective imaginary, scholarly studies aren't enough: from there, it has to diffuse into school manuals, media, it depends on political context, international context, etc.

Discussions like this one help a lot.
 
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It takes time till a more objective image enters into the collective imaginary, scholarly studies aren't enough: from there, it has to diffuse into school manuals, media, it depends on political context, international context, etc.
Indeed it does.
In the case of France, it is taking even longer because, up to now, school manuals have never focused on the French military or political aspects of 1939-1945, and it doesn't look it is going to change anytime soon.
In the media it is rarely mentioned and when it is done by journalists or politicians, they usually just peddle the same old myths and misconceptions, because they're too lazy to do their homework properly, so that doesn't help. There are some good documentaries though, but few watch them.
French cinema almost never focuses on French historical figures or events (funnily enough the Brits and Americans do that for us) and WW2 is also rarely represented in films or series, although there was a fairly good series about WW2 called "Un village français" some years ago, made by public TV.

Some years ago, a former right-wing Prime Minister heckled the Socialist Party at the National Assembly during a playground-style debate and used a pathetic accusation based on the Vichy-created myth of the Popular Front having led to the French defeat of 1940. He said it with such aplomb, he was probably convinced this nonsense was true. And within the French conservative political spectrum, many people still believe this tripe and refuse to look at the hard facts that might disprove their beliefs.

If you can understand French, there is an extraordinary documentary from 2017, available on Youtube, called "L'année dernière à Vichy", with dozens of interviews of first-hand witnesses and hitorians from all political sides. The testimonies are striking and you can get a glimpse of people's thoughts at the time and of the overall mess the French army was in 39-40.

Here is the Director's Cut version, but only in French:

Here is the edited version for TV broadcast with English subtitles:
 
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Larrey

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Sep 2011
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One good example might be the fairly recent "Dunkirk" film, which ignores almost entirely the role played by French troops defending the perimeter to the end, when they were the ones who actually made the whole thing possible.
Nolan's "Dunkirk" was on the telly last night, and I stumbled on it which led to a re-watching.

It really isn't that bad, actually. ;) I said something like this in another thread, but the main lacunae about the French at Dunkirk in that film is really only that it is so heavily focused in the British it leads to the conclusion that a similar film could (should?) have been made for the French, akin to Eastwoood's Iwo Jima diptych. The French are there after all, just off screen for the most part.

Having rewatched it, the French are really there at the opening as the British soldiers keep running away, getting shot stupidly, until the main character manages to pass through the perimeter, held by French troops. And they are waiting, looking like they know what the are doing, and as he moves away the shooting starts behind him. So clearly the metonymic effect of the sequence is to say that the French army is holding the perimeter, fighting the Germans.

This is then born out directly in exposition at a later point when a soldier delivers the message that the French have been pushed back on the perimeter, leading to panicky feelings on the part of the senior UK colonel, assuaged by the conclusion that the perimeter still holds (still implicitly the French). And finally, as the senior officers set off in the last launch, Branagh's senior admirals person stays behind explicitly to wait for the French, i.e the ones we saw holding the perimeter initially, and heard about midway, who have been holding off the Germans all this time. So the French are being referenced, and in a consistent and relatively representative manner relative what they were doing historically.

Of course all that is more evident for those who know a bit about how the Dunkirk pocket worked.

The relative failure is the somewhat myopic focus on the Brits. But again I'm not sure it would have made for better cinematography if it had been cutting back and fort to the French on the perimeter? I do think it could be a bit of a lost opportunity to not make it a Eastwoodian diptych though. I'd love to have a second Dunkirk that starts the same as the one we got, but when the British soldier moves through the French perimeter this films stays with a French rifle company, so we learn who those guys are, and what their role is. Could end up as a film with rather more direct fighting sequences too. ;)

The bit about the French in the pocket that there's no explanation of in "Dunkirk", that I can mostly object to, is that the French army had its own embarkation points, where entire French units were taken off with their gear and officers and all, away from the British.

But comparing Nolan's "Dunkirk" to the Churchil-flic "Darkest Hour", and the total dumbing down that made of Dunkirk (suggesting the British garrison at Calais was what was stopping the Germans at Dunkirk, and presenting a map-room picture that completely suppressed there even being a French army), "Dunkirk" really isn't bad. It's just not focusing on the French.
 
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Nolan's "Dunkirk" was on the telly last night, and I stumbled on it which led to a re-watching.

It really isn't that bad, actually. ;) I said something like this in another thread, but the main lacunae about the French at Dunkirk in that film is really only that it is so heavily focused in the British it leads to the conclusion that a similar film could (should?) have been made for the French, akin to Eastwoood's Iwo Jima diptych. The French are there after all, just off screen for the most part.

Having rewatched it, the French are really there at the opening as the British soldiers keep running away, getting shot stupidly, until the main character manages to pass through the perimeter, held by French troops. And they are waiting, looking like they know what the are doing, and as he moves away the shooting starts behind him. So clearly the metonymic effect of the sequence is to say that the French army is holding the perimeter, fighting the Germans.

This is then born out directly in exposition at a later point when a soldier delivers the message that the French have been pushed back on the perimeter, leading to panicky feelings on the part of the senior UK colonel, assuaged by the conclusion that the perimeter still holds (still implicitly the French). And finally, as the senior officers set off in the last launch, Branagh's senior admirals person stays behind explicitly to wait for the French, i.e the ones we saw holding the perimeter initially, and heard about midway, who have been holding off the Germans all this time. So the French are being referenced, and in a consistent and relatively representative manner relative what they were doing historically.

Of course all that is more evident for those who know a bit about how the Dunkirk pocket worked.

The relative failure is the somewhat myopic focus on the Brits. But again I'm not sure it would have made for better cinematography if it had been cutting back and fort to the French on the perimeter? I do think it could be a bit of a lost opportunity to not make it a Eastwoodian diptych though. I'd love to have a second Dunkirk that starts the same as the one we got, but when the British soldier moves through the French perimeter this films stays with a French rifle company, so we learn who those guys are, and what their role is. Could end up as a film with rather more direct fighting sequences too. ;)

The bit about the French in the pocket that there's no explanation of in "Dunkirk", that I can mostly object to, is that the French army had its own embarkation points, where entire French units were taken off with their gear and officers and all, away from the British.

But comparing Nolan's "Dunkirk" to the Churchil-flic "Darkest Hour", and the total dumbing down that made of Dunkirk (suggesting the British garrison at Calais was what was stopping the Germans at Dunkirk, and presenting a map-room picture that completely suppressed there even being a French army), "Dunkirk" really isn't bad. It's just not focusing on the French.

Its trash and a French version would just as bad.